Getting into MIT

PUBLISHED SAT, FEB 15 2020


The first thing to understand about applying to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is that the number of applicants has been on the rise for decades. The year I got accepted, the acceptance rate was around 13%. By the time I graduated, this had decreased to 10%. By 2025, MIT projects that their acceptance rate will be lower than 7%, for both regular and early decision applicants. Why do I bring this up? It is important to understand the sheer number of qualified applications that get sent to MIT every year, and recognise that no matter how good your grades are, getting into MIT is incredibly difficult, and there is no magic formula for success.

Now that the bad news is out of the way, let us move onto the good news. There are definitely things that the admissions committee looks for when reviewing applications, and you can craft your application to match. I will start with the obvious: academics. For better or for worse, you have to have the grades to go to MIT. However, I would also argue that a strong applicant also needs evidence of character and creativity. There are multiple ways to show this on an application, but, in the interests of time, this will walk you through my application. I must reiterate: my life is an example, not a guarantee for success. If you wish to get into MIT, you must do you.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Academics

In thinking about my academic life prior to MIT, there are three elements that stand out: my grades, my unusual high school, and my dearth of advanced placement (AP) classes. The first thing to understand is that I was not a straight A student. I was, and remain, absolutely terrible at all things physical. Do not misunderstand me: exercise is important. However, I was never good at it. Half of my grade in my physical education class was based on my actual performance at sports, which meant that I regularly got a B in that class. The good news: MIT did not care. Would I have preferred to be a straight-A student? Totally. However, I got into MIT with a less than perfect GPA because my regular B was not in an academic class. If you look at my academic classes alone, I had A's throughout highschool, even Freshman year. When thinking about applying to MIT, this is the critical point about grades: have them from the beginning. Miraculously improving grades junior year is better than the grades never improving, but significantly worse than simply having good grades from the beginning.

I was homeschooled throughout middle school and into my Freshman year of highschool. Following that, I attended a boarding school for my Sophomore thru Senior year. I was not homeschooled nor did I attend boarding school with the goal of making my university applications more interesting. Both of these happened because the local schools, both public and private, lacked the academic rigor to get me into a university. Pay attention - I did not say that they lacked the academic rigor to get me into MIT. I believe, to this day, that going to any university would have been incredibly difficult, if not impossible, had I attended a local school. This is the only reason I was homeschooled and later went to a boarding school. If your local schools can provide high-quality education, accept that gift. My point is that if you want to go to MIT, start by going to a good high school. It does not need to be the best high school, but it should be considered as what it is: a stepping stone to university.

I took two AP classes. In the United States, many students take seven or eight of these classes between their Junior and Senior years, but I only took two. I also took both my senior year. Partially, this was because I could not take any AP classes my Junior year; changing schools Sophomore year had put me just enough behind that the APs could not fit into my schedule any earlier. The other reason is that all of the science AP classes at my school were held at the same time. Whether you wanted to take AP Biology, Physics or Chemistry, you had to take it during your second period of the day. This meant that you could only take one AP science class a year. While I could have signed up to take the exam without taking the class, this is not something I would recommend. My second AP was BC Calculus, which overlapped with the AP language classes. Obviously, if you can take more than two AP classes, you should. However, the lesson to be learned is this: do not despair if you cannot. Focus on science and math over languages and psychology, and take solace in the fact that you do not need every advanced class under the sun to get into MIT, especially if you have extenuating factors that make it clear you were not avoiding them.

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Character

For better or worse, MIT, like Harvard, has a higher suicide rate than the national average in the United States. The administration is well aware of this, which is why MIT ensures there is a three-day weekend every month. It allows students to catch up, or take a break: whatever they need. However, this also affects the admission process. The committee wants people who have proven they have the mental fortitude to withstand the stresses inherent to an MIT education, or, in other words, tenacity.

Beyond sheer perseverance, many MIT students are also active in their communities. This could be as simple as volunteering at the local food pantry or as complicated as starting their own charity, but MIT students in general have a strong commitment to helping others. The reason the admission's committee cares is because teamwork is what makes success at MIT possible. Academic success is nigh impossible without the support of teachers and classmates, so MIT looks for students who regularly, and of their own volition, seek to help others.

In my application, I volunteered with a hippotherapy program. Hippotherapy is “the use of horseback riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment, especially as a means of improving coordination, balance, and strength.” It is usually used to help children with cerebral palsy work out the muscles they'll need to learn how to walk. As someone who learned to ride in middle school, it was my job to help keep the children on the horse. This was an ideal activity for my application, because it was applying a skill I had spent years developing to help others. Namely, I was persevering in an activity I had been doing for years while also supporting my community.

Creativity

MIT's motto is mens et manus, which is Latin for "mind and hand". As such, it makes sense that many of the students at MIT are more than just academically skilled; they also have physical talents, which tend toward creative endeavors. For instance, one of my classmates set up his own blacksmithing forge while in high school, building his own pieces of furniture. Several of my colleagues fashioned their own computers long before they ever applied to MIT. Others played instruments, painted, or composed music. An endless list, with no one right answer, except that everyone of my classmates has a talent that demonstrates they have skilled hands, not just a talented mind.

