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MIT staff blogger Chris Peterson SM '13

Remaking by Chris Peterson SM '13

we are psychic vampires, please give us your ideas

We’re closing in on Pi Day and still in the midst of making decisions, which I know many of you await with varying degrees of anxiety. But while you’re here, and we have your attention, I would like to ask for your help in making MITAdmissions better.

tl;dr: this summer, we’re going to completely redesign our website (as well as the website for SFS). It will be a complete overhaul, probably exceeding in terms of potential transformation the move from our old site that Ben built back in 2006 to this, the site you’re reading right now, which redesign we undertook in 2010. We’ve been talking about this kind of redesign for the last few years and finally got the budget and the design firm to do it right, and I’ll be leading the project.

For the last few weeks, around the edges of committee, Elizabeth and I, along with other members of the comm team, admissions officers, and the bloggers, have been brainstorming ideas about what we want this site to be, how we want it to work, and what our overall mission and philosophy is. At a high level, the strategy is the same we’ve had for at this point decades: we want to build a site that a) provides useful information, with a human touch, to help people navigate the admissions process while b) centering and amplifying our students’ voices to help prospective applicants understand what MIT is like from their perspective.

However, while our strategy has remained the same, our tactics might change, because the rest of the world has. Consider our central institution: the blogs. When Ben and Matt started aggregating student blogs on the admissions site ~15 years ago, there was no Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or YouTube reddit or tumblr that allowed students to learn “directly” from their peers, or circulate content virally amongst communities. Even when we redesigned in 2010, we were in a very different design paradigm both aesthetically and technologically. If you look at, for example, our comment data, you can see a big change over time as “the conversation” about our blog posts went from being centralized on our site to distributed across many different platforms where the blogs were shared. The blogs aren’t going away — they’re just as important as they ever were, and will remain central to the new website and what we do — but as we think about how we help our students tell their story, we need to think about the technological substrate and communication streams. Ditto for other aspects of the site: information architecture, usage patterns, data visualizations, and so on.

Here’s what we want to do: figure out how to best meet our goals as per above. Help our bloggers and other students tell their story. Help prospective students better understand MIT, our admissions process, and, perhaps most importantly, their broader place, path, and purpose in life. Have people who have never thought they might be able to attend MIT see it as a place to which they might aspire. Convene and nurture a community of likeminded people, brought together by their interest in applying to MIT but with much more in common than that alone, and help them figure out how to continue to develop personally and intellectually (I would love it if people somehow became friends through the MIT admissions process and then stayed friends even if they don’t get in). Speak with clarity about the values and aspirations that we hold as an institution.

Here’s what we don’t want to do: be trendy (and soon passé) in our design and technological choices. Lose autonomy by building our strategy around fickle intermediaries or platforms with incentives that don’t align with our own. Fail to give students, both ours and prospectives, a carefully designed space where they can start to figure themselves out. Lose the culture, heart, soul of our site in the service of narrow goals. Be too scared to change for the better because we are too scared of changing for the worst.

Here’s where we need your help: I’ve often said that MIT’s identification as a research institution is not only a matter of its R1 designation but a profound statement about the culture of the place. So between now and our kickoff in mid-April, we are doing as much research as possible on how we should redesign the website. We’re asking questions like:

  • What we should keep doing in the same way, what we should keep doing in a different way, and what we should stop doing?
  • What conversations do we want to be a part of, and where/how do those conversations take place?
  • What other institutions, be they universities, companies, nonprofits, startups, are doing these things well such that we should ruthlessly copy/improve upon their methods?

and we want your help in answering them. In the comments below, I would love your honest feedback about what we do well or poorly; things you want to see us do similarly or differently; other sites that you love/hate; random ideas for things across the landscape (i.e., not just college admissions). These things can be technological (i.e., a particularly nifty way of registering for an event), they can be design (i.e. a notably elegant information architecture), they can be aesthetic (i.e. a particularly pretty visual experience), they can be cultural (i.e. a particularly resonant tone that makes you feel a certain way). We’re looking for inspiration and feedback and want yours.

To give you a template, here are some things I’ve been thinking a lot about:

  • studyblrs as a genre that simultaneously provides both information and inspiration
  • sites that have managed to remain destinations and don’t rely entirely on “social” for their audience
  • places/corners of the Internet that still feel Wholesome and Good even in 2018, and how they cultivate those norms and values
  • organizations that develop and defend a distinct voice that feels authentic to them
  • serendipity as a design feature

And trying to answer questions like:

  • how to be a better resource to people who are applying to MIT (and also people who aren’t)
  • how to make the reach/voice/impact of individual blogposts more salient (and thus motivating) to bloggers
  • how to allow bloggers to share more ephemeral kinds of media w/o relying too much on third party platforms
  • how to help prospective students (and their parents) more clearly envision their potential experience at and after MIT
  • how to better map the pathways to enrichment opportunities and peer communities that we can help convene
  • how to be a rock in the stream, a place that people come to and rest and heal for awhile, a destination rather than detritus

I’m posting this today because I know from past experience that once decisions are released next Wednesday a lot of you will not visit us for awhile (if ever again). But your feedback is so important, especially those of you who are living the process right now. Please just take a few minutes to post whatever you want, with as much or little structure or coherence, as you care to impose, in the comments below (or via email to me if you don’t want to post publicly). It’s our job to make sense of it.

I’ve been an MIT admissions officer for almost a decade. I was hired, in 2009, to help think about web strategy and communications, because I had a lot of experience writing blogs and posting on forums. I never anticipated how much I would learn from the readers the MIT blogs or how important this community would come to be for me (like it already was for others in the office). As we take this next step and really try to get this redesign right, your ideas and thoughts and feedback are more important than ever. I look forward to whatever you have to say.