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MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

Straight from the Dean’s mouth by Matt McGann '00

Time magazine readers chat with the MIT Dean of Admissions, Marilee Jones.

While I was on vacation this past week, MIT Dean of Admissions Marilee
Jones was featured in an online chat on, following up on their
college admissions-themed issue. Similarly, Newsweek featured a
chat with Bruce Poch, Dean of Admissions at Pomona College, to
promote their college
admissions-themed issue
— it is also worth a read. Here’s the
transcript of the Q & A with Dean Marilee Jones:

Ever since she first joined the admissions staff of the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology in 1979, Marilee Jones has been a uniquely moral
voice in the college admissions landscape. The Dean of Admissions since
1997, Jones has used her powerful pulpit to write and speak extensively
about how to navigate the admissions process with sanity and humanity.
Parents, guidance counselors, and above all, teenagers have benefited
from her tempered approach. Her latest book, Less Stress, More
Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions
and Beyond
, was cowritten with a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
pediatrician. It takes a keen look at the stressors in teenage life, and
what parents and educators can do to defuse them. The book will be in
bookstores in September, and is currently available at Amazon.

Some of your responses:

Valentina (Bogota, Columbia): How important is the SAT score
in application? Are they looking more at the individuality of the person
or are the standarized scores very relevant?

Jones: SATs or ACTs are important because they are often the
only piece of information common to all applicants, which can be very
helpful to admissions officers as we assess our applicants relative to
each other. Different schools use standardized tests differently. Some
put more weight on them in selection; some schools use the tests
primarily for placement after admission. For most schools they are
required, for some they are optional. Private college admissions
practices can be very different from those of public
colleges/universities. Because they carry a different mandate, publics
generally have clear, transparent admissions requirements regarding
GPAs, SATs, rank in class and the other metrics representing a student’s
academic preparation. While personal attributes are important, public
colleges are often required to put more focus on the academic
preparation of the applicants. Private colleges/universities on the
other hand are freer to admit applicants considered to be the best
‘match’ for that school. They generally have more flexibility to
determine the relative weight of standardized tests in the admissions
process and are more likely than public universities to weigh individual
characteristics more than SATs scores. Yes, it can be confusing because
there are no national standards or universal rules in US college
admissions. While some people think this is a bad thing, this diversity
of admissions practices ensures that there is a college for everyone in
America. There really is a school for everybody. My advice is to ask
colleges directly how much weight they place on standardized tests vs
the individual characteristics of the applicant. Make sure you
understand what characteristics they are looking for in order to know
whether or not the school is the right match.

Meredith (Bridgeport, CT): My daughter is 12 and going into
seventh grade. My son is 10 and headed for fifth. Both are in parochial
school, as we live in Bridgeport, Conn., where public schools are doing
very poorly(poor test scores, many arrests, fights — one h.s. nearly
lost its accredidation). We’re beginning to look at high school and
we’re considering the two local prep schools (Lauralton Hall and
Fairfield Prep), as well as nearby diocesan high schools. Assuming their
grades stay high and they’re happy and involved in clubs/sports/etc.,
how differently do college admissions boards look at prep school
students vs. those from diocesan schools? Any other advice for the
pre-high school set?

Jones: Colleges are all different and some may have a bias one
way or the other. But my philosophy here is “one step at a time”,
meaning I recommend that at this point you focus on picking the best
high school for your kids, based on their needs and your family
situation, and let the future take care of itself. When the time is
right, your children will be admitted to the best colleges for them,
regardless of where they went to high school.

Sabrina (Athens, AL): There is so much negative said about
public education these days, but our school system in a small town in
Alabama is one of the top in our state. (I know Alabama isn’t known for
public education) There seems to be many positives, yet I worry it will
reduce my sons chances at attending a school like MIT (if that is his
choice in 4 years). Would we be better off sending him to a big name
private high school? Or is it possible to get a good enough education at
a public high school to be a viable candidate for admission to MIT?

