Skip to content ↓
John DeTore '80

Thoughts On The MIT Interview by John DeTore '80

...from the perspective of an MIT interviewer.

First and foremost: I am an EC, and EC’s don’t make admissions decisions. We are just people who once went to MIT (maybe in a time when it was easier to get into MIT than it is now) and have insights into the Institute (or how it was thirty years ago; in our internet age you might know more about it than we do now).

We don’t make admissions decisions, but we do send notes on your behalf to the admissions team so they know a bit about what it is like to meet you. We hope this creates an opportunity for a more personal admissions process, that, after all, shouldn’t be summed up on a few sheets of paper.

And I get to meet lots of young and interesting people who want to go to MIT. For me, it’s a fun and special thing to do, and I really have enjoyed meeting everyone I have had the privilege to interview.

OK, you are probably scheduled for an interview, and would like to prepare. Here is my advice:

You of course know exactly what it is that we are seeking. Gleaned from countless sources now available, you realize we are seeking gifted students with both breadth and depth. We’d like you to be clearly destined for that next breakthough discovery (assisted of course by the double major you’ll finish in three years here), but we also hope that you have side interests in archaeology, music, history and, oh yes, almost forgot… of course you are an excellent athlete (…have we told you how many people at MIT play sports?) Then just sprinkle in charm, humor, and, oh yes, leadership skills. You are a leader, aren’t you? Well, AREN’T YOU??

Don’t fall for it.

Yes, yes, there is a disappointingly low admit rate. Believe me, meeting all of you, it breaks my heart and I believe also breaks the heart of the admissions readers that we can’t take a considerably larger number than we do. But the numbers are the numbers.

What we may realize more than you at this point is that the mythical person described above just does not exist. If they did, they would probably be an insufferable bore. Now maybe some of you think I just described you perfectly. If so, you should consider the fact that when I say insufferable bore, I might be talking about you.

Don’t let the low admit rate psyche you into packaging yourself. In my opinion, it will work against you. Remember that should you go to this challenging school and become all that we hope you can, that you will have failures along the way, have lulls in your progression, pauses that slow you down but also get you to think, to introspect, and possibly to learn.

In your life so far, you have of course also found things that don’t work for you and things you don’t like and things that don’t like you. Just like the marks in leather, these flaws make you YOU, give you character, make you unique, and bestow on you your humanity. (BTW, the dirtiest secret is that all of us are ourselves quite flawed, and if you appear perfect it is liable just to piss us off.)

So relax when you prepare to meet us, and when you fill out your essays. Preparing is not for now, you have been preparing for seventeen years. Suggesting that you “be yourself” is not a trick just to lower your guard, uncover your flaws, and deny you admission. But lowering your guard might be a good idea. I’ve talked to lots of candidates – and the ones who are just themselves, who can laugh at their mistakes and struggles, who seem comfortable in their own skin – inevitably show a bit more maturity, and inevitably make the best impression. Just my two cents.

Just be yourself. It’s not a trick.

And check out the thoughts on the interview posted by Matt, Mitra, and Stu.

Let me know what you think…

28 responses to “Thoughts On The MIT Interview”

  1. John Moakley says:

    You’ll never find my flaws! Never! Muhahahaha!
    Aside from that, I find this a very helpful post showing that interviews are truly to just put a face and personality to an application. Thanks for your input Mr. DeTore!

  2. Thanks for your post. Looking back on my EC interview (about a month ago), I can really identify with your message. Thanks again.

  3. Sean says:

    Wow, I feel a great load has come off of my chest. This makes me feel a lot more confident of my ability to make it into MIT. Thanks for the info Mr. DeTore.

  4. Great tips Mr. DeTore! It’s particularly helpful to hear these words spoken from an EC. I, for one, am I strong supporter of the interview. I believe that it is an outstanding opportunity to convey the many facets of your life that may not be quantified or adequately expressed on paper. I’d like to think that the interview can be a strongly influential factor in compensating for any percieved inadequacies in an application.

    I’ll be looking foward to mine next week! Best of luck with interviews to all the applicants!

  5. Jean says:

    Thank you Mr. DeTore for your helpful advice, especially since it was coming from an EC himself!

    I recently completed an interview with another school that, I hope, went really well, so I identified with a lot of the messages you were conveying!

    Although you had me going for a little bit with your description of the perfect student! wink Keep up the encouarging work!

  6. Greg H says:

    I posted this on Matt’s entry earlier. I thought it might be useful for some reading this thread who didn’t read THAT thread.–Greg

    Nice posting from Matt. I’m an EC (second time: once in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s, and returned to doing it just this year).

