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MIT staff blogger Chris LaBounty

Tchau! Labs vai para a praia! by Chris LaBounty

And the King of the Internet returns.

* This is a Goodbye Post *

I’ve always liked the 4th of July.

I like fireworks. (Although a couple years ago I had a friend that kind of ruined it for me by pointing out that fireworks are a celebratory representation of warfare.)

I like fried chicken, hot dogs, the sun – and an annual day of jingoism.

But this year, I won’t be celebrating Indepenence day. I’ll be celebrating feijoada, capirinhas and the beach. I’ll be celebrating Havaianas, Ipanema and Portuguese. I’ll be celebrating the protestors too, but don’t worry mom – I’ll be celebrating them from the comfort of my couch!

Brazil for two months people. Eu vou trabalhar no Portugues e ajudar minha noiva com sua trabalho.

Now, this is a long winded way of saying I’m leaving. Yes, this is a goodbye post. But don’t worry – the King of the Internet, Chris Peterson, fresh from a master’s degree from something I still don’t understand in the Media Lab, is coming back! (And maybe the return of m_quinn but hopefully not.)

So, in usual admissions counselor fashion – I’m going to use this last pulpit opportunity for reflection and admissions advice since most people reading this are probably pre-frosh anyway. (And my friends at work who, in the connected world of social media, might need this small reminder that they have no excuse to NOT to maintain our friendship.)

Ok – Dear Prefrosh,

There are still some little things bugging me that I want to say before I leave, so let’s clear up some misconceptions.


Misconception One: These “selective” schools aren’t looking for people like me.


I just got back from an admission’s conference that had all of the most selective schools in attendance. I was in the room with the entire admissions Illuminati (The Deans of all the Ivy’s and some other awesome schools you’ve definitely heard of) and I wanted to tell you some good news: everyone there was thinking about how to diversify their class by race, income level, social/cultural background, and point of view. Maybe you knew that, but I didn’t. When I was a high school student in lower middle-class California I would have expected that this room would have been filled with old guys who look like Mr. Burns, say “excellent,” pet a white cat like the bad guy in the Inspector Gadget cartoons (which none of you have ever seen cause I’m old and was probably based on a Bond villain anyway) and laugh like this – “Mwauh, ha ha ha.” And throw in a blue blazer with gold buttons.

The didn’t look like that, talk like that, and I didn’t see any cats. What I did learn, is that these people want you to apply to their schools. They want to find you. So if you have some antiquated notion that these schools only accept people who look like Barbie’s boyfriend (Ken?) then you’re wrong and someone needs to tell you. Not saying you’re getting in – admissions rates are at ridiculous lows – but throw your app in if you’re interested. They will likely give you a fee waiver anyway so it shouldn’t cost you any money if you can’t afford it.


Misconception Two: There’s some secret algorithm that selects students, and MIT doesn’t doesn’t like me because they’re looking for ‘x.’


Next, I’ve decided that the entire process in selective schools’ admissions is based on one hurtful misconception that annoys me. The idea that you get “rejected” admission. Stay with me here because it sounds like semantic nonsense.

Many people have many different metaphors to describe how the process works. You can think of it as “cutting,” “filtering,” “funneling,” “separating,” as in the cream separates from the milk it goes on and on. But for the sake of this blog post, let’s call it fishing.

So if we go with this fishing analogy, then most people would describe the process as fishing with nets. You take a first pass with a big net that has big holes(?) in it, all the small fish slip out and you end up with only medium and big sized fish. Then you do the process again, you increase the hole size, and all the medium fish slip out leaving all the big fish. Yay! We have a complete admit class of big fish! Everyone’s happy right? True, we have a net full of big fish but now all of the medium and small sized fish hate themselves, get mad/offended, and have a life-long vendetta against college admissions. Everybody assumes this is how it happens, but it doesn’t really. And with this analogy you have two major problems:

Problem 1.) We’re selecting around 1500 kids and using the above net analogy, our net would really be holding about 8000 big fish. Not even halfway there.

Problem 2.) It presupposes that other fish are smaller for some particular reason. Like they didn’t grow up in warm enough waters or eat the right kind of plankton (what do fish eat?) or have the best fish genetics. Sorry, this analogy is going off the rails.  Here’s the point, people end up with a lot of questions, “what were the deficient parts of my application,” “what did I do wrong?,” “why don’t you like me?” “why am I perceived as a small fish?” People always have a hard time with this point. They can’t separate the issue of slipping through the net with some sort of deficiency. It has to be something. Isn’t it compatitive? Chris, don’t sit there and try and tell me that I haven’t been compared. It has to be comparative, and in this comparison I’m not doing well.

Of course you’re being compared a little. But how? How does a kid from private school New Jersey get compared to a farm kid in North Dakota? They have nothing in common.  I think it may help by changing the analogy. How’s this:  It’s not a fishing net, it’s a fishing pole (with special bait and a special radar).

