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MIT staff blogger Ben Jones

The Day Before Selection Begins by Ben Jones

"Tell us about something you do for the pleasure of it."

Sorry for the blog vacation guys. We’re scrambling to get ahead in our work before we retreat to selection committee tomorrow. (Don’t get too excited, the whole process takes about a month, so we’re still right on schedule to mail decisions in mid-march.)

MyMIT has been pretty static recently, I know. This is because we’ve been working hard behind the scenes to change things around a bunch – some portlets will be retired; some new ones will be added. We’ve hired some student “experts” on subjects like UROP and Arts. I am SO excited to roll out the new layout and content.

For the record, I have eaten Anna’s every day for lunch. I will be heading over there as soon as I finish this post.

A parent sent me a disturbing article today. Reality-television-culture meets college admissions. A girl basically paid a consultant to help her reinvent her entire identity (including mailing address and activities) just to match the profile that “colleges are looking for.” Absurd. And supposedly the girl is a freshman here at MIT now, although I have no way of proving that.

The irony is that I read it immediately following our pre-selection meeting, in which Marilee (our dean) talked about how insane the world is becoming in terms of competitive college admissions and how we (meaning all colleges, not just MIT) have a responsibilty to find a way to take the pressure down a notch – otherwise the lives of high school students are destined to become 100% about getting into college, which is wrong, wrong, wrong. Life is for living.

Below you’ll find an article that was published in March 2004 in the Boston Globe. After you read it you’ll know why I love MIT, and even moreso, its dean of admissions and the office she has built.


(following article copyright © 2004 The Boston Globe.)

The Pleasure Principle

“Tell us about something you do for the pleasure of it.” That question, on the MIT undergraduate admissions application, may look innocuous. But it represents one woman’s attempt to change the world — and so far the world has barely budged.

Although MIT’s admissions dean, Marilee Jones, has the support of her school, she is pretty much a revolution of one as she tries to push her counterparts on other campuses to lower the pressure on students competing for slots in America’s elite colleges.

“It’s like an arms race out there,” said Dean Jones in a phone interview, referring to the competition between schools to get top ranking on national lists such as the annual US News & World Report college survey.

That race to get the best students drives high schools, parents, and students to try to meet an ever rising bar of excellence, which, according to Jones, “rewards people who are obsessing to the max.”

Two years ago Jones revamped the MIT application and interview process to learn more about the human being and to tap into what she defines simply as “joy.” Students answering the “pleasure” question on the application — and another about dreams and aspirations — get beyond lists and rote responses.

“They talk about their friends or their dog or how they like to cook or write poetry, and you see a very different aspect of the person than you see when they’re writing about why they want to be an engineer,” said Jones, who began taking her crusade national last year with an article on aggressive parents in USA Today.

She is also talking to admissions deans and plans to hit them hard at a May conference at MIT that will include Stanford and the Ivy League schools. In addition, she will address the Consortium on Financing Higher Education in June and talk to high school guidance counselors this summer.

Go, Dean Jones! And may you never get discouraged no matter how deafening the silence from administrators who might not see themselves as part of the problem.

The blame can be widely shared, of course, to encompass an entire culture, which has become an ulcer machine for adults as well as their kids. Economic pressures are immense, with some people working two or three jobs and with corporations insisting on higher productivity even as they downsize.

Technology has made work a keystroke away, and consequently a lot of people never leave the office even when they’re on vacation. The lazy weekend is no more in households where conflicting sports schedules, errands, and briefcases or backpacks full of homework make everyone too aware of the clock.

“Tell us about something you do for the pleasure of it.” The question is profound and deserves society’s joyful contemplation.

Like I said, I love this place.