    Stu’s blog posting is closed for comments, but some replies there, as well as some here, made me think of something to post: namely, your EC is a person, and is most likely NOT an EMPLOYEE of MIT and its admissions department. So, if you call or e-mail your EC and don’t receive a response in a few days, that does not necessarily mean the EC is ignoring you or isn’t doing his or her job: it might mean the EC is on vacation, on a business trip, or fixing a hole in the roof where a tree came in (which has been my excuse for the past two days).

    Anyway, as an EC, here’s my paltry addition:

    (1) I try to have comfortable conversations, rather than inquisitions. I don’t think the typical EC expects you to appear prepared to have a job interview, but my advice would be to ASK that EC in an e-mail or phone conversation if they expect you to bring anything, or to dress in a particular way. My bet is the answer is “no” on both counts. In my case, I tell the students to dress however they would be dressing if they weren’t coming over for an interview, because, most likely, they’ll be dressed better than me.

    (1.1) Regarding dress–if you’re wondering, ask the EC when you set up the interview. My office is located in an R&D center at a chemical plant, so when I interview there, I don’t expect suits and ties, but my company requires certain clothing (like long pants, closed shoes, and no hanging jewelry) to get in the door. However, when I interview at home, someone showing up in a suit will probably make the neighbors think there’s an undertaker visiting, and they can go pick up my patio furniture, because I must be dead.

    (2) I tell scheduled and prospective students that I’m available to talk at any time, before OR after the interview. I look at being an EC as being a resource to MIT applicants at any point in the application process, from “curiosity” to “already applied” to “got in”. I think ALL ECs are probably the same, and if not, you should contact MIT with any follow-up questions, or to request the name of some other nearby EC who’ll be happy to talk with you.

    (3) Interviews and parts of the application: I’ve interviewed students who’ve submitted every part of the application BUT the interview, and I’ve interviewed students who’ve submitted diddly. The interview is NOT a step in a linear progression of admissions activities–it’s a step that you should complete at some point DURING those activities. Make sure you get all parts of your application in to Admissions on time, and if you happen to have your interview before or after those arrive, I don’t think it matters, as long as you meet all the time requirements.

    Anyway, just my lame addition from an EC to the vast populace reading this blog. I’m sure if I’ve said anything hideously wrong, the Admissions department will fix it, and have me sent to Georgia Tech.

    Posted by: Greg H on October 19, 2006 09:31 PM

  7. John DeTore says:

    Everyone, thanks for the kind words and comments. And Laura, thanks for the co-blogger support! Send more encouragement and advice, this isn’t really my generation’s thing!

    But I have a little point to add: I was hoping for questions, and anything goes. Like “what happenes when you lose your notes?” and “have you forgotten to show up for an interview?” Really, this is where you can ask whatever you like. (I wouldn’t try THAT in your actual interview …).

    Poll: who wants more advice on how to do well on the essays and interviews?

  8. Mikey Yang says:

    “So relax when you prepare to meet us, and when you fill out your essays. Preparing is not for now, you have been preparing for seventeen years. Suggesting that you “be yourself” is not a trick just to lower your guard, uncover your flaws, and deny you admission. But lowering your guard might be a good idea. I’ve talked to lots of candidates – and the ones who are just themselves, who can laugh at their mistakes and struggles, who seem comfortable in their own skin – inevitably show a bit more maturity, and inevitably make the best impression. Just my two cents.”

    So true. SO true. As an admissions officer (albeit a relatively young and new one) who’s read applications for a year, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to read an application where the student is just comfortable with who they are, flaws and everything. And it really DOES come off a lot more mature, and we can truly say, “I really feel I know who this kid is, and this is what makes him/her a great match for MIT.”

    As our dean, Marilee Jones, often says – you guys (the applicants) aren’t FINISHED yet. You’re still teenagers (I know that sounds a bit condescending, having been a teenager just a little while ago and still kind of feel like one, and I know you guys probably don’t want to be called ‘teenagers’ in that sense, but do know it’s meant in the most sincere and loving way…you know what I mean), and so we don’t expect you to be PERFECT. In fact, nobody – even adults – is perfect. And, as John said, if everybody were perfect, how insufferably boring life would be! It’s the quirks, the imperfections, the _humanness_ of people that make MIT (and life) so interesting.

    You don’t need to be perfect, you just need to be the right match.

