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MIT staff blogger Bryan G. Nance

What Is Your LΔ? by Bryan G. Nance

What about heart? What about determination? What about resilience?

One of the first things that I learned about MIT is that everyone here loves to use formulas as much as possible, and in every scenario possible. You can imagine how disconcerting this can be for a social scientist like me. (Then again, probably not. Chances are that if you read any of the MIT blogs you probably have an affinity for math.) In an effort to be included I have created a very simple equation: LΔ or Learning Delta. This simply means Learning Delta. Before you write in to challenge me, you need to know that my definition of LΔ is the following: (L) Learning = to acquire knowledge or skills and (Δ) Delta = a change in some quantity. For the purposes of this entry we will apply the concept of LΔ to the freshman application process.

What is an LΔ? It is all of the factors that help to give a clear understanding of what you have learned relative to your beginning knowledge base and your overall effort within the learning process.

One of my good friends is a professor and administrator at MIT. Whenever I speak to him about a student’s academic standing, he never gives me an arbitrary number or letter grade. Instead, he always responds by describing the student’s LΔ. This is such a beautiful concept because it allows me to view the student in a more appropriate context that is not just based on results, but includes effort and hard work. Many times when we ask how a student is performing academically, what we really want to know is how invested the student is, what has the student learned, and is the student really stretching to grow and to learn. LΔ acknowledges that not everyone starts from the exact same spot or the exact same knowledge base. By focusing on LΔ we can really zero in on YOUR individual growth.

The LΔ allows us to focus on the process, not just the outcome. Think about it this way – what if the Boston Marathon only had one start time and one finish time for all of its 20,000 participants? Instead, the starting times are staggered – thus allowing for individual race times that emphases individual Δ measurement. Do you have to be in the very front to win? No. (But you’d better be near the front real quick or have a breakout performance!)

Here’s another example. Let’s look at two students who we’ll call James and Etta. Let’s say that both are taking multivariable calculus at Georgia Military College, in Milledgeville, Georgia. Etta is a straight-A student. She walked into the class with a firm grasp of calculus concepts. At the beginning of the class she took an assessment test to determine her overall aptitude and preparation for the Calc class. Etta earned an A on the exam. Fast forward to the end of the semester and we see that she finished the course strong, earning an A for the semester.

On the other hand there is James. For whatever reason, James did not enter the calculus class with the same level of mastery as Etta. In fact, on the same placement exam he only earned a grade of D+. By the end of the semester, however, he was able to earn a B. So who was the “better student?” If we measured performance strictly by outcome standards, we would say Etta – because she finished with an A. What if, instead, we measured performance based on an LΔ assessment? Under these circumstances, James now comes alive. If we adjust for where they both began and ended, the accomplishments of James cannot be denied.

So – am I saying that we discount the student who has straight A’s in lieu of students with B’s? Absolutely not! Straight A’s are straight A’s, and they usually signify a mastery of the subject material. What about the ‘B’ students like James though? Should we discount his accomplishments simply because of final grade? If we mean what we say about not comparing applicants to each other, should not we measure students individually and according to their LΔ?

Blah, blah, blah. What does this mean in terms of you? What was your LΔ throughout high school? More importantly, what was your LΔ as an applicant to MIT? How did you grow during the high school years and even during the application process? Let’s say you applied EA to MIT and were deferred, what did you do? Did you do a realistic self-assessment? Did you view the decision as a speed bump and immediately look for ways to “show and prove” that you indeed are working from the point of view of a high LΔ? Or did you in fact, blame others or worse, blame yourself? What will you do now to begin or continue your upward LΔ?

MIT – and all schools for that matter – use traditional tools to gauge success. You know them as grades, rigor of courses, and standardized tests. Can we rely solely on these tools? I say no. None of the aforementioned specifically measures intangibles. What about heart? What about determination? What about resilience? Sure, grades and test scores are all good at telling us how you did, but do they really tell us how you will do?

