Skip to content ↓
MIT staff blogger Ben Jones

There Is No Formula by Ben Jones

A formula would take the human component out of our process, which is perhaps the most important part.

This whole “is there a formula to get into MIT” thing that’s been dominating College Confidential and the blog comments makes me sad. I understand that people want answers and explanations, but… alas.

Trying to define admissions with a formula is like trying to define life with a formula. It’s like trying to explain poetry using calculus. It would take the human component out of it, which is perhaps the most important part.

Reading through this thread doesn’t make me think of SAT scores or grades. It makes me think of the guy who fell in love with trains as a kid and worked so hard to include the world in that passion that Amtrak noticed and gave him a job before he could even drive. It makes me think of the girl who chose to commute an hour each way to attend a certain school, and the amazing friendship she developed with the bus driver that reinforced her dream of becoming a teacher. It makes me think of one girl’s amazing photograph of a swing and how that image says more about the world than any test ever could.

Of course you need good scores and good grades to get into MIT. But most people who apply to MIT have good grades and scores. Having bad grades or scores will certainly hurt you, but I’m sorry to say that having great grades and scores doesn’t really help you – it just means that you’re competitive with most of the rest of our applicants. MIT is very self-selecting in that regard.

It’s who you are that really matters. It’s how you embrace life. It’s how you treat other people. It’s passion. And yes, that stuff really does drip off the page in the best of our applications. It’s not anything I can explain – you just know when you read an application and a “perfect match” is there.

Please don’t argue about stats, about race, about gender. Katharine got some static along these lines a few threads back. Read her response – in particular the part about what’s important in life. If you don’t see that Katharine belongs here, then you obviously don’t know what MIT is about. (And for the record, Katharine’s application could hold its own against that of any boy.)

Here’s an equally important message: I saw the “perfect match” in a bunch of apps that we deferred. Please remember that we deferred a LOT of people who wholly deserve to be at MIT – folks who are passionate, who love life and the discovery thereof, who genuinely care about the people around them. The absolute worst part of this job is the fact that there are so few spots for so many qualified people, which means we can’t take everyone, even if they belong here.

The best we can do is try to build a perfect class. Not the perfect class, but a perfect class. As Andrew mentioned in a different thread, we could build 2, maybe even 3 perfect classes out of our applicant pool, without question. If you’ve been deferred, there is nothing I can say here to make this fact easier to digest. But trying to pin it on anything else – race, gender, whatever – is just deluding yourself. So please stop harassing Matt; you’re not going to get the answer you’re looking for. I wish we could just give you a perfect black-and-white response, but the real world is never that simple.

If you take nothing else from this post, just know that getting deferred is not a personal reflection on you. At all.

Accepted, deferred, or otherwise – you are all amazing people. As I said previously, you’ll make the world better whether you come to MIT or not. I know it’s not a consolation, but it’s still the truth.


20 responses to “There Is No Formula”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for your hard work, interesting posts, compassion, and humanity. You and Matt do MIT proud.

  2. David says:

    Hey Ben, just wanted to say thanks for all the updates. Hope you have a happy holiday! :D

  3. Have an awesome holiday! By the way… thanks!!! Maybe I will go to Cambridge and listen to you play!

  4. Eujin says:

    Hi, Ben!

    I have a quiestion. Does the school report have more weight than the evaluations do? {My guidance counselor doesn’t know me well: I have only had one class she teaches and I meet her not too often.}

    Thanx beforehand!

  5. Ben says:

    Hi Eujin – in my experience, teachers generally know students much better than the GC’s do. GC’s have to know everyone, not just a subset of the class; also, they also don’t get to see students every day the way that teachers do. Don’t worry if your GC doesn’t know you all that well – we get a lot of applications where that is the case. grin

    Hi Mike – yeah, we’re bad at keeping in touch. My whole family is like that. I’ll work on that though – you can help me next year! No vacation for me until 12/24… but then I get a whole week off… nice!

    Thanks everyone for your comments! Sorry for the lack of new entries, but look for some new portal stuff next week – it’s been keeping me very busy!

  6. Eujin says:

    Ben, thank you so much!