  9. Stu Schmill says:

    To Ying Wei regarding your having your interview in another country, because it is closer:

    Yes we can give you the name of an EC living closer to you in Singapore. Simply write to [email protected] and someone on the other end of that line will send you the info.

    It sounds like for you this will make things much easier. For others who may wish to do this, you can do the same as Ying Wei. But, do this only if it is much more convenient for you. We don’t make these assignments as a matter of course because our ECs are familiar with the educational systems in the country from where you/they live, and those in other countries will be less so and therefore you may spend a bit more time explaining how things work.

    Have fun!

  10. Ying Wei says:


    And i have a question to ask:
    According to my knowledge, usually students who live in Malaysia are arranged to have interview in Kuala Lumpur.However, the state i live is much more nearer to Singapore, so can i arrange an interview in Singapore if i cant get an EC living in my state?

  11. Laura says:

    I am so proud to not be an insufferable bore.

    Great post. =)

  12. John DeTore says:


    Great points, and a great question about “retaking” an interview. Glad in your case yours went well.

    I have never heard of a “redo” on an interview, which does not mean it has never happened. One reason it wouldn’t typically work is the herculean effort we go through to organize an interview offer for 14000 applicants. Because of the magnitude of the effort, we need to organize pretty carefully, and the method we have chosen is by region/high school.

    For instance, I have three high schools in my region (Weston, MA, 10 miles from MIT) where I live for which I interview. The advantage of this is we get to know the schools, advisors, campus cultures, and so forth. We live in the community so we know the town well. Alas, if you apply from my schools, you come to me …

    Not to say that we don’t have other ECs in the area who could help out. But you must admit, it is hard to make a second first impression! The interviews, in that way, are different that the SATs, which are organized to allow students to retake.

    Just remember to go and get to know your EC: a person that loves doing this or they wouldn’t have volunteered in the first place. We are here to help with the application process. And, for those I interview, and I am sure other ECs do this, I try and emphasize that I remain accessible throughout the process (forever, really), and since they have my email, it’s easy to find me. I encourage them to contact me for whatever advice or questions they might have.

    As for some perspective on the application essay, I will post something early next week that might help. Just rememeber, in my role, I don’t see essays, so I am far from an expert.

  13. Sarab says:

    I’ve been faintly tense about the interview (no under exaggeration here!) I’ve heard everyone talk of preparing for an interview for whatever, I’ve gone in extempore and come out with an acceptance. So, not too worried. What I am worried about is what to write in My essay. i ahve like 10 different half baked essays in my head and on my PC which are being fermented to vintage (Chuckle!). But the 500 word limit really is troublesome. Any ideas?
    Also, I’ve heard some horror stories about interviews and interviewers and while mine seems pretty nice, if worst comes to worst, can I be re-interviewed. Also, wouldn’t that be best as a matter of routine for a possiibly biased (but hopefully not) EC. Any ideas?

  14. Ying Wei says:

    thanks Stu!
    i will apply MIT next year,so i still have one more year to prepare for this and a lot more college applications smile (due to the ridiculously low admit rate of international applicants, i shall better make preparations earlier)
    however,if i am not admitted by MIT by that time, i will apply MIT again for my graduate studies! raspberry

  15. Ying Wei says:

    sorry, not “apply MIT”, but “apply to MIT”

  16. Ruben says:

    Would an EC want to see us come in with a suitcase of things we’ve done in our life, or should we rather come in with absolutely nothing(Im not talking/writing about clothes)? Or should we be inbetween and bring one or two things to an interview?


  17. John DeTore says:


    I see no reason to bring any supporting materials. Just stop in for a chat and get to know yout EC. If something comes up that you’d like him or her to see, then you could maybe stop by and show it to them later — if there was sonmething that you think makes a fun conversation piece, you could bring it along.

    You don’t really need to bring basic materials like test scores, grades etc. Those are for you application, not the interview.

    Smiles are good to bring!

  18. As an EC, I wanted to talk about something that has come up in several interviews. I call them little tragedies. Sometimes, the interviewee sneezes or mispronounces a word, or mixes up a concept, or perhaps gently spills some drinking water, which I always provide. The MIT prospect gets very nervous about these little things, and it is important to emphasize and reassure them that these are not the determinants of whether or not a student gets into MIT. It is the culmination of a 17-18 year academic and extracurricular program initiatives that matter, as well as their passion and personality Take the time to reinforce that a nervous cough, or the need to have a question repeated is unimportant and not a factor in their selection. We all need reassurance and these wonderful kids we meet can always use a touch of empathy. We don’t want them to go home worrying about a sneeze.