To get a more balanced view we ask you to also submit essays that we hope will highlight who you are as a person. We ask you to SERIOUSLY consider having an interview – that will also help us to better know you as a person. And we also use tenants of LΔ. We don’t just want to know if you will survive at MIT; we want to know if you will thrive at MIT.

So if you have straight A’s in challenging coursework, is that good? Yes, but – as every blogger and admissions official at MIT has written ad nauseam – “You don’t have to be perfect to be admitted to MIT…” The LΔ is how we measure that which is hard to measure – concepts such as work ethic, stick-to-it-ness, how you overcome adversity. When we measure your growth specific to your learning situation, it makes it very easy to look at you as an individual, rather than in comparison to other applicants. Believe me when we say that we are savvy and seasoned admissions professionals. Thus, therefore, and ergo – we know that students who display a high LΔ are the very same students who are great at self-advocating and who are also very likely to be academic adventurers. In other words, we believe that the students willing to take sound academic risks are the very same students most likely to maximize learning and to have a high LΔ.

I’ll close with this. The concept of an LΔ is really important for all college applicants, no matter where you apply. Forget about LΔ and its effectiveness for college applications for a moment. Every attribute that contributes to a high LΔ and success in the classroom will also contribute to success in life. So remember to keep the LΔ concept in mind… we do.

Enough from me, what do you think?

48 responses to “What Is Your LΔ?”

  1. Sabina says:

    Ha, 1st entry for the first time. Nice entry.
    I’ve a question for you. What percentage did the students from Southeast Asia had in majority in their academics ( school exams), when they were admitted?
    It would be very helpful to know about it.

  2. Evan '10 says:

    Honestly? You get major kudos for typing in Δ that many times.

  3. Soufiane says:

    Hi there everyone! I’m a moroccan applicant to MIT, I’d like to evaluate the chances I have to be admitted and I just have a couple a questions for you. First, what is the average toefl score for an international person enrolled. Well, I had 95 on the iBT test but that’s pretty normal it is so bad due to english is only the third language in Morocco, I’m very good I mean compared to most of the others, but, even if I can improve my English there, I fear to weaken my chances with such a doubtful average. Secondly, I want to understand what is meant by “case by case basis” concerning the tests taken in January. Personally, I’ll take the SAT II on 27th of January and I hope that, all in all, my case is not that bad. Anyway, I’m sure I have the appropriate scientific level, good transcripts and enough skills. I hope that this will be enough and that I still have some chances to integrate MIT. Thank you for answering a desperate applicant.

  4. Meagan says:

    Thanks for that entry. I am a high school student in Rhode Island, and I have wanted to attend MIT for years. Anyway, I loved your entry about the LΔ. Once in a while, I think, its nice to appreciate a student’s growth versus their overall success. Did he or she improve? Would he or she be able to attack and conquer another course in the future or another problem in the future following this experience? Instead of the usual: He or she isn’t as smart, look at his or her grades. I go to a school where, if you are smart and your peers know it, grades are like currency. Its not how much you know or what your passionate about, its what you got on the last test or whether or not your GPA is higher than John’s…who apparently is ‘coasting’ on a 4.333333333…. The fact that MIT really takes an interest in your passions as a person and academic aspirations, versus the numbers that you attempt to sell yourself to colleges by, is what really has attracted me to MIT, especially now during my high school years. Keep up the good work and thanks for your insightful post!

  5. I had a whole witty retort planned, but then I discovered that the commenting system here strips <sub> tags. This threw a monkeywrench in the works, so to speak (how do I write the symbol “L-naught” now?); however, as I happen to consider my self a “high LΔ” individual, I pride my self in being able to overcome adversity and adapt in order to succeed, and thus I performed a realistic self-assessment and realized that I needed to reconsider my priorities if I was to achieve my goal of posting a witty response of some sort — thus, I decided that, in this case, visual appearance is of greater importance to me than well-structured, semantically-correct markup, and that the best solution would be to apply the CSS vertical-align: sub property by means of a <span>, which would produce the same visual effect. After all, the note above the comment form explicitly states, “you may use HTML tags for style.” Whew, glad that worked out.