50 responses to “The Day Before Selection Begins”

  1. Fabrice says:

    Best of luck in selection, and nice article! I’ve seen it before (it’s what happens when you look too closely at everything MIT) but thanks for posting it somewhere nice and visible smile

  2. Fabrice says:

    Any chance you can post the link of the girl who hired a consultant? Sounds like an interesting read about the precisely wrong way to go about the process. smile

  3. Ben says:

    Yep, that’s the one. Some of these “consultants” charge $25,000 for a “complete solution.” I’ll refrain from linking to an example…

  4. Nelson says:

    Go MIT.
    I think that’s definitely what attracted me to MIT, the impression I got that kids there love what they do and do what they love, both before and in college.

  5. Ben says:

    Oh, forgot to mention in my post (actually I’d rather put this here anyway than clutter a post with it) – I had to “clean up” a few of the comments from previous posts that certain folks around MIT felt were pushing the limits of appropriateness. Sorry guys. I truly HATE censorship of any kind, but I need to play by the rules if I want to keep blogging as an MIT employee. wink

    So… with that in mind, if I could ask you guys to keep it relatively clean in the comments, I’d appreciate it. (And if I need to pull or edit a comment, please know that it’s not personal at all.) Personally I really enjoy all humor, no matter how crass – but unfortunately that’s a personal preference – as this is linked from MIT, I gotta keep it in line with what MIT is comfortable with.

    Thanks for understanding and thanks for all of your comments!

  6. lulu says:

    Dear eager college applicant:

    Life is for living, alright. Until MIT one day builds that elusive time machine, now is all we have. We may find ourselves one afternoon sitting in the halls of Prestigious College XYZ, gazing around us at the pinnacle of our “success” and asking that fateful question: Was this worth it?

    I hope there won’t even be a moment’s hesitation on your part.

    I’m with you, Marilee.

  7. a fat sheep says:

    well, i just read the article about the girl’s admission counseling thing. THAT’S DEVIOUS!!! i am OUTRAGOUS! <+ DID I spell it right? 25000.00dollars??? My mom makes less than that A YEAR!!!
    *just mailed the tax return to collegeboard…*

  8. a fat sheep says:

    correction on my last post: I AM NOT OUTRAGOUS, RATHER I AM outragED. *sorry, my SAT IIWriting score is extremely low.*

  9. lulu says:

    “Many of the people I know don

  10. Fabrice says:

    Many of the people I know don’t think of college as a pathway to lead their calling, but as a needless expense and waste of time. They’d rather spend their days drinking heavily or otherwise generally hindering their development.

  11. Nbot1 says:

    You know, despite the whole idea that colleges are getting sooo competitive, ironically (contrary to what i thought before) i really think MIT is the one college that has made the college process easier and at least more fun than any other college. Keep up what you guys are doing. smile

  12. Nbot1 says:

    If you want to lower the intensity of the college process, you could always admit more students…wink

  13. lulu says:


    to lower the intensity of the college process, one would need to change not only the mindset of society regarding higher education as a whole, but also remove certain key components of human nature – pride, competitiveness, insecurity, ambition… etc etc.

    So, really, I see that as impossible.

    There are ways to ALLEVIATE or redirect the competitive mentality of the applicant pool nowadays though, and I definitely appreciate the efforts by all those who are conscious enough to identify the problem and proactive enough to do something about it.

    I, personally, would like to see a lot more emphasis placed on character. More extensive interviews, compulsory interviews, lesser stacks of paper and more contact with the applicants. Obviously, there are flaws and difficulties that would accompany this approach, especially when you get into the applicant pools of tens of thousands. But perhaps if there were more work involved in applying to a single school, kids wouldn’t be machine-gunning applications into the top XX ranked schools on USNews.

    That said – common app is the devil.

  14. In making friends and building relationships, the qualities I tend to look for aren

  15. KP says:

    I agree with the point about uber-competitive college admissions. Coming from a school that doesn’t send many kids to ivy calibur schools, I really wasn’t aware of the extent. Then, I looked on a certain college discussion site. Since I was on unfamiliar terrain, I just wanted to see if I was in the ballpark… but at the same time my eyes were opened to the degree that people mold their lives around college. People spend hours and hours doing things they hate… It really made me feel uneasy till I found this blog. I’m glad that steps are being taken.

