As a recent college admit, you’re about to make a lot of big decisions and a lot of big changes. You can follow whatever career path you want, and balance money, passion, and family however you want. Next year you will live away from your parents for potentially the first time in your life, maybe thousands of miles away. You’re about to be responsible for feeding yourself, setting your own curfew (or not), and choosing for yourself how you spend your time and money.
The school you choose in the next few days is one of your first big decisions. Some very intelligent people have disagreed with my decision-making process, but I stand by it: follow your heart, as cheesy as it sounds. When it comes to some of your biggest, most consequential life decisions—your priorities, your career path, or, in this blog post, your home for the next four years—it seems to me that what you choose is a lot less important than that you are confident in your decision and prepared to give yourself to it fully. I think where you end up is less important than that you choose it for yourself and that you choose it for reasons you believe in. You’ll be here for the next four (or three or five) years, wherever here is. That’s not very long. It’s going to be as important, as fun, and as life-changing as you make it.
Two years ago I got into MIT and Caltech. I also spent my senior year of high school at the Penn State Schreyer Honors College as an early enrollment student, and had the option of staying.
I should have visited Caltech, but I didn’t want to pay for or sit through the flight from Pennsylvania. I realized it wouldn’t be any different if I went to school there, and I decided I couldn’t live that far away from my family for four years.
At Penn State I was at least a year younger than everyone in my classes, and thanks to AP credits I could graduate in two and a half years if I wanted to (including what would have been 12th grade). I was already doing research in the field I want to dedicate the rest of my life to. My professors were extremely accessible and usually thrilled that an undergrad wanted to talk with them. Dr. Ocneanu, who is still one of my favorite professors, chatted with me about math and life for hours after lecture several days a week.
I left because if I stayed, the next few years would probably be just like the one before it.
I lived at home. I had lunch with my mom every day, and I could visit my parents (both are professors) whenever I wanted. I hitched a ride with my parents or biked to class in the morning, always surrounded by forest and mountains.
Good grades came easily, but my classes weren’t much harder or more interesting than they were in high school. I was younger than everyone around me. I didn’t relate to the predominant culture of the university, and I made no effort to absorb it. I didn’t make many new friends, and the friends I did have were friends from high school or my mom’s students. I don’t think I changed or grew much in that year, compared to my years at MIT.
MIT shapes you. It pushes you to your limits, redefines your limits, pushes you some more, breaks you down, and rebuilds you as a better person and a better scientist. It gives you opportunities to explore and amazing friends to explore them with.
I knew this before coming to MIT, and it was my answer to the big “Why MIT?” question. But I didn’t really know what it meant.
MIT is MIT entirely because of the people here. For maybe the first time in your life, all of your peers will be as smart as or smarter than you, and just as willing to work hard. In high school, you might have been defined by your nerdiness and intelligence. When suddenly everyone around you is just as nerdy and just as intelligent, you start to discover new layers of your personality and your relationships with other people. You stop defining yourself by your grades and start to strive to be a better, more interesting person in other ways.
Another result of smart peers is that your professors will have very high expectations. An obvious effect is hard, fast-paced classes: not only will you learn the material in your classes, but you will also learn how to manage your time, how to study efficiently, and how to use your resources (including asking for help). Another effect is that the intelligent, accomplished adults you interact with will value your ideas and your dreams for humanity, and that you are likely to be trusted with important, challenging problems if you decide to work in a lab.
Maybe the most important thing you will learn at MIT is how to handle failure in a constructive way. You will learn just how big a role luck plays in success, and you will learn the importance of hard work, persistence, and good friends. You will push what you thought your limits were, reassess your priorities, and learn how to stay happy when things don’t consistently work out. MIT makes you resilient; it teaches you how to accurately assess obstacles, and it gives you the confidence to take risks.
A lot of MIT is fun and games, but MIT is not easy and it is not always fun. However, the people you will meet here and the person you will become—and every step in the transformation—are more than worth it.
I hope you choose MIT, obviously. This place is amazing. If you got in, it’s because you can handle it, and because you’re the kind of person who might love it. Life moves fast here: there are many more opportunities—for fun, for work, or both—than you have time for, even if you don’t sleep. But whether you choose MIT or not, own your decision, because when the path you choose gets difficult, it will be very helpful to rekindle the assurance and sense of purpose that drove you to follow it. Do it because you know you want to do it, not because of money or rankings or because other people say you should.
Please email me or comment if you have questions about MIT, or if a blog post about a particular topic could help you with your decision. Alternatively, check out the annual questions thread on College Confidential.
Congratulations on your acceptance(s). Best of luck choosing. :)