  19. Paul Ackman says:

    I’m an EC. I prefer that you bring a CV/resume’/brag sheet to the interview. It helps me ask questions and think of topics for discussion and it helps me remember things about you later, when it’s time to send an interview report to the admissions office. Most students have such a document by senior year. There is no standard format, just who you are and things you’ve done or are interested in. I might have a dozen interviews in an especially busy year. I don’t wait until New Year’s Eve and then submit a dozen interview reports, but I might write up 2 or 3 at the same time, and your CV helps me remember facts about you. Don’t bring test scores, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a list of your classes, if you want to talk about what you took in high school.

  20. Sue Kayton says:

    I’ve been an EC doing interviews for 28 years, and hear many of the same questions over and over again. So I took an old MIT handout written by Bonnie Kellerman (yes, we actually used paper in those days) and have expanded on it and posted it online for prospective students. Check it out (and please email me suggestions on how to improve it) at

  21. Deb August says:

    As an EC, I disagree with John’s advice not to bring anything to the interview. I’m a hands-on kind of person, and I like to see what students have to show off. It’s not essential, and most applicants don’t bring a portfolio, but I’ll never forget the kid who brought his yo-yo and demonstrated all his tricks!
    I’d also like to say that the advice I was given before my first marathon also applies well to the college interview: on race day (or interview day) you are ALREADY successful. The hard part (training, working hard) is over, and now is the time to relax and enjoy the experience you have worked for.

  22. John DeTore says:

    OK, OK, looks like there are EC’s who definitely like it when you bring some sort of resume/cheat sheet/brag doc. Good to keep in mind. I think it is advice well taken. I have occasionally seen summary sheets and they ARE helpful. No one has brought me a yo-yo yet and that would be fun too, I must admit.

    If you are reading this, going to an interview, and feel like being helpful, then bring something should you have it. It can’t hurt, and no one is telling you not to. Well, ehh.. maybe I did above, but what I meant was it’s not required, and certainly I wouldn’t bring a large amount along the lines of Ruben’s question because the interviews last about an hour, and you want time to get to know each other, not review paperwork. Think of what you bring as summary notes to leave behind.

    But just to be clear, statistically, most interviewees I have met have shown up with nada and its OK with me. Bringing materials is optional.

  23. Chris Huang says:


    I cannot help but to chime in on interview experiences. Having being an EC for the last 15+ years, I have seen quite a number of applicants. I must admit that the “tales” you read here go to show that experience really is an accumulation of your interactions.

    For example, I remember that the first year I started my interviews, one girl really impressed me with her music achievement (she placed first in a Long Island piano event, but not a major one). Now, I don’t even raise an eyebrow when a candidate tells me that he or she is on our All-County orchestra. Of course, just about every student I interview (13 this season, too many!) is in Science Olympiad or Math League. So, it’s difficult to differentiate them. Therefore, when I hear a completely different story (like one time a Jewish student in a Hebrew Academy telling about his interest in break dancing), it really piques my interest. I like it better when student don’t tell me that they are in every activity, but only a few but with such a passion that they have excelled in demonstrable ways.

    On the subject of bringing something to the interview. Like John D. (my fellow ’80 classmate and Jerry A.), most of my students don’t bring anything. However, in my e-mail to them, I always encourage them to bring anything that help them to showcase their talents. So I have seen a fair number of resumes, medals, and awards. I have not had a person demonstrate yo-yo (I assume Chinese yo-yos) as in Deb A.’s case, but being in Long Island where there is a large Chinese population, just about every 4th Chinese candidate I see plays yo-yo (and I have seen plenty in other events). So, as I said before, experience is what you have seen before. So, if someone shows his/her yo-yo skill to me, I wouldn’t be as impressed if s/he break dances to me.

    Lastly, one advice to the interviewees. Tell us something what will set you apart from other candidates. Unfortunately an interview is a “beauty contest.” The more you help us to decide that you are the fairest, the better off you are. So think ahead of your interview and tell us really WHY should MIT admit you. And good luck to you. You will really enjoy once you get there.

  24. Stu Schmill says:

    I will post something a bit more fully over the weekend, but I wanted to add a comment here.

    The main point of the interviews is for us to get to know you better and for you to get to know MIT better. We want to hear about the things that interest you, and how you have pursued those interests. The interview is not a test or a hurdle, but a chance for you to tell us in person about the things you like to do, and how and why you have done them. It should be fun! We don’t expect you to have to make or create anything new for the interview, and it is not an expectation that you bring anything with you. Some ECs do suggest that you bring something (just like MIT students, our ECs are a diverse group and have different styles regarding the interview), and, if you have something like a resume (many students don’t have one and that is OK) or something else, that is fine, but don’t feel at all badly if you don’t have something and don’t bring anything.