    What? tags are stripped too?

  6. Farhad says:

    I have to agree with Meagan. That attracts me the most about MIT because it makes me feel if when the day comes I’d be admited I won’tjust learn new awesome things and have great academic oportunities, that is really a great thing too, but I’ll also be able to meet amazing people who I’m sure will help me to improve as a student and as a human being.
    Thanks for the entry, it also gives more hope to someone who’s grades aren’t so spectacular, like myself.
    Greetings from Mexico City and keep up the good work smile

  7. Err, that second-to-last line was supposed to read:
    “What? <span> tages are stripped too?”
    When I previewed, the HTML character entities for the < and > symbols got converted to their respective characters in the form, and the resulting <span> tag was ever-so-helpfully stripped…

  8. Anonymous says:

    LΔ is a state function!
    Thanks, I really appreciate this entry.

  9. Anonymous says:

    LΔ is not a state function!
    Thanks, I really appreciate this entry.

  10. Anonymous says:

    (ignore the first)…

  11. Zaira '11 says:

    Everything I know about LΔ I learned at MITES. What matters is the slope, not the intercept.

  12. Bryan H. says:

    Everything I know about LΔ I learned at MITES. What matters is the slope, not the intercept. – Zaira ’11

    I love when people put concepts into math terms. smile

  13. Adam S. says:

    I agree, Bryan H, that’s such a great quote!

    I suppose you take into account LΔΔ, right? It’s a good thing if the applicant’s LΔ increases over time, no? grin

    Anyway, great post! Unfortunately, high school has been rather easy for me, so I can’t really show much of a LΔ from grades, at least. However, I’ve been working on some interesting computer programming things on my own lately, so maybe it’ll show through there.

    Good luck all deferred applicants!
    -Adam S.

  14. Amelia says:

    Does Learning Delta include seeking out alternative methods to pursue more advanced courses?
    For example, I’m a sophomore, and in my junior year I want to take AP Chemistry. Because of budget cuts in our district, my high school doesn’t offer it any more. But, the high school across town does. Would Learning Delta include taking the initiative to find that more advanced course?

    Thanks-I really enjoy your blog.

  15. bhushan says:

    tis one is best entry coz it supports my application
    i have LΔ like one of James

  16. Laura says:

    I think that learning is already a change in what you know (hopefully a positive change), then LΔ is really a change in change, so it’s not really a Δ at all, it’s a derivative of a not-necessarily-constant function!

    This changes absolutely nothing about your post, just thought I’d make that observation. =)

    (OK now I’m done trying to be obnoxious…)

  17. Josh V says:

    Amazing post! I love it. It is just like in school sports where there is an MVP and also an award for Most Improved Player or Most Inspirational. It is nice to be reminded that heart and drive are also considered and that perfection is by no means expected of us applicants.

  18. Josh V says:

    Amazing post! I love it. It is just like in school sports where there is an MVP and also an award for Most Improved Player or Most Inspirational. It is nice to be reminded that heart and drive are also considered and that perfection is by no means expected of us applicants.

    although I do wonder with Bianca ’11: What about students who experience a drop (not a major one) in grades senior year (and by no means is it because of lack of effort, but because senior year is definitely the toughest year)?

  19. Anonymous says:

    I wish I could one day see You RAP !!!! Nanco Mania…

  20. bhushan says:

    what if one have first +ve slope then -ve

  21. bhushan says:

    means first he goes upward by great difference then comes bit downward

  22. bhushan says:

    like u can say from failure to topper

  23. This is a confusing concept!

    So if you had to admit only 1 student, who would you take James or Etta (Assuming the only difference between the 2 applicants are their grades)?

    Please send the reply to my email, if possible.

    Ankit Chandra
    Gaborone, Botswana

  24. Anonymous says:

    I LOVED YOUR ENTRY! Very Nice!