  7. NoCreativity says:

    Hi Ben, you have a lot of heart in the things you say.. nice to know some people are still human. i feel sad for people who make such a big ruckus here about admissions, even worse for those who try to point the finger at someone else. i have this on my prefrosh (hopefully frosh someday) blog.. but i’ll save you the time.. and tell you anyhow:: a couple days ago a student i didn’t particularly know at my school was shot to death coming home.. she had no chance to aspire towards her dreams. people need to remember to put their lives and their disappointments in a little more perspective. i’m saddened embarrassed that someone could even think of harrassing you guys and belittling Katharine about her admissions. Has the world really lost it’s decency? i’m feeling so disillusioned… especially when we bicker and fight so much over such insignificant things when compared to the grander reality of things.

    nevertheless i can understand how someone could be disappointed at being defered. I personally dreamt about MIT when i was young and my dad dreamt about MIT when he was young… we still do. (if you read the essay on dreams deferred.. with quotations from langston hughs.. that’s mine).. but to come back from digression.. i spent many hours doing my application (RA/RD or whatever it’s called).. and i still spend many hours worrying if you’ll really see me in it.. so i sympathize with those who are disappointment. i’m just sorry to see such bitterness and callousness towards those who were or could have been our peers in different circumstances.

    okay ben, sorry to hijack your blog but i just wanted to say it to someone who i feel might understand.

  8. Hi. I am a sophomore from NC. I go to collegeconfidential often, and I really do believe that there is no set formula to get in. I am an indian-asian though, and sometimes it seems unfair how my parents have to work really hard, even though they are not poor(they are saving for college), and I think I work just as hard as everyone else applying. While I do believe affirmative action has it’s merits, it isn’t a good feeling to know it just hurts your chances. Oh yeah. I have taken the hardest courses my school offers(gonna take harder ones at the local college), and I do this because I love what i do. For example, I am teaching myself Calculus BC this year. Why? Because I discovered I needed it for neural networks(Comp Sci).

    So I guess my big question is, should I be busting my ass over classes like french, where getting an A is very difficult, or should I spend my time doing the things I love, like bettering my chess engine, or my Neural Network CS projects, or My C interpreter, or my miniature mock particle accelarator. I feel that the things i love are being pulled away because I have to devote all my time to french. Even if I get 2 B’s, my GPA is still the highest of the sophomores, and I have a 1410 SAT. I think I should put more time into other stuff, not this.

  9. Jenna says:


    I am the girl who travels an hour each way to school, you mentioning me in your blog made me feel like I actually belong at MIT. Now I believe I got accepted ( I’ve been in denial since Monday).

    Thank You so much-

  10. Anonymous says:

    Wow. All I can say is wow. I happen to know that girl (bus driver) and it is unbelievable the amount of impact an essay can have. I also applied and was deferred but I am happy that she got in. Have a great weekend.

  11. Ben says:

    Thanks everyone for your posts!

    NoCreativity & Sagar, I’m going to respond to you guys on Monday when I have more time – your posts deserve a much longer response than I can formulate and type before the end of the day. Thank you both for such thoughtful posts – I’ll spend the weekend thinking about them and get back to you.

    Jenna – thanks for saying hi! I saw your name in the admitted students thread and instantly knew who you were as I was the primary reader on your app – wanted to share some details in my post to make a point but didn’t want to “out” anyone by sharing names. wink Make sure to say hi at CPW if you come.

    Anonymous – thanks for your post! I’m going to quickly respond to it in a new blog entry in about 3 minutes.

  12. B.Boy Mike D says:

    Hey Ben!!

    I have a really important question concerning my application, but I don’t think it’s one that the receptionist at the admissions office can answer. If I call the office and ask to speak to you or Matt, will you be there? This is after school so….3 or 4 PM.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I am honored that you made a whole post about my comment. MIT seems to emphasize the importance of the individual rather than their grades, my question is: On many applications there is a space at the end for students to write anything they would like to add about themselves. As I recall MIT did not have that section. Why?

    Also with the exception of sending the midyear grade report I haven’t seen a lot about what to do if you have been deferred. I recall Matt said that we should not send in additional essays or materials. Is there anything that we can do?

    – Only other student who applied from that school aka Anonymous

  14. Sean says:

    MIT did have a “anything else?” section in the application.

  15. Marcus says:

    i thought calculus was a form of poetry.

  16. Mr jones, i would really like to write to you in person for a few times, i was wondering if you could send me an e-mail so i can write back.

    sorry for being so brief, limited access to internet…

    thanks for being so encouraging.

  17. Suggestion says:

    An RSS feed of the mainpage and maybe the comments would be awsome as I already have matt’s feed set up in Firefox.

  18. Thanks so much for all of this!
    Enjoy your holidays!

  19. Mike Axiak says:


    With an uncle like Duane Jones, it’s a wonder you could used calculus in that analogy tongue laugh.

    Have a good one.


  20. Ben says:

    Note: on 1/26/05 I migrated this site to a new publishing system, using Movable Type as the backend CMS. Though the comments were preserved, I had to manually move them over, and there was no way to preserve the dates on which the comments were originally posted. That’s why they’re all logged on 1/26 or 1/27, even though many of them were posted earlier. Sorry for the inconvenience! Comment dates will be correct moving forward.