Jones: MIT has always been more popular with public school
than with private school students for some reason. In any given year,
70-75% of our applicants come from public schools. So your son would
fit in well with our applicant pool when the time comes. I’ve seen a
dramatic change in public schools over over my long admissions career.
Many people opine that public education in America is awful or declining
in quality and that may be true in the aggregate, but my direct
experience is the opposite. Some public schools are the best high
schools in the US now. Public schools are more likely than privates to
field teams for academic competition and are more likely to be
resourceful in providing gifted students research and internship
opportunities from within their communities. That being said, there is a
‘cream rising to the top’ phenomenon in public schools that tends to
reward the most ambitious, hard-working kids. If your son is a
go-getter, he’ll do fine in any school and especially a public one.
Alabama has some high schools that are among the best in the nation. If
your son needs more personal attention, however, you might look at some
private schools. My daughter was educated in our town’s superb public
system through ninth grade, but found then that she was getting lost in
the larger high school. She was distressed that she didn’t know her
teachers well and she wanted smaller classes with more individual
participation. She began to really thrive in 10th grade when she
switched to an excellent private school. So just as with college, high
school should be a match, too. Not everyone learns the same way.
Different kids have different needs.

Samantha (Detroit, MI): How important are ninth grade
grades? I noticed that Stanford doesn’t look at them, do other schools
have a policy like this? Thank You.

Jones: Ninth grade is often a goofy time for kids for two
reasons: usually there are the transition issues of moving from middle
or grammar school to high school, and then there is the ‘P’ word –
puberty. We all know what hormones do to perfectly reasonable people.
So many schools, including MIT, look at the 9th grade grades with the
mildest of interest. If they are good grades, terrific. If they are
irregular in some way, we’ll want to know why but generally we do not
turn down students just because of a poor grade in their 9th grade. High
schools, however, most often include 9th grade grades in the student’s
overall rank in class, which can be problematic. Experienced admissions
officers know to accommodate for that.

Andria (Charlotte, NC): About the male/female ratio
nowadays: will young women be penalized in admissions chances because
so many are applying to colleges compared to young men? What schools are
seeking smart young women to balance out their ratios, other than
Rensselaer and other traditional engineering schools?

Jones: The good news is that because of the steady efforts of
the past few generations of women (including our own) who cut the way,
this is the Golden Era for girls. These days girls best boys at nearly
everything having to do with school: grades, rank, involvements,
achievements, distinctions, etc. Girls are also more ambitious than in
the past, and as a result, and here is the bad news, there are just more
girls competing at a higher level for the coveted few spots in college.
Many colleges (mainly liberal arts schools) now enroll classes made up
of more than 50% females. That is a huge shift over the past decade. So
I think it’s true that it is harder to be admitted to many colleges as a
female these days as those colleges make efforts to create a gender
balance. Try not to take this personally or feel victimized. There are
still many colleges/universities for which this is not true. (For
example, I believe that my daughter’s college, Claremont McKenna, is a
liberal arts college enrolling more boys than girls still.) Ask
admissions officers the hard questions and find out which colleges have
what policies re gender. Colleges like my own that specialize in STEM
(science, technology, engineering, math) education are always looking
for talented women. We have a serious shortage of women in these many
fields that hold a great number of opportunities for contribute to

Mohan (Mountain View, CA): My daughter wants to be part of
the Class of 2019. What would you look for in her application that she
can start preparing from now?

Jones: So let’s see…that would make your daughter 9 or 10
years old now? Maybe she is still in that sweet
still-playing-with-Barbie-dolls stage…plenty of time before she has to
think about college. One of the big problems as I see it is that parents
– although well-intentioned – sometimes send their children the message
that they are not good enough, not active enough, or are not who the
parents think they should be. We adults have a tendency to reward what
our children ‘do’ and not appreciate and honor who they ‘are’. This is
not fluffy P.C. propaganda I’m writing here; there is real fallout from
this problem, because some children actually get sick from the stress of
trying to please their parents. My dear friend and co-author Dr. Ken
Ginsburg, a pediatrician specializing in adolescents, has taught me alot
about what sometimes happens at the intersection of high parental
expectation and everyday life for a teenager whose brain is still
growing. So love her for who she is, support her interests even if you
think they are silly or won’t be good preparation for college. Eat
family meals together everyday and just listen to her. Tell her often
that she’s the best thing that ever happened to you. Soon she’ll be
caught up in teenage things and might go sullen on you. You want to lay
the groundwork now for loving acceptance of her. If you do these
things, she will thrive in high school, knowing that her parents are
completely in love with her and will keep her safe no matter what. Then
she’ll really take off, with courage to pursue interests and ideas.
She’ll take tough coursework for fun because she’ll have confidence in