Ok, so now our fictional admissions officer, using a pole, is off fishing. She finds one. She loves the fish and the fish loves her. Repeat 1500 times until you’re done. How is this different? One fish at a time. With this analogy you might notice that it’s impossible to say you got all the perfect, most attractive and largest fish in the lake. You have no idea what fish was lurking under a branch somewhere. Our bait is very good, our radar is very advanced. We have the coolest fish-matching technology in the world, (as evidenced by our outstanding yield numbers.) And still you can’t say for sure. So if you didn’t get caught, there’s nothing to be upset about – someone else is going to catch you. This is called having a compelling reason to admit. Some fish made themselves compelling in the process for some reason and we snagged them. But some didn’t. You can’t take all the fish of course! People are obsessed with objective criteria. You can’t stay sane at this job unless you embrace the idea that the fish in my bucket are the ones I want, and I can’t get upset about some fish that I didn’t catch. On the flip side, you can’t get upset that our hook didn’t grab you – you’re still a nice fat delicious fish. Now, I know that you’re not likely to be so laissez faire about your future as I am being. It’s not my life I realize. But that’s where the next point comes in.


Misconception Three: There are only a handful of colleges worth going to.


At the aforementioned conference, there was also a discussion on familiarity, brand, prestige and fit as it relates to colleges and matching them with the right students. This is also a frustrating point because for some reason, some of you out there are convinced that you can not possibly be successful unless you go to one of these “top” schools. Don’t get me confused, I do work at MIT (at least for another week) and I happen to know that MIT and others have very good programs that in some cases prepare students in a way that others schools might not be able to. But really, people need to get their realities straight. Sometimes it’s been drilled into you by peer pressure, sometimes from parents and their vicarious behavior. Sometimes (rarely) you’ve done a ton of research on the topic and you’ve concluded that you would be a greater fit for one of these schools more than the others.

But you know what I think? I think your success is based much more on participation, engagement, work ethic, and fit, than it is on famous professors, famous brand names, and famous facilities. Maybe there’s some reason while you’ll thrive at “Big State University,” and be sad here. I hope not, but I’m just making a point. Is there any doubt that you’ll learn more, be happier, gain leadership experience, and just be a more sucessful person at “Big State” if that were the case? No doubt.

Sometimes in the process we can sense that. Sometimes in the process it’s almost as if you’re secretly telling us that. And we’re happy to oblige you. It’s like being the general manager of a sports team. If you pick all the players just on talent, you won’t do as well as the GM who picks on talent, fit, personality, and enthusiasm. So you really need to go to school where you’ll thrive. Generally people understand that. Some kids like big cities, some kids like small towns, some kids like clam chowder, etc etc. There’s a saying for this you’ve all heard anyway, “you get out of it, what you put in.”

Ok, everyone understands this point. What NO ONE seems to understand, (at least from my perception sitting at this desk) is that there are like 3000 awesome universities in this country you can go to other than MIT, Stanford and the Ivy’s. The United States sells colleges like Toy’s R Us sells Elmo. Like Amazon sells books. Like Wal-Mart sells goods manufactured in China. We have more colleges in this country than LaBounty has analogies!

Why don’t you want to attend any of them? Why do you tell me you’ll never be happy unless you attend MIT? Because you’re not being rational about it. And although you never write me saying, “Hey Labs, it’s Bill writing from Big State. Just wanted to let you know freshman year was awesome!” I still know it was because I went to a school like that, and at 39 year’s old I’m still an immature sports fan (Go Ducks!) and I still reflect fondly on my friendships and experiences during this time.

That’s three final points of wisdom from Labs. Hope you internalize them. If you’re an applicant, I bid you good luck. It’s a jungle out there in college admissions. You really need to just get zen about it – if you go to ‘Big State,’ you’ll never know what a parallel world at MIT would have been like, and if you come here you’ll never know what the parallel world at ‘Big State’ would have been like. We all like those movies where you can see what your life would have been like if you had only hit that home run, or if you had only sucked it up and asked Sally to the dance, or if your parents didn’t move you to a new town when you were seven. But, you’re not going to get that chance. So apply to some colleges, get in somewhere, go there, get involved and do well. If Mom or Dad gets too freaked out, just tell them that Labs said to mellow out – it’s going to be all good. I promise.

Last point – to any people out there over 30 reading this. You’ve heard that this generation of kids is a disaster. (Has any generation NOT thought that about their successor?) You’ve heard that they’re self-centered, impatient, entitled and have a poor work ethic. As a consequence, you’ve learned that the future of our country is a risk. Whatever.  I spent the entire year reading the applications of kids who are intrinsically motivated to learn and succeed. I’ve spent the last year reading the applications of kids who maintain a life of academics, creativity and fun and arrive to MIT ready for a full sip of the firehose. If anything, they need to learn to take some quiet time now and again. So take it easy, we’re going to be fine. My expectations remain high – and that’s the key.

– sign off

Christopher ‘Labs’ LaBounty