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MIT admissions officer Jessica Ch'ng

The Room(s) Where It Happens by Jessica Ch'ng

You've hit submit. What Comes Next?

You’ve done it. You’ve hit submit. Now what? You might imagine that your application goes spiraling into a dark, anonymous vortex, and after 2.5 months of chewing, a faceless algorithm spits out a decision. Or you might wonder who on the other side reviews your application.

I sometimes ask students to imagine who reads their applications and to tell me what they think the selection committee looks like. Their answers typically include: “old,” “male,” or “crusty.” Their answers sometimes include “cold-hearted,” “robotic,” or “judgmental.” Not only do they think that we admissions officers won’t understand them, but also that we won’t like them. That we are there to judge them and find flaws in them. The truth is, we are all in this profession because we like students. We want to serve and advocate for students. We might be crusty, but I’d say we are warm and open. And we are definitely cheesy. Based on those descriptors, we might actually be pizza.

And there are several places where you can read about how our process works, but I’ll share a little bit about how our process feels and looks through my eyes:

First, we spend an enormous amount of time reading alone. My amazing, very human, non-pizza colleagues and I read every single part of your application. We synthesize the different voices in your application and try to immerse ourselves in your world. Many of us read at home 5-6 days of the week throughout November and January. My desk is actually less than a foot from my bed. I sit on a yoga ball chair to reduce back pain. I read on an external monitor and recently started wearing computer glasses to prevent eye strain. This job, I’m realizing as I write this, has really accelerated the aging process for me. In addition, as a slightly extroverted person, reading applications all day, everyday in physical isolation for weeks on end can be excruciating. I miss talking to my colleagues, and I’m a notorious waffler, often in need of a second opinion. When I’m really desperate for human interaction, I sometimes take a brisk walk to the drugstore and purposefully avoid the self-checkout lane. I know, I really live life on the edge.

 Actual footage of the inside of my brain during reading season

Then, we spend just as much (or more) time reading applications and making decisions together. We run multiple committees simultaneously and hold several iterations of committee. We set ground rules that apply equally to our treatment of your application and to our treatment of one another, rooted in respect, kindness, and trust. We take over the bigger individual offices and pull in extra furniture to ensure everyone has a seat at the table. Some of us roll in the chairs from our cubicles to maximize our comfort during the long days and weeks, and the end of a round of committee precipitates a flurry of chairs rolling between offices. A typical day of committee involves spending 8-9 hours evaluating applications in the same room with the same people. Moving at a Non-Stop01 For those of you who caught the <i>Hamilton</i> references in the blog title, this is actually my most-played song from the soundtrack. For more <em>Hamilton </em>content on the blogs, see </span><a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">this post</a> by Afeefah!  pace, the experience can be grueling. Personally, I love this part of our process. I love imagining the ~20,000! possible communities we might bring together. I love poring over applications with my coworkers, reconstructing your individual contexts and stories. I love hearing the perspectives my colleagues bring to the table – ways of seeing that might be unlike my own. I love how through discussion and consensus, we try to develop a collective understanding of living our mission and applying our values. I even love how we use moments of confusion or disagreement to grow together. It’s a very human process.

One of my favorite memories of our selection process is from February 2015. There had been a snowstorm earlier that day, and many of my colleagues had battled the weather and tough commutes to get to work for committee. I was sitting in Dean Stu Schmill’s office, which has a huge window overlooking Killian Court and the Boston skyline across the Charles River. (You can catch glimpses of Stu’s office in some of our past Pi Day videos. This one even features the gray, plastic eyesore of a committee table we had hauled into his office.) It was nearing 5PM, and it had been a long day. We still had cases to review, when a hush suddenly fell over campus. We looked up from our computers and out the window. The sky had turned lavender and gold and the loveliest I had ever seen it. Stu excitedly stood up from the committee table. “Is everyone else seeing this?!” He exclaimed. He rushed out of his office into the other offices, telling everyone to stop committee and to watch this incredible sunset. Together, we hurried to Killian Court to catch this moment before it passed.

Our view of the Boston Skyline from Killian Court on February 5, 2015

All of this to say, humans – some introverted, some extroverted, often a little geeky – read your applications. And like MIT itself, our admissions process is collaborative. We’re not traditionally regionalized, and by the time a student is admitted, they have been seen by nearly all of the admissions officers and have gone through multiple rounds of committee and various checks and balances. At the end of the process, we each feel a sense of pride in the entire class, not just one section of it, because we have admitted the class together.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to reading! :)

  1. For those of you who caught the Hamilton references in the blog title, this is actually my most-played song from the soundtrack. For more Hamilton content on the blogs, see this post by Afeefah! back to text