Tracie (Murphy, TX): Thank you. Just what I needed to hear
as my daughter enters her senior year @ Plano East High School. After
relocating from New Milford Ct. to the Plano area I was amazed @ how
competitive the school was and the number of AP courses offered. I was
inclined too to hire a consultant. What is the best way to determine the
best match for college selection? What are the determining factors for
acceptance when you read and hear that ACT/SAT scores aren’t all that

Jones: This is the very heart of college admissions,
determining the match between student and school. Your daughter is at
an excellent high school filled with many high achievers, so you’ll have
to watch her stress level carefully. The guidance office there is
excellent, and they will be very helpful in offering suggestions to your
daughter when the time comes.

What your daughter should do:

  • think a bit about how she learns the best (eg, does she do best
    in large arenas or smaller ones?)


  • daydream about college – in her imagination, what is it like? where
    and how big? what are the students like? what about the general
    atmosphere? Imagination is what she needs in this planning stage to help
    send her in the right direction (think of the imagination as an inner
    GPS mechanism that helps keep us moving in the right direction for



  • ask advice of the guidance staff. Admissions changes so rapidly from
    year to year that guidance counselors who work with lots of cases are
    current on what schools are doing when. Develop a list of schools to



  • check out the websites of the schools on the list and get a gut
    sense of what each is like. She should trust her instincts here.



  • Then the matching begins. She should look for the mission of the
    college – why was it founded? That will give her a hint about the
    culture. For example, some schools have a strong sense of social
    justice, others are community-based, still others prize individual
    achievements over groupness. Each school has a unique culture and your
    daughter needs to find out what they are in order for her to know
    whether or not she’d be happy there. For example, if your daughter
    dreams of going to the big football games with her friends in the fall
    and rooting for her school team, she’ll want that kind of school. The
    match lies within the culture of the school. The point here is that she
    should be at a college where she fits in and feels welcomed among
    kindred spirits.



What she should NOT do:

  • take advice about colleges from her friends. They don’t know
    anything about that topic.

Karl (Minnetonka, MN): What general advice do you have for
high school students who are building a list of colleges to apply to? I
have heard of the advice to have a “safety” school on the list, and in
our state the flagship state university provides strong programs in
areas our children are interested in. MIT, to the credit of Amy Perez in
2004, has made a good impression here, so perhaps some of the young
people I know (in and out of my family) will be applying there in a few
years. But what principles would you suggest for filling out a
reasonable-size college application list ranging from a sure-bet college
for admission to a “reach” school like MIT, with other reasonable
possibilities in between?

Jones: I’ve heard many guidance counselors offer the following
advice so I’ll pass this along. Some say that a student should apply to
2-2-2: 2 safety schools (pretty sure bets), 2 maybe/reach schools and 2
dream schools. Others say that the arrangement might look more like a
food pyramid, with 3 safety schools, 2-3 maybe schools and 1 dream
school. I hear alot these days that many students and their families
come to guidance counselor meetings with a list of all dream schools or
no safety schools. Remember that this past year and the next two years
are the peak years for applying to college, so this period is the most
competitive era in college admissions America has ever seen. Make sure
that your child’s list has schools they can reasonably be expected to be
admitted to and will want to attend.

Jacob (Wyncote, PA): How do you feel about homeschooled
students? I’m a homeschooler who would be going into 11th grade if I
were in school. The last few years I’ve been taking courses at my local
Penn State campus. With my unconventional background, what would help
to convince you to admit me?

Jones: There are two basic scenarios I’ve observed with
homeschooled students. In the first scenario, students are taught by
their parents and keep pretty close to home base. Their mothers write
their letters of recommendation. In the second scenario, students use
resources throughout their communities to stay connected and pursue
their interests. Many adults are engaged with them so they have a more
sophisticated worldview and have been tested in different arenas. Others
are able to augment the recommendation letters. It sounds like you
might belong to the latter group. Generally speaking, the most
prestigious colleges and universities will prefer the second group of
students because they are better prepared for the intense academic
experience of those schools. If you applied here, we’d want to know that
you have the right characteristics to thrive at MIT and will read your
recommendation letters for evidence that you have those characteristics.
That’s why it’s always good to have adults other than your parent write
on your behalf.


