My high school was this tiny sort of dinky-looking building on the campus of a community college, forty-five minutes from my house. It was a public science and engineering magnet high school that runs an annual admission exam and accepts the top scoring kid(s) from each town in our suburban New Jersey county. I applied mostly because a friend was applying, but I got in, and he didn’t.
When MIT hopefuls ask what an MIT student did in high school, they tend to mean “what went on their application.” There is obviously a lot of your high school self that is conveyed when you apply to college, but that filtered projection of an imperfect person isn’t nearly representative of “what you did in high school,” so it’s not what I wanted to write about.
Instead, here’s a genuine account of one way to be a living human person in high school and end up at MIT. Maybe I’ll write about my application some other day so we can like compare the two for fun. But anyway!
During high school, I:
- Didn’t always consider that college was a thing.
I remember sometime during freshman year a classmate was whining about his grades. He mentioned something about colleges, which confused me, because I was under the impression that your college application was literally entirely based on your junior year.
On another freshmany occasion, a classmate was whining about having to do community service, which confused me because our school didn’t have any such requirement. When I asked why he was doing it, he said it was to get service hours to qualify for National Honor Society come our junior year. I think I teasingly called him a nerd, because I still didn’t understand.
It took a bit of time for me to start working as hard as I did in the end. I was never a bad student, but initially more the type to go hard learning things I wanted to and leave Algebra II studying for the lunch period before the test. I sometimes got Bs, and I sometimes got Cs, and it wasn’t the end of the world.
- Learned that college Was in Fact a Thing
I think it’s somewhat silly to contend that there are teenagers who innately want to learn about everything they study in high school – kids who simultaneously care about titrations and ancient civilizations and every important historical figure and his cousin. I mean, maybe they’re out there, but I won’t pretend to be one of them, and I doubt most MIT hopefuls are either. I started getting serious about studying these things when I learned you need good grades for college.
My GPA jumped from a lowish A to a solid A to an even more solid A from my freshman to junior year. It felt good to me to get good grades because good grades are pretty important. But please don’t believe for a second that they’re the most important thing.
- Made “”“art”””
What I did spend a lot of time doing that first year of high school (and all of the other years too) was messing around with my totally legal copy of Adobe Creative Suite to make ridiculous creations for fun.
Here is the first GIF I ever made, feat. Robby circa early 2011. wow. Amazing
(at that point I hadn’t yet figured out how to infinitely loop GIFs, so to preserve the historical integrity of the piece, you’ll have to reload the page if you want to watch it over and over again.)
- Made art
Eventually I got somewhat better at the design software I was using and procrastinated on my schoolwork by making these single-afternoon art projects. Most of them are sitting away on my old computer, but I started uploading a few on YouTube in junior year for the world to see.
random stuff like this:
- Spent an ungodly amount of time on Tumblr
In hindsight, I am positive that signing up for a Tumblr account was actually a terrible idea. I don’t know if I can think of any other activity that’s so consistently effective for distraction. On the flip side, I now have an Internet archive of rambly thoughts and writings (and teenage angst) from my high school days, which I think is maybe worth something.
- Worked at a daycare my sophomore summer
My mom told me she heard about a daycare in the town next to ours that had job openings for teenagers. I super love little kids and I thought that sounded like fun, plus a good opportunity to practice my Spanish, since that’s what most of the staff and kids spoke. I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to physically melting into a puddle than when I made a two-year-old stop crying by sitting her on my lap and reading to her. Or more intimidated by another human being than by the belligerent five-year-old Carla… like, I was just trying to be nice and help the kids with their game when she told me I was too old to play with them. 🙁
- Joined the school play
Basically I’m horrible at any skill potentially related to being in a play (speaking loudly, memorizing lines, not being terrified of the audience, acting) which totally didn’t stop me from being in a play in sophomore year. I think I was pretty awful, but I got to play the granddaughter of this girl I thought was really cute and our characters hugged at the end. Also a girl who I think realized I was feeling nervous told me afterwards that her mom commented that my character was very believable, which made me feel a bit less unconfident. After the last show, the upperclassmen who gave funny superlatives to the participants sarcastically named me “loudest.”