  16. David says:

    I have heard people compare college admissions to a war! I don’t know who to blame, but parents do play a huge role in pressuring their children to “succeed” (read: go to an IVY or top 10 college). Their “failure” (read: deferral, waitlist, or rejection) will probably make a student feel rather depressed. I understand because they worked towards a finite goal that they were unable to achieve. The problem with this is that kids know where they want to attend college, but not necessarily why. A lot of students want to attend colleges for its prestige, name, or “conversation-stopping” ability. Parents can be blamed (partially), but the students, community, and school system at a whole can be as well. I don’t think people should feel worthless if they have “failed”.

    Unfortunately, some people believe there is a magic-formula to admisisons. It would be nice, but I have been told otherwise. Some people are angry at a particular college (I saw one person post on a college forum) because he believed they he had done everything necessary for an EA admit (to Harvard) but was painfully deferred. I’m trying my hardest at school, and am having a great time, but I do recognize that I need to be responsible.

    I’ve done my research on MIT, and it’s a school that I plan to apply to next year Early Action. I chose MIT because of its community, atmosphere, research opportunities, technical focus, and staff. I hope I can make it, but if I don’t there’s always graduate school…. or Cal-tech :-D

  17. a fat sheep says:

    WHAT??????? the selection committe begins TOMORROW?!!!!!!!! I can’t believe it. WOA! i thought it gona start on the beginning of march. what about we the deferred?? could you <= namely, Ben, update deferral statues pleaseQ__Q? MY supervisor is writing an extra recommendation for me. However, she won’t be able to finish it till the 20th b/c of her family issue. so even if she mails it, admission officers are not going to look at it???????? ERGggggggggg……wut to do??

  18. Katie says:

    I have to say that filling out the MIT app was actually somewhat fun. MIT’s was the only application process that I can honestly say I felt entirely comfortable with the whole way through. You did make some other schools look very bad – I pulled quite a few apps after I realized just how fake and exclusive they seemed in comparison.

    I feel absolutely terrible for the students who feel that they need $25,000 worth of help to get into a prestigious college. They have to have one hell of a sense of inferiority. I’ve tried my best to not let the process encompass my entire life, but I understand that it’s hard. Personally, I wouldn’t want to go to a school that happily accepted molded personalities. I’d rather go somewhere, like MIT, that happens to like what I want to do with myself.

  19. Ben says:

    Super thoughts all around folks. It is awesome to see such well-informed, heartfelt dialogue here!

  20. Ben says:

    Oh, sheep, sorry I forgot to answer your question. I just posted this over on college confidential, but will paste it here too:

    …unfortunately it’s too late at this point to submit supplemental materials. It’s not that you can’t send it in; it’s just that it is highly unlikely that the selection committee will ever see it. All of the folders have moved from the records room to the committee room – from this point on, an applicant’s supplemental materials will be held in the records room until the folder is returned (which happens after a decision has been made).

    Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it *is* a good 6 weeks after the RD deadline…

    I wouldn’t worry too much about it though; supplemental materials at this juncture are unlikely to influence a decision. Most of what we receive is either consistent with the rest of the application, or alternatively a last-minute attempt to counter previous blemishes (which unfortunately pretty much never works, in my experience)…

  21. Meder says:

    There’s another outstanding benefit in MIT application. non-native English speaker’s teating option! that was trully relaxing (i didn’t have to worry about my verbal). >>>GO MIT!!!<<<

    and good Luck!!! it’s like 25-28 days left…

  22. David,

    I’d have to agree with you. I plan to fight my uphill “battles” in life, not in the admissions process. As *anyone can tell you, I’m such an Amazon smile.