    You don’t have to be a break dancer or a yo-yo champion or anything else except who you are. You don’t have to have pursued activities simply because they are different or done anything because it will make you look more special in any way. That would be impossible. We hope that you have done things because they interest you, whatever those things are, and that is absolutely good enough.

    The interview is not about impressing your EC, rather it is to show us and tell us more about who you truly are and what you like to do.

    Remember that there is no one profile of a student that makes a good match with MIT. What matches well with MIT are students who are engaged in what they do, whatever that is.

    Again, relax, and have fun with it!

  25. Chris Huang says:

    I think most of the points made by Stu were great. My earlier post was not to suggest that you had to do something special to get into MIT (but it never hurts smile Bringing something to an interview has always been optional (to me) and a number of my interviewees have done so, but most do not. However, I do appreciate if they bring something unique.

    I also want to point out the obvious: those of us who do interviews are human and the process is very subjective. We don’t care about student’s grades or SAT scores. All we get is a a small slice of applicant’s time and it is difficult to know this person very well in a short time. Therefore, anything that a candidate can demonstrate that is unique to him or her, and more importantly why should MIT care really helps our job.

    I happen to interview a very competitive area, where every student seems to be a super candidate. Therefore, there is a lot of pressure on these kids to stand out. That’s just how it is, right or wrong. I try to mention as many important activities in my interview that a candidate seems to focus on, but it gets hard if everyone I write appears to come from a similar mold. Therefore, I try to look for “things” which are unique (to my experience). And I know when I write something interesting about a candidate, it does make a difference to the Admissions office.

    I hope that you, the candidates, do come to interviews just as you are and talk about things that truly interest you. But there is no denying that our interview reports will be based on how we learn and feel about you and how you compare to what we think would make a good MIT student. That unfortunately is not a science that we have come to love.

  26. Greetings, all!

    Speaking, first, as an educational counsellor, I generally agree with most of the above comments. Above all else, if you are prospective applicant, please take a few deep breaths and relax. We’re eager to meet you — to get to know you as a living, breathing, human being and to learn what makes you tick so that we can add some “flesh and blood” to the “bones” provided by your test scores and transcripts in much the same way that great writers of fiction add “flesh and blood” to the “bones” provided by just a handful of basic literary plots!

    But speaking, second, as a fairly seasoned professional in the R&D world, I would like to invite you to consider the personal benefit of going through the interview process. While some of you may have had to go through an interview or two in the past (for example, to gain admission to an “I. B.” program or a preparatory high school, or perhaps as part of a competition for some honor or award), this probably is not the experience of many — yet interviews are very much a reality of most professional careers. Even as a senior, wherever you go to school, you will find yourselves interviewing with representatives from either prospective employers or faculty of prospective graduate schools. From there on, you will find yourself interviewing with prospective sponsors and prospective employers with some frequency. The more comfortable you become in an interview situation, the more quickly your professional career will advance — and it’s the familarity of the process, through the experience of many interviews, that will bring you comfort in the process. The college admission process is an excellent opportunity to practice interviewing, so I encourage you to seek interviews not only with your educational counsellor from M. I. T. but also with interviewers from every other college to which you may choose to apply that offers a similar opportunity!

    Now, please allow me to reinforce the above suggestion to contact your assigned educational counsellor as soon as possible to schedule an interview. As others have noted, many educational counsellors are very busy individuals and the busy holiday periods — during which many educational counsellors and perhaps many of you may be travelling and thus not available to conduct interviews — are fast approaching. By calling early, you’ll make it much easier to accommodate both your counsellor’s schedule and your personal schedule. I’ll do everything possible to accommodate applicants who call me even after the deadline, but I can’t manufacture time slots that don’t exist between other obligations in my schedule. Making that call to a stranger won’t grow any easier if you continue to procrastinate, either! As one sneaker manufacturer once advertised, “Just DO IT!”

    Best wishes to all.


  27. Aareet says:

    I have my EC interview tomorrow and was doing some last minute research on MIT when i came across this blog…Needless to say , i was having the jitters until i read it….Being an international student really didnt help because i happened to see the admit rate..oops..
    Thanks for all the advice ,it really helped(and im not just saying that because of stereotype)..and thank god im not an insufferable bore..ha ha