- Was involved in research
One thing that was great about my high school was that we had to take classes about how to do research and then each do a project ourselves. My project was about the effect of acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) on the drought stress of Solanum Lycopersicum (tomato) plants, which I grew from seeds then deprived of water then chopped up at the stems like the sadistic maniac I am. Heh heh. Anyway, it was a pretty basic high school thing without any fancy equipment, but I landed first place in my category at the tristate level science fair. “Great project,” said the judges on the scoring sheet, “but work on your presentation skills.” (I was also super nervous to present.)
I definitely enjoyed doing research that year, though I was never invested in it enough to go to ISEF or anything. The following summer I arranged a research internship at Rutgers University, for which I pretty much functioned as a data analysis slave. I was okay with grunt work, though, since I could listen to music and hang out with the cool big college kids at lunchtime and my professor was really cute and old.
- “Creatively interpreted” school projects
Another thing I did for fun in high school was filming dumb movies and then putting bad special effects on them. I would also usually try to find ways to make school assignments more interesting by incorporating the things I enjoyed. As a result, my teachers were often confused.
A lovely gem I put together for an English project. If you want just a few seconds to summarize it, I suggest 1:33 or 0:40 when I wave to a ten-year-old kid in the park laughing at us from afar.
For Digital Electronics literally I just had to submit a raw video of the thing working, but I noticed that the unedited videos didn’t have a satisfactory amount of flying CGI skeletons in them, which resulted in masterpieces like this.
- Hung out with Robby and his family
You might be asking “who exactly is this Robby fellow?” which might then prompt descriptions of a boisterous, fluffy-haired boy who talks about neuroscience and has a good/crazy/confusing sense of humor, depending on who you’re asking. Robby and I have been dating for four years now and we’re both rising sophomores at MIT and I think we’re maybe cute.
We used to walk to the Dunkin Donuts after school to hang out before going home. Gradually that turned into us usually both going to his home, where we watched like every episode of The Office and I got to know his family. Robby’s dad went to MIT, and he talks about it sometimes. They still have the McCormick Hall sign that he stole as an undergrad as a decoration in their house.
- Hung out with Bill
Robby and I and a couple of other friends got to know our janitor after school, who was cool and funny and occasionally gave wise life advice. Robby would do a screechy voice and yell “BILL!” and Bill would yell “wahhhsahhhhp” and I would laugh at them for their antics. One day after school he said he needed a haircut, so Robby helped shave his head.
- Made bad puns
Somehow my friends and I got it in our heads that terrible puns should be made as often as possible (of course not to imply that I have at all stopped believing this). We used to amuse/enrage each other by thinking of some garbage wordplay for every situation.
Occasionally we would utilize these “skills” in our classes. In perhaps my proudest moment, I presented a project in chemistry class about the family of elements we were assigned – carbon, silicon, germanium, tin, lead. Gertrude Germanium was the mother in the family who loved instrumental music. There was this compelling back story I wrote about her: she was a stay-at-home mom who was finally following her passion by taking music classes at our local community college, and training to lead an orchestra one day. But as she wasn’t yet a full conductor, she was only a semi-conductor. (ba dum tish. sorry.)
- Played a lot of League and Minecraft
On League of Legends, my favorite role was top lane and my favorite champion was a mad chemist who poisoned enemies and wore bandages for pants. On Minecraft I would stay up till 5 a.m. on school nights building tunnels and a sponge-dungeon and an Omar Hotel on my friend Omar’s server Omarville. My mom is really sweet and would come into my room like “here, I poured you a cup of coffee, you’ve been in your room so long… you must have a lot of work today.” ._. Not exactly.
- Took AP tests without taking the classes
AP self-study was a surprisingly big thing at my school, where we had the option to sign up to take any AP test we wanted. Robby and I saw it as a way to motivate ourselves to learn material for interesting classes (economics, psychology, comparative government..) that weren’t offered in our limited curriculum. I self-studied ten of them in total, and got mostly 5s and some 4s. Robby is I guess more hardcore than I am and self-studied 16 (?) and got 5s on all but two… that nerd.