  23. Akash says:

    Hey Ben,
    If we are spending some time on campus, would there be any way of meeting you adcoms (say this weekend)?

  24. Laura says:

    Blah. People take college too seriously. =D

  25. Wendi says:

    Thanks, Ben, for all the update!
    By the way, how are the hacks lately? Please do share!

  26. Prashant says:


    The comments are as informative, interesting and thoughtful as the actual blog entry!

    Keep it going, guys! MIT Rules! And its people too!

  27. Prashant says:

    ScaredInCali, since you applied EA, it shows MIT is your first choice. I quote one of my friends –

    “This of it as an investment rather than a burden. Going to MIT will be such an investment, and you can expect it to reap handsome returns in the long run.”

  28. I don’t know where else to post this but, I am divided.

    I was accepted EA to MIT, my dream school throughout all of my high-school career.

    I was just notified of my “candidate” status at Olin.

    Money is a huge issue, and I don’t think MIT will be able to match the 100% at Olin.

    I don’t know what to do hmmm help me?

  29. Ben says:

    Hi ScaredInCali,

    First of all, don’t be scared! It looks to me like you get to choose between two of the best options in the entire world to continue your education. That’s not scary – it’s totally exciting!

    I don’t know much about Olin’s system, but *hopefully* you don’t have to tell them your response until after you get MIT’s financial aid offer. Then you’ll know where you stand financially with each school.

    Thereafter, the absolute single best thing you can do is to visit both schools. Their cultures are definitely different – both awesome – but different. Spend a few days at each place (preferably CPW at MIT if you can) and then make your decision based on your visit experience coupled with the financial considerations.

    Hope this helps!

  30. expatmom says:

    I wholeheartedly applaud the efforts of Dean Jones to ퟙchange the worldퟘ! In your introductory post, Ben, you mentioned the joy with which your young son explores the world. I hope that he will grow up in a country where the emphasis is on learning and not on shaping one

  31. Ben says:

    Akash – got your email & wrote you back. We can definitely hook up!

  32. You see, THIS is precisely why i’ve loved MIT for so long. I visited in 7th grade, and fell in love. Not because of the name and how much money I could possibly make after getting out of there, but because I’ve always been an extremely curious person and I realized I would THRIVE within MIT’s atmosphere. This is because MIT students don’t just study to get good grades, they study because they’re genuinely interested in what they’re taking. That is awesome.

    My niece is now 18 months (boy, time really does fly) and it’s just amazing to see how fast she learns about everything. She’s such a prankster and trickster. It’s simply amazing to watch her learn language the same way we’ve been discussing in AP Psychology. Anywho, I digress.

    Go MIT. I’m proud of Ms. Jones for standing up to the rest of the world and trying to make MIT a true meritocracy (or as much as possible) rather than anything else.


  33. Ben,

    Do you think you could serenade us with a couple of songs your band has written for CPW? That’d be awesome…

  34. Ben says:

    I’ll see what I can do… but they might be working me too hard! grin

  35. Fabrice says:

    I second Katharine’s motion.


  36. Ben,
    Anthony and I were wondering if the MIT ID #s are all designed to be easily retainable.
    That is to say, they repeat digits like aab-cdc-eef.
    We figure that allows 2,460,375 combinations, which we think is good enough for the population.
    Also, do they allow digits to repeat across groups, like aab-cac-eef? That would restrict it to only 510,300, which considering every person who pays $65 gets one, may be a little tight over time.

    Anyway, I know it was a little off topic, but we were wondering if they are like that. See you monday.

  37. oO says:

    yeah MIT definitely has the best app process out there. I really felt that I was able to put myself on paper. And since I did MIT’s app first (EA) I could see the flaws in other colleges applications (and was annoyed at their questions – they seemed to ask about the wrong things and discourage me from really showing who I am). Anyway, nice work. And I agree with the dean – this college business is getting crazy. A bunch of my friends have been meeting with counselors for years and going over their whole applications with them. Me? I went to one once and felt that I would just get stereotyped into a boring applicant. Not meaning to brag, but I got in EA and most of them didn’t. Just chill guys (for juniors and below out there)

  38. Shahab Umer says:

    Have you come across/made decision on any international applications yet?