Janice (Brookfield): My husband and I both attended MIT,
and my son is expressing interest. We hear all over that the kind of
qualifications that got us in (grades, test scores, some activities,
etc.) aren’t enough anymore. What *does* it take to get into MIT these

Jones: Actually, we admit students the same fundamental way we
have since 1956, the same way we did when we admitted you. Even though
the current entering students have metrics (SATS, GPAs, etc) in the
stratosphere, just remember that we admit the best of each generation,
so when your fellow alumni talk about how they’d never be admitted
today, it’s best not to go there… I urge you to go to an information
meeting about MIT admissions when you have the opportunity to get
current about admission to MIT.

Dracon (Portland, Oregon): I have heard quite a bit about
college admissions hinging on interviews and/or campus visits. In fact,
the websites of several colleges list visiting as a major criterion they
they consider when deciding who to admit. Realistically, how much does
the failure to visit a college before applying hurt a student’s chance
of admission? I ask because I am a prospective college student whose
parents, while they have allowed me to apply to whichever colleges I
wish to, will not take me to visit any college besides the local public
university, where I have received a full scholarship but where there is
no program I wish to enter.

Jones: Experiencing my daughter’s recent college search, I
was shocked to find out how many colleges put real emphasis on whether
or not a student has visited before applying. While I understand that
these schools are trying to manage their yields by using campus visit as
an indicator of real student interest, I believe that this discriminates
against students with limited resources of money or time or parental
participation. Not all colleges have this policy, so you should check
in advance. If you wish to apply to one of those colleges, and cannot
visit before selection time, I’d include a note in the application
itself explaining your situation so they will not assume that your
absence from their campus is an indicator of your interest in them as a

Colleen (Flower Mound, TX): I graduated top 5% of a large
public school, took nine AP exams, with grades of eight fives and one
four. My combined math/verbal score was 1400. I had positions as an
officer in three clubs and was a Project Coordinator in a local
volunteer organization. And the list goes on and on. However, I didnt
get into my first choice school, Rice. Since Ive been searching for an
explanation all summer, I read the Who needs Harvard article eagerly.
Would Rice have rejected me based on my academics or because they didn’t think I was a good fit for the school? For that matter, do colleges look purely at academics and well-roundedness or do they look for people who they think would fit in well at their school? If they look purely at academics, is there any explanation why students like me — middle class, good academic and extracurricular record — wouldn’t get into the more prestigious schools?

Jones: I don’t know why Rice did not admit you, but Rice is
one of the most selective colleges in America and they have the same
problem as all selective colleges have: too many highly qualified
applicants for the few spaces available. At MIT we are able to admit
just 13% of our applicant pool and, like Rice’s, our applicant pool is
so deep with talent that we could fill our class four times over and
still have a stellar pool. The most important thing now is not to take
this personally. (Easy for me to say, I know…) Remind yourself what
an excellent student you are, that you are a hard worker who is involved
in her life and who always makes a difference in the lives of others.
You might even remember times in your past when some decision did not go
your way and because of that, some other wonderful thing happened that
set you on a different path. That is how life is.

11 responses to “Straight from the Dean’s mouth”

  1. Saad Zaheer says:

    Marilee’s comments are really insightful and relevant. I am sure this would have taken a lot of stress off most people’s minds; I would like to add one more thing here.

    I was doing a UROP over the summer with one of the MIT Physics Labs and we had a Physics junior from another ‘not so prestigious’ college working with us as a summer researcher. I must say that I was extremely impressed to see his talents; he was, if not equal, better than most of us and working/doing lunch with him made me realise that even if one does not end up at their dream school like MIT or the IVYs one has plenty of opportunities to learn and thrive academically and personally. I also got to meet other people like him and I was left with the impression that what REALLY matters is how efficiently you use the opportunity at your expense and not all opportunities exist only at MIT. In fact, while he was finishing up he gave me his final research paper for proof reading and it was incredible work. I must tell you that if you have the passion and the commitment, you can do awesome work no matter where you are.