- Entered like, a ton of random contests & competitions
Here’s a friendly step-by-step guide to being Junior Year Michelle, i.e. a high school kid with some interests that were not even vaguely touched upon by anything in her high school’s class offerings, but who wanted some formal way to practice them.
Sooo step one, you go on to Google dot com and type in “animation for high schoolers.” When nothing relevant comes up, you get sort of discouraged, but you keep going – “animation contests for high schoolers,” “video contests December 2012,” etc, etc. Eventually, you’ll find something along the lines of “NASA Aura Communications Contest” or “High School Video Contest – Explain any neuroscience concept in a viewer-friendly format.” It’s due in two weeks, and you know some people who like biology, so you team up with them and decide to give it a go. You do the animating, your friend does the script-writing and audio, and two weeks later you’ve got a super adorable new animation in which smiling neuroglia tell you what they do for the brain.
Another science visualization contest, starring… stars. Baby ones:
(If you want to make me happy you can watch this video and exaggeratedly comment about how much you liked it because I honestly spent like 10 hours getting the stupid gas cloud to spin properly and we only got 2nd place and I need validation from the Internet for my efforts.)
Uhh. But yeah! I entered 15 or 20 of these over the span of a year and won at least some award or mention (or $$$$) in I think 11 of them. I had a lot of fun making cool videos and pursuing a passion and crushing the brittle skulls of the competition between my hands. (☉‿☉✿)
Also there was one video contest held by the United States Treasury and the grand prize was getting to meet Treasurer Rosa Rios, whose signature you’ll find on any recent US paper money and who seems to be up to some interesting stuff now re: women on currency. We had this 40 minute conversation in which she told me about her job and life. She also told me that her family calls money with her signature on it “Rosie bucks.”
- Connected Four
One day I was sitting in class when my friend sitting next to me drew a little rectangle on a piece of graph paper and made an “o” in a cell at the bottom. She asked if I knew how to play Connect Four, to which I responded with a countermove, which ended with the graph paper being covered in rectangle “game boards” after we’d played like 10 times that period. Soon I started playing the game with whomever was sitting next to me and they started playing the game with whomever was sitting next to them and before long it infected a reasonably sized group of students, which culminated in a Connect Four club meeting after school with every member as the co-president. We wrote up an elaborate set of by-laws and devised a ranking system and I made an advertisement (see below) for new members that we mass-mailed out to the school.
- Quit the National Honor Society
I joined NHS because someone told me colleges liked that kind of thing, and I quit for a similar reason.
If you come from a high school where a lot of students are interested in going to top colleges, you’ll know what I mean when I say that often high school involvement in service activities can be bull..uh…stuff. Not all of it, of course. But maybe you know at least one or two people who are half-heartedly volunteering so they can write their college essay about the glimpse in the poor child’s eyes that changed their entire perspective on life, and how they’re a really, really good person, like seriously. How could MIT reject someone who definitely totally cares about poor people? Does MIT hate poor people?… should we anonymously troll the blogs with this accusation? I think yes.
And okay, you might point out that even apathetic volunteering can have positive effects on communities, which is true, but beside the point. I got volunteer hours for NHS through school club participation and counting my Rutgers internship (I didn’t get paid so.. sort of counts?) and by volunteering at this community-funded thrift shop where I cleaned and organized clothing. I even sometimes exaggerated the number of hours I spent cleaning so I could uphold my membership in an organization for students who were honest, morally upright, examples for their peers… which I thought would help me get into MIT. eugh. I never wanted to be that person, and cleaning never felt so dirty.
But then… cawwwlege. But dreams. But ends, not means. It doesn’t seem like an easy dilemma when you’re standing right in the midst of the mania, where so many of my peers in NHS were standing alongside me. There’s this crazy culture of 8% acceptance rates and SAT prep and CollegeConfidential that compels high-achieving kids to feel like this superficial stuff is necessary, and so I don’t think it’s their fault for having this misconception. But let me repeat that it is a misconception.