  25. Bianca '11 says:

    Loved the post, just have some questions though: How does LΔ apply to students who may have done well, but have experienced a decrease in grades? How can students in this situation prove they have worked beyond their capacity, but it was unfortunately not enough?

  26. Alyssa says:

    I love the Ldelta concept, and hope it will be used more in the future! In my physics class this year we took a test on the second day of school, and then we retook the exact same test on the second to last day of first semester. Our teacher measured how well we did on how much our score improved, not on our numerical score. And you know what? 17/23 people got an A on our first semester final a few days later! (The equivalent to a 5 on that year’s mechanics AP exam). Our class has never compared to the previous years in general, but this is truly a victory. You guys are such an inspiration, and seeing the same concepts in my own world breathes life into your policies!

  27. bhushan says:

    to Vishaque:
    just copy paste it (i like that job very much)

  28. Sarab says:

    You know, I love that concept! It is exactly what is needed. My Hindi teacher always used to say that I was the best in her class. When someone would say that I only got a B+, while X got an A+, she’d say effectivley the same thing, withouth the L(Delta) though (She hated Math)!
    It’s maybe the best concept I’ve heard in a long time and another reason to Love MIT and the US college system in general!!

  29. bhushan says:

    in pre-boards i failed in Hindi and in boards was topper of class in Hindi ( also in Marathi but not 1st topper)

  30. Iteloo~ says:

    sadly very few colleges use the LΔ system.

  31. Vishaque says:

    Among other entries, I have read; I find yours a real one! In every sense. Genuine.
    May I suggest something more?
    Try to have another parameter P Delta (sorry for not being smart enough to type delta), persistence delta. What do you NOT think/say? How you feel about it?

  32. TonyF says:

    Bryan, your post has provided great insight to the process and gives an additional explanation for those students who were numerically excellent in their academic scores and yet found themselves not accepted or deferred EA. It also gives hope to a student like myself who overcame a disability and who has a GPA which does not reflect the LΔ that has been my academic and personal journey over the past several years. Up until this post, I’ve been worried by my comparatively low GPA (everyone I’ve read in the various posting has impressed me with their OUTSTANDING numbers). Now I have greater hope that the growth + improvement in my grades WILL be taken into account, beyond the raw GPA. Going from disheartening D’s in my freshman year to A’s my junior and years, represents a very hard won disability management curve that has made me very resiliant and developed a strength of character that I’d like to believe would make me a worthy candidate for consideration. MIT is my “dream college”, the one that most suits my goals and as a Match for my personality. The excitement of the creative synergy possible at MIT would seem to me to sometimes make it difficult to sleep! All those Geek (in the very best sense of the word) engineers, scientists and programers together energizing each other is an environment to encourage amazing leaps of invention. Bryan, thank you for providing this encouraging post that helps to illuminate the admission and application review process for those of us who are not perfect in the 2-D view of their “numbers”.

  33. Vishaque says:

    Q: Define, explain or otherwise make me to understand PΔ?
    A: PΔ measures a specific candidate’s specific zeal about a specific subject/program/stream. It describes the zeal in terms of solid achievement she/he has attained and about what degree of insanity she/he has, for above ascribed program. In short, it describes the fundamental stubbornness (?), which cannot be understood but felt. As the (honorable) people infected with this particular trait say:
    Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race
    — Calvin Coolidge
    It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.
    — Albert Einstein

  34. Sadish says:

    This is my first post (I had to say this).

    LΔ (copy-pasted it) is a great concept. It makes everyone feel that they can get in. But My case is so ironic that I think it will be very difficult for the Admissions team to apply LΔ.

    I did terrible, and I mean terrible in high school(But I was the top of my class!). The courses were not strong either. I am, however, TRYING to pick up my knowledge of the natural sciences and mathematics (I took only 2 years of natural sciences). But I got a 770 in physics.(Somebody tell me how my graph’s gradient is!) I was attending two high schools for the first year of my high school (Fine Arts and Management) But I had to give up my Art classes after a year(I was in the top 5% of the class but I had to give it up). On top of that, I was regularly attending my Kendo (It’s a martial art… If you didn’t know). It was really tough to maintain the routein…

    Anyway, If you apply LΔ, i have a better chance of getting accepted into MIT (say 45%). Otherwise, My SAT scores are around the lower 5% of the applicant pool.