  2. Hannah says:

    I want to go to a great school for myself, and my parent’s don’t put any pressure on me. I know that isn’t the case for a lot of people, and the questions from these parents (of really young kids!) make me feel rather lucky that when I tell my parents I got 4s on my AP tests, they don’t know if I passed or failed.

  3. J Hamon says:

    Awesome. Marilee Jones is my hero.

    I’m in a similar family situation as the previous commentor (parent’s basically have no clue). I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Class of 2010. But I have so many friends who, along with their crazed parents, wasted their high school years planning/doing things they thought would ‘look good’ to colleges instead of what they really wanted to invest their time in… and they didn’t get accepted to their top choice universities.

    I’m sickened by the way the college admissions frenzy has grown into a big business: college rankings writers, consultants and counselors, test prep book publishers,, and others all benefit from the hoards of stressed people trying to win the admissions game at MIT, the Ivy League, and a few others. I’m sure if it wasn’t such a great business, more people would be joining in with Marilee’s valiant find-the-fit-for-you chorus.

  4. Laura says:

    I <3 Marilee Jones.

  5. Benjamin says:

    Hi! I’m a homeschooled student going into my senior year. I’ve been reading the admissions website and the blogs, so I think I have a pretty good feel for what you’re looking for in homeschooled students. However, one thing on Part II of the application confuses me: the instructions on the self-reported coursework section clearly state, “To be completed by students in U.S. school systems only.”

    First, should I complete that? I live in New York and report to the Ithaca City School District, but I’m not sure if that counts as being in a U.S. school system. Prior to my junior year, all my courses were taken at home. In my junior year I took chemistry at a community college, and this year I’m taking most of my courses there. My high school transcript will list all the courses, and I am planning to send an official transcript from the community college as well.

    Second, and purely out of curiosity, why do you have only U.S. students complete that section? I thought the purpose of it was to get a consistent report, and surely non-U.S. schools are more likely to be inconsistent in their transcripts than U.S. schools. Obviously I don’t know much about it, however, but that’s why I asked. wink

    And to keep on topic (yes, I did read the post and previous comments), I emphatically agree with the opinions on parents’ grooming their kids for their own ideal schools. I read an article about parents and college in Newsweek a few weeks ago, and I remember one girl in particular whose parents had selected not only her college for her but also her major! Sheesh girl, get a life! Being homeschooled, I’ve always been close to my parents, and I certainly respect their advice, but that’s taking things a bit too far!

    I think my own parents’ attitude has been about perfect: they are necessarily involved in my education and they give me advice, but they also try to tailor my education to my interests. And they have never once nagged me about colleges.

    And now I’m going to end this lengthy comment. Thanks for all the helpful blog posts, Matt.

  6. Swapna says:


    I am living in New Zealand and I wish to put my son who is just 9 now in MIT.It is my desire and dream, not sure when he grows up what he decides. But then I want to groom him accordingly without putting any pressure so that if he wishes he can join MIT.Kindly advise when I should apply for admission and how do I prepare him for the same.

    Also advise if the procedure for foreign students is different.

    Thanks and regards

  7. Aja says:

    To be at MIT, I heard that the applicants have to passionate about attending MIT, about helping the world improve, and about learning. What if you know you are passionate about all of these things, but don’t have anything to back you up on it?

    I really love MIT. I’m sure you hear that a lot from all the applicants, but I don’t know how to make MIT know I want to attend. To me, it would be heaven on earth. A very hard heaven, but it would be my heaven (if I were to attend MIT) because of the people, the classes, the sports, the UROP, and all the other things MIT can offer.

    I am smart, but not smart on standardized testing. I fooled around my freshman year afraid to take chances because I let my family tell me what would be hard for me, but during Sophomore year, I began to have confidence in myself and took chances. I challenged myself in Honors, but I haven’t taken a lot of AP courses because there are only 3 at our school. All the AP classes are for Seniors, and I’m taking 2 out of the 3.

    I am not a person who took many AP classes and got 4s or 5s. I am not a person who is number one. I am not even near that percentage, but I am above the top ten percent. In fact, I’m 29 out of 595. I am not the best writer in high school. I haven’t taken a lot of Honors. I have ever since Sophomore year, but only two in Freshman year. I am not involved in sports, but I love tennis, volleyball, and badminton. I have made stupid mistakes in my past.