I had a friend whom I told I was going to quit NHS. He’s this friendly absent-minded genius type who does physics and is MIT ’17. He was never eligible to join NHS in the first place because I think he had the record for the most lates and/or detentions (from accidentally breaking silly rules) out of anyone in our high school. The first time I saw him he was actually sitting diagonal from me in detention and working on some math thing. I don’t remember exactly what he said when I told him I was quitting NHS, but it was something like “Congratulations, man.” He was so against the institution of kids feigning interest in community service (and recognized that it wasn’t actually necessary for college) that he was at one point trying to talk to as many underclassmen as possible about it to start a mini-revolution in the way people think about admissions. Do something if it’s meaningful to you, essentially, and don’t do it if it’s not.
Here, I dug this up for you guys.
- Helped classmates with homework
I have always been somewhat uneasy with individualist attitudes. For me it’s utilitarian: if someone is struggling with something you can do, you help them out, save them some struggle, and feel happier yourself knowing that.
I often tried to find little ways to steer classmates in the right directions. In junior year a close friend was dealing with hard things that made it more difficult for them to work than for me, so I would say like “I’ll do half of this English homework for you if you do the other half.” I think maybe a lot of people would view that as a bad thing, but I personally didn’t agree.
- Hung out with Madame
Robby loved his French class. In addition to purely enjoying the class, he thought the French teacher (called Madame) was a cool and wonderful person. I never personally took French, but I ended up getting to know her because Robby would always bring me along when he went to her room during lunch and after school to hang out and talk about random stuff.
- Had mixed relationships with my teachers
I think I overall had positive relationships with my teachers. I mean, I was a good student in most classes, didn’t talk too much, and often had fun with their projects. I definitely wasn’t like a “favorite student,” but I was rarely troublemaking either. Rarely, as in, not never.
There were a few teachers who I wasn’t on great terms with. The one that comes to mind is this teacher who I guess I found to be arrogant, and would express old-fashioned opinions that really upset me on principle. I didn’t like him, and I didn’t care whether he liked me either.
I once was sitting in the first row of his class drawing a cute picture of my friend Joanna (MIT ’18, actually) when he started talking about how if you start a company, you have to make sure that all your employees are working and there aren’t any lazy “bad apples” drawing pictures all the time. Tee hee. I would sometimes write dumb stuff on my homework assignments and he would write “not funny.” I was, on one occasion, defiant. People have different opinions about how important respect for authority is; most people believe it’s a good idea to respect the authority of your teachers, even if you don’t much respect the teacher themself. But I don’t know. I’m presenting without comment the fact that I occasionally didn’t.
On the other hand, I had notably positive relationships with some of the teachers that I liked. For example, I remember in sophomore year there were two physics teachers who I thought were the coolest ever. One of them would write and sing silly physics songs in class which made me sooooo happy, so my friend Matt had her record one of them for me over an instrumental track as a gift for my birthday. The song was called “Delta P” to the tune of “Let it be.”
~When I find myself in a collision, Isaac Newton comes to me…. speaking words of wisdom, Delta P, Delta P. ~
The next year, as per a friend’s (probably joking) suggestion, I asked this same teacher if she thought it would be a good idea if I threw a surprise 70th birthday party for the other physics teacher, whom I had the previous year for my engineering class. She said (enthusiastically) yes, so I invited the whole school and organized food and decorations and everyone yelled “surprise” then sang a cute birthday song written by my Biology teacher for the event.
*obligatory party horn noise*
- Was clearly the best dressed at my senior prom
One thing that I tried to never do in high school was to take anything too seriously, and to follow the wisdom of (my crush) Aubrey Plaza to “Make all your decisions based on how hilarious it would be if you did it.” Here are some cute pictures of Robby and me at prom.
- Co-wrote a graduation speech
..about how important it is to collaborate with peers, to mutually believe in outlandish goals, to do instead of think about doing. To be a bit crazy, and a little bit silly; to always go out of your way.
A lot has changed in my life since then, and I think that I’ve learned a lot too. But I hope I never learn to do things that I don’t find meaningful or enjoyable. I think that’s the bottom line.