  39. Dear Ben Jones and rest of the admissions officers,
    This way of thought which you possess is something that is totally lacking where i live.Everyone here is mad about college admission,and they are willing to kill to take your place in a competitive admission college.To make the long story short,i will apply to MIT this year,in summer,and i look at the whole process as that:An admissions process. Not a turn point in my life.

    Thanks for being YOURSELVES.(down to earth admission officers and great people )

    hoping to see you in person as a MIT ’10.

    PS:Mr Jones i had promised to write to you in person before christmas,but i lost my internet connection due to a technical failure.I will write to you as soon as possible.take care,and good luck.

  40. Prashant says:

    Wow I always got a reply within a couple of days. :-p But I’m intl, so special privilege maybe!

  41. While I first heard about MIT because, well, it IS MIT, and that was why I first wanted to go, everything got redefined for me during high school, particularly the admissions process in general.

    When I was deciding what colleges to apply to, I made a list of a lot of pretty prestigious places. I then went through it, one by one, and attempted to envision life there. For most of them, even my fantasies were miserable. Clearly, this wasn’t working, so I thought, “What are my passions, and where can I receive an education and an environment that will best further them and help me to achieve my goals in life?” As my passions do lie in math and science, I now had a great way of narrowing that list down. So I made a list of just a few colleges that I thought fit my criteria, and started applying. Around that same time, everyone else was applying as well. It astounded me how many people hadn’t done the same thing I had. Maybe it’s due to my family, or just my experiences in general, but I got over the whole “prestige” or “conversation-stopping” ability of a college a few years ago — and with that, the idea that college is an end in and of itself. At the same time, people I knew who were at my level of academic achievement and shared my interests were applying to all the Ivies they possibly could, as well as MIT. I read over the “dreams and aspirations” essay for one. In a nutshell, my advice to him was, “It’s not a dreams and aspirations essay unless you ACTUALLY put some dreams and aspirations in that you think MIT will help you with.” His response? “I don’t really have any right now…I just want to get this essay done.” I honestly could barely believe that he had that kind of view towards the whole process. He and many others I know, in turn, can’t believe that I hate having to tell people I got into MIT. I mean, I love MIT, but I like conversing with people too, and I don’t want that conversation to stop just because I got into a college I liked. So I tend to skirt the issue unless someone flat-out asks me to list the places that I got into.

    I definitely support Marilee in her effort to change the world of college admissions, but at the same time, I’m not sure there’s so much she can do about it unless she makes everyone in the world go through the same kind of thing I did over the course of high school. How do you change the views of people like my friend, who don’t seem to be applying for a great education and challenging and stimulating environment, but rather to say that they got in? How do you make people understand that it’s not the name, but rather the idea of how you’ll be spending those four years, that really make the difference in applications? How do you show the world that interests and passion rather than “conversation-stopping ability” should determine what they want to do with their lives?

    Honestly, I don’t know how, and I don’t know if there’s any way you can screen out the ones who actually exhibit certain traits from the ones who pretend to exhibit them. The article and subsequent comments just so happened to spark my wrath. However, I think I can safely say that, even if MIT hadn’t been my top choice to begin with, it would have gotten there just because of the admissions process — something that actually tries to understand people as a whole rather than as a set of numbers and achievements. I don’t know if my friend will get in or not, but I’m sure the MIT admissions office will make the right choice about his application.

  42. Ben says:

    Thanks again for your continued great comments on the post topic. We really appreciate everything you’ve all said!

    Replies to specific questions:

    Mike – I have no idea but I sent your comments to some folks who should be able to tell us. I’ll keep you posted.