In my own application this was demonstrated in two different ways. The first was my long-standing enjoyment and devotion to learning new crafts. I first picked up needlepoint when I was 3 years old, and this has since expanded into beading, metalworking, crocheting, soap making, quilting, knitting, candle making, chocolatiering, and a host of other crafting activities. I pride myself on being able to make a variety of things with my own hands.

My second example of "mind and hand" was in one of the classes I took throughout highschool: pottery. To be a potter requires excellent hand-eye coordination, but also an ability to think through the design process and understand how the piece will be transformed at each stage, from throwing to trimming, firing, and glazing. Developing the skills required takes patience, practice, and time outside of the classroom. This made it an excellent choice for my application.

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Preparing an MIT Application

If your heart is set on going to MIT, here is some advice for you: start early. Find a hobby that involves being skilled with your hands, and, if possible, start before your Freshman year so that by the time you graduate highschool you'll have achieved something notable with it. Do the same thing with volunteering. Either join a local volunteer organization you really like, or start one. Whichever you decide, stick with it throughout highschool.

Your Junior year, you will need to start thinking about getting two letters of recommendation for your MIT application. One will need to be from a science or math teacher, and the other from a humanities or language teacher. If possible, ask at the end of the year, giving your teacher all summer to write it. It also allows you to remind them at the beginning of your senior year, if they have not yet found the time to write you a recommendation. Do yourself a favor, and ask at least two teachers in each category, so you do not have to worry about not having the letters when your application is due.

MIT is also unusual in that you can choose to interview, or not, as part of your application. If you are an international graduate, it is not expected, as there is no guarantee of an MIT alumna nearby. However, if you are an applicant from the United States, it is highly encouraged. Having an MIT graduate interview you and agree that you are a good cultural fit for the school can significantly boost your chances of getting in over other applicants.

Many people stress about what to write about for their essay, no matter where they are applying to. In my experience, there are two things that are mandatory: choose something you are passionate about, and write well. Many, many, students worry about finding the perfect topic or writing an essay that is super artsy and unique. There is no such thing as a topic that will guarantee admission, and essays can be so obtuse that it will get you nowhere except befuddlement. Write about something that you care about and that demonstrates who you are. Get people you trust to read your essay, and if there is no one in your family who writes well in English, it is worth the money to hire someone to help you out.

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When it comes to academics, work hard. Do your homework. Study for tests. When you get to your Sophomore and Junior year, keep in mind that MIT requires either the SAT or the ACT, along with two SAT subject tests, one of which must be Math I or II, and the other either Physics, Chemistry, or Biology. While MIT does superscore tests, which means that it looks at your highest score in any section over all the times you take the test, the admission statistics are incredibly high. For over 97% of their admissions last year, students scored over 750 in the Math section and 90% scored over 700 in the English section. For the ACT, 87% of admits scored over 34 for their composite score. In other words, if you have your heart set on MIT, you should strongly consider taking a prep class to ensure that you get a standardized test score which helps your application. You should also consider taking both the ACT and the SAT, as you may naturally be better at one over the other. The SAT subject tests have similar results, with most students scoring above 720 on them.

I have had many students tell me that their biggest problem with the SAT is that they regularly run out of time. For the multiple choice Math sections of the regular SAT, students get around 85 seconds per question. Assuming it takes 25 seconds to read the question, that only leaves a minute to answer each question. Thus, the best advice I can offer for people who find themselves running out of time is to skip questions which they estimate will take them longer than a minute to answer. If they finish the section with more than 5 minutes remaining, they can then go back and answer the questions they skipped. No less than 3 minutes from the end of the section, I recommend double checking answers, and guessing at the answer for questions which remain. After all, the SAT does not penalize students for incorrect answers, so there is no reason to leave anything blank.

Many students struggle with the vocabulary present in the SAT Reading Comprehension test. There is no way to guarantee that you will know all the vocabulary on the test, however, you can improve it. The most important thing is to read. For example, MIT has the curriculum of many of its classes available for free online. Choose a literature class that looks interesting and read the books for that class. Highlight words you do not know, and find an English speaker to explain the words and concepts you struggled with. This will help you on multiple fronts. First, it will help teach you words you do not know. Second, a good teacher will train you to pick up definitions from the context of the reading, which will enable you to make better guesses, should you need to, on the day of the test. Third, the more you read in English, the faster and more practiced you will be, thus giving you more time to think about the questions.

Last, keep in mind that MIT has their own application, and does not accept the Common App which is how most schools accept applications in the United States. Be sure to set aside time to look through their application and strategize how best to describe your activities and awards, as they have different character limits than the common application. If you are not good at English, consider hiring an editor or a tutor to improve your writing.

Summary

If you decide to apply to MIT, keep in mind that nothing is guaranteed. Were I to apply to MIT again, I may or may not get in again: there is a large element of luck involved. However, as an applicant, you can definitely improve your chances of getting in by working on crafting an application which highlights your unique skills and strengths. If possible, focus on activities which demonstrate skill with your hands, as well as persistence and an ability to handle stress. Also look for activities that are natural and unique to you, as they will help make your application stand out.

When it comes to academics, perfection is not necessary. However, good grades and test scores are a must; without them, it is unlikely that MIT will seriously look at your application. While not necessary, taking a SAT or an ACT prep course should be considered, as MIT has very high standards for both tests. Whether you decide to apply to MIT or not, high standardized test scores are good for applying to any university in the United States.

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