    My friend just called…so..I’ve gotta go… for now…

  35. Sadish says:

    Same with PΔ … I guess…

    The best thing I have learnd from kendo is “Never Give Up”

    MIT is my No.1 college. But I have a very slim chance of getting accepted… Not so if the Admissions team can see my PΔ… I’m tired of not doing anything about everything that happens to me.

  36. Vishaque
    i am still confusing PΔ
    actually i am not getting what is that

  37. Alan B. says:

    Almost completely off topic but, do most people right LΔ, as in quantity then Δ? At my school, it is always written as Δ quantity, the other way round. For example I always write ΔV or ΔT, or sometimes dv/dt, no VΔ or TΔ. Is that unusual? I wonder if it is a regional thing.

  38. a mom says:

    What a great post. I am a huge fan of concepts like your learning delta. I am the parent of an applicant. you met him once(scrawny kid in red MIT Nerds Rock shirt) and your conversation gave him great hope. He has great potential and has definately made the best out of a very challenging educational and social circumstance. He has very good grades and scores (not mind boggling like some of these kids) and is an absolutely fearless learner. He has gone so far beyond what most would have ever expected of him. I know that making the cut is difficult but what a great thing it would be if he knew he would be spending the next four years (at least) in a place that he is so sure is right for him. I wish all of you the best of luck as the time for application review nears. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to be someone who’s been there and done that to have such a huge responsibility. Cheers!

  39. Josh V says:

    Alan B

    I didn’t notice that before but you’re right! at my school, we always write ΔV, ΔT, ΔX, etc…but everyone here writes it the opposite way. weird. Are you from the West Coast/PNW? (I’m from Seattle) Maybe it is a regional thing. Who knows…

  40. Alan B. says:

    Ya, I’m from California so maybe it’s a West Coast/East Coast thing.

  41. Vishaque says:

    B&V: None to care, since delta is an operator, so that doesn’t much varies result, which you, me or anybody will gather in the end.

    Hello Mr. Bhushan Lodha, will you please provide me your e-mail address, so I can help you properly.

  42. Lia says:

    Aha. This is refreshing. I’ve been browsing many university pages, and personally, I find MIT’s webpage most appealing. Everything I’ve found here has been written in a quirky, people oriented, non-condenscending manner. It’s like a virtual feel for the academia.

    Ever since I’ve been old enough to learn, my parents and sister have stressed to me the importance of attending an acclaimed university and just making something out of myself on their terms. Being a teenager, I’ve obviously shunned all their ideas outright, but at the back of my mind I’ve always held this idea that if I didn’t get accepted into a great university, I’d be a failure. University was less of a want for me than a responsibility I’d have to uphold.

    I’m rarely one to mince on words, so I guess I’ll make this quick. I’m 15. I shouldn’t have to give up on my childhood to think about my future. But reading these blogs and comments, going through this site, it’s made me optomistic. Even though I’m not entirely academically inclined, I have interest for learning, and improving myself. I feel like in the future I’ll find home at MIT, and become part of this great mass of quirkyness.

    Ps. I’m just admiring from afar. Don’t feel imposed on.

  43. Vishaque says:

    Hey Bhushan, sorry for not sending you a mail. But sure you can find, what you are seeking right

  44. Sadish says:

    Hey!… I’m from Asia and we write Delta before the quantity in my school too….What’s going on???

    But it’s interesting to see all of you be so analytical ablut everything… True MIT applicants…

  45. Kenneth says:

    Wow. I clicked on this entry randomly… and I am, so far as I know, the only Senior from Georgia Military College in Milledgeville, Georgia applying to MIT. … Interesting reference.