    Shahab – not yet. We’ll blog it when we start selecting int’l.

    NoCreativity – if it’s been that long (a month) you should probably give the main office a call. Something must have happened; as slammed as they are, I don’t think it would ever take them a month to get back to someone under “normal” circumstances…

  43. NoCreativity says:

    harvard & yale are making me feel pretty miserable right now.. they are silent. never respond when i email. that makes me feel so dehumanized and unvalued. if.. by some odd chance i get in.. i’m not sure that’s teh type of environment i want.. prestige or no prestige. it really irks me that mit has not repsonded once in a while too. I don’t mind waiting like 1 or 2 weeks. but when it gets to be a month :(.

  44. Ben says:

    Mike, got the response. The number is created from the registrar’s system – you can learn more about it here:

  45. Fabrice says:

    “ranting admit”, no conversation stopping around here. I tell someone MIT and they either stare blankly, or ask “is that, like, in California?”

    tongue laugh

  46. mel says:

    I’m not a huge fan of Marilee Jones:
    An excerpt: “MIT Admissions Dean Marilee Jones says she’s looking to enroll ’emotionally resilient’ students. ‘If we think someone will crumble the first time they do poorly on a test, we’re not going to admit them,’ she says. ‘So many kids are coming in, feeling the need to be perfect, and so many kids are medicated now. If you need a lot of phar-maceutical support to get through the day, you’re not a good match for a place like MIT.'”
    I happen to need pharmaceutical support to get through the day but that is what allows me to be functional enough to be a good match for MIT.

  47. Ben says:

    Hi Mel,

    Marilee was misquoted in that article and she (along with the whole office) is very angry about it. She wrote a long response to the MIT community which was published in The Tech. I will try to find out if it’s published online and link to it; if I can’t, I’ll try to get the text from Marilee and publish it here.

    Please know that the above quote, though credited to Marilee in the article, does not represent her words or her sentiments.

  48. Ben says:


    I could not locate Marilee’s editorial on The Tech’s site, so I asked her to send me the text. Here it is:


    To Members of the MIT Community:

    The September 6 issue of Newsweek magazine featured a story entitled “Dealing With Depression”. The story, which was written in June and discussed the challenges that students have with pressure seeking success in education, included quotes from an interview with me that took place earlier this summer.

    In the past few weeks, I have received a few emails from angry people, including members of the MIT community, related to a quote attributed to me regarding MIT’s view of clinical depression. Like those who have contacted me, I too was very surprised and disappointed to see a quote stating that I believe students on anti-depressive medications (“needing pharmaceautical support to get through the day”) should not be at MIT.

    This is untrue, and the quote is a mistake by the reporter, with whom I had a lengthy phone conversation about the topic of student depression, but also about how we admit students and why. I am frequently interviewed by the media and have learned to do these interviews by email whenever possible to avoid misquotes. For a variety of reasons, I was unable to do that with a reporter from Newsweek, who also spoke with Dr. Alan Seigel from MIT Mental Health for this story.

    I want to assure members of this community that I never said this and that the statement is not true. We rarely know anything about the literal health and well-being of applicants from their applications and even when we do, we do not discriminate against anyone for medical reasons.

    In the undergraduate admissions process, we look for students who will thrive – not just survive – at MIT. We look for characteristics such as self-initiative, willingness to risk, emotional resilience, desire to participate in MIT life. I told the reporter that MIT is not for the faint-hearted. We do not admit students whom we feel are inappropriate for MIT, such as students who cannot tolerate being less than perfect or students who take less rigorous classes to maintain their GPAs, since we know that MIT, by Prof. Sadoway’s description a “swashbuckling” environment, will challenge even the brightest student. But ‘not for the faint-hearted’ is not the same as ‘not for students on anti-depressant medications’.

    Even the best reporters sometimes get it wrong.

    Marilee Jones
    Dean of Admissions