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MIT staff blogger Chris Peterson SM '13

What Essay Questions Should We Ask? by Chris Peterson SM '13

I've got applications on the brain. Last week, we posted the blogger applications; this week, I'm modifying the Maker Portfolio for the next cycle. During Ceri's admissions excavation she found some old applications, which got me down to the Institute Archives, looking at old requirements for admission

Last year I posted our essay questions. This year they'll (almost certainly) be the same. But maybe next year, they won't; every year, we sort of reassess the questions, and think about whether we want to change them. 

Strategically, our essay questions are intended to prompt certain responses from applicants. The idea is that the answers tell us something about the applicant, not only through what they literally write (i.e. "For fun I like to dress up like a Viking and light things on fire") but also how they write about it, what they choose to write about, the salient categories and concepts around which they organize their lived experience, and so on. You can think of essay questions as instruments which elicit a response which we then evaluate, akin to the soft rubber hammer which a doctor uses to test your reflexes. 

Over the years we've asked many different types (and amounts) of essay questions, ranging from the very close ended to the very open ended: before my time, in the days of paper applications, we used to just include a blank piece of paper and ask students to make something with it, for example. When we think about what types of essay questions we ask now, we try to optimize for those essay questions which are going to a) elicit the most informative, enlightening responses, and b) minimize the amount of stress they cause the applicant to answer. A) and B) are somewhat in tension, but we try to balance them as best we can, which is how we've settled on our current format of asking for ~5 short (100-250 word maximum) responses to straightforward questions. 

So here's a different sort of question: what should of questions ought we ask our applicants? What sorts of questions would be likely to elicit enlightening information about you, or what sorts of questions would you want to ask your future classmates? Like I said, we probably won't change anything for this fall, but your responses here might inform what we do going forward.