    So how I make myself shine in MIT’s eyes? How I can show them how much I really really want to attend MIT no matter how incredibly hard it is? I know MIT doesn’t only look at stats., but still, they are important in college admission. I know it’s more of a match between the two.

    I’m even afraid to apply or submit the application because I have so many negative things on my record. (Not illegal or crimal things. Just dumb foolish mistakes.) I don’t dwell on the past, but after reading what MIT is looking for, I’m afraid I don’t even have a chance compared to other applicants who have done science fairs and attended summer programs.

    It’s like all the applicants are showing how much their “metal” can shine, and all the negative points in my past are raining on my “metal” making me rust and dull. I highly doubt MIT will pick rusty dull metals. I am afraid to send in the application. I love to dream, but sometimes, it’s better to be realistic. After all, a person with a 1000 on the SAT can’t get accepted into MIT, right?

    If you could offer me any kind of advice on this, I would really appreciate it? Every night, I get the courage to work on the application, but in the end, I don’t do anything but stare at it. I just keep staring at the computer screen asking myself “What am I doing? There is no way I can get accepted. Even the people on CC agreed that MIT is a big big reach. So why am I trying to finish? Why do I still want to apply? I am setting myself up for a big heartbreak…”

    So please, if you can offer any advice, I would really appreciate it. Thank you.

  8. Hi,

    I am Samanja Chowdhury and I am eighteen years old. I am really passionate about the world around me I really wish to help this world and its people. I want to put an end to all the woes and worries of this world and i believe that everything is possible if i can someday become an MIT graduate. Its something i have been wanting since the time I was ten years old. Science can perform miracles and if i can become an MIT graduate someday I can work miracles for all the people of this world.

  9. Arup Guha says:

    I love Saad Zaheer’s comment. It’s important to realize that one can go to college nearly anywhere in the United States and find opportunities to do some very interesting work that helps people. After attending MIT (c/o ’97) and going to graduate school (UW-Madison), I’ve had the pleasure of teaching at my old high school and the University of Central Florida. I have met some amazing students at both places. They have gone on to do some great things. I tell my students this all of the time: There are many decisions in life where you’ll choose between one good choice and several poor choices, or even all poor choices. Adults make these decisions and it can be quite stressful. But the college decision is wonderful; you typically get to choose from several great choices. Regardless of what ends up being your final destination, you still will be presented with great opportunities, if you actively pursue them. I hope that if students realize this, they will stress less about the college application process, and focus more on figuring out what they love to do so they can actively seek out those opportunities.

  10. Hi!

    I agree with Saad Zaheer: If you have the passion and ability, you can find challenge wherever you go to college. As an engineer, IТƒфve encountered many people who are not well-suited to the profession. They usually wind up doing drudge work or else move into other fields of employment. But talented, innovative people tend to rise to the top, even with a very limiting education such as vo-tech.

    IТƒфm a graduate of the MIT class of Тƒт65. Because of Vietnam, I could not continue beyond my BS degree when young. But recently I had the opportunity to earn another degree in EE from my state university. I was impressed with the resources at hand and also at the quality of the faculty of the state U. That school had been my ТƒъsafetyТƒщ school when I was applying in 1960. But now I see that I could have thrived there if IТƒфd not made it into MIT.

    If you havenТƒфt yet done so, look at the Open Courseware website to see the logic of putting course material on the web for free access. This gets to the nub of the issue: The effect of a college education is much more than learning the course material. You can learn differential equations anywhere, but you canТƒфt get the Тƒъcollege experienceТƒщ from any book. So your major emphasis should be on finding a college environment that meets your personality and needs. IТƒфll add one more thing: Beyond selecting a suitable college, you should pay careful attention to selecting your residence environment because this determines the mix of students with whom you will share your college experience.

  11. Ashley says:

    Hi Matt,

    I applied in a hurry last year and was rejected. Though disappointed with the outcome of my application, I took it as a blessing in disguise as the gap year was soul-searching.

    I am more prepared this year and wish to reapply. However, I could not register another MyMIT account to fill in the application for Class of 2011 nor can I change the year of entry in my previous MyMIT account to 2007. Any solution proposed? Thank you in advance.