Pi Day: Thoughts on MIT admissions

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Flickr photo by Francisco Diez

Last Sunday was Pi Day, (3/14), and at 1:59 pm, MIT released its admission decisions for the class matriculating in 2010. ECs got to see the results Tuesday morning, and once again, some really bright, personable young men and women weren't offered admission. Many of those bright young people wasted their time in applying.

As some of you may know, I'm an alumnus of MIT, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1986. (I don't say much about it -- I figure when you've been out of college for more than a decade, what you've done since graduation matters far more than where you went to school.)

My only ongoing involvement with the school is my work as a member of the MIT Educational Council, a group of hundreds of alumni worldwide who assist with the undergraduate admissions process. We serve as a local presence for the admissions office, and our main role is to interview applicants for admission. I've been an EC (as Educational Members are known) since 1987.

There are five ECs in northeastern Oklahoma. Gary Bracken '59, chairman of Ernest Wiemann Ironworks, is the current regional coordinator, responsible for managing the load of applicants among the alumni, making the arrangements when touring MIT admissions officials visit Tulsa (usually every other fall), and holding meet-and-greets for admitted students in the spring. (Gary was preceded in that role by John McGinley '52 and, before John, petroleum geologist Bob Rorschach '43, who interviewed me when I applied to MIT.)

The opinions presented here are my own, the description of admission processes and policies are my impressions and understandings, and they do not necessarily -- almost certainly do not -- represent the official views and policies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My use of the masculine form of the third person singular pronoun is in accordance with traditional English usage and is not meant to suggest that women are unwelcome at MIT. In fact, the sex ratio is nearly 50-50, a far cry from the 3:1 male-to-female ratio in my freshman class. Click this link for the official MIT admissions website.

Currently, I interview applicants from Bixby, Jenks, Cascia Hall, Holland Hall, Memorial, Hale, and Edison, but occasionally I'll pick up an interview from a different school if another alumnus is overloaded. This year I interviewed six applicants, including one from Azerbaijan. (That interview was conducted via Skype, which enables students in remote locations where there are no ECs a chance to meet with an alumnus.)

Although MIT encourages students to have an interview, it's optional, and the interview report is just one piece of data that the admissions office reviews. High school grades, curriculum (did the student take the most challenging classes available?), class rank, teacher recommendations, standardized test scores, and the student's application, which includes the student's own writing and resume of extracurricular involvement, are all more weighty than the EC interview. The benefit of the interview is that someone who knows MIT gets to know the student. The interview report provides subjective impressions that the admissions office can use to confirm or correct the impressions created by the student's application materials. Occasionally an interview will uncover a personal factor that puts the student's academic data in a different light -- e.g., a medical or family challenge that dragged down his grades for a couple of semesters.

My goal in an interview is to get the applicant to talk about himself, which is not always the easiest when you're dealing with the sort of student who wants to go to MIT. The topics of conversation include favorite classes, after-school jobs, summer activities, how he got interested in MIT, what are his career dreams. We usually meet at a coffeehouse, and I try to remember to dell the student not to dress up. The aim is a relaxed environment. At least part of our time is devoted to the student asking me questions about the school.

I consider the interview a success if I come away with a strong sense of what matters most to a student, what lights him up. Students applying to competitive colleges usually submit long lists of extracurricular activities; the interview is a way to find out which ones really matter.

The interview report to MIT, filed online, is a narrative of the conversation and the EC's impressions of the student. ECs also give each student interviewed three specific ratings plus an overall rating:

  • Passion: the applicant's initiative, curiosity about the world, motivation, ability to be self-directed, willingness to take risks, depth of commitment, and ability to make the most of a situation [MIT used to call this quality "engagement and joy."]
  • Personal Qualities: what the applicant might add to the community, based on his or her leadership, ability to work in teams, confidence, strength of character, sense of humor, sociability, and verbal fluency
  • Potential to be a good match: whether the applicant is excited about what we do at MIT, will enjoy our culture, is a hands-on problem-solver, aligned with our mission of applying science and technology for the betterment of humankind

Each rating is on a scale from 1 to 5:

5 - Outstanding;One of the best ever
4 - Exceptional;highly recommended;top 10%
3 - Typical;a great kid;a good admit if the rest of the application is strong
2 - Below Average
1 - Not recommended for MIT

Note the phrase, "a good admit if the rest of the application is strong." It's not the EC's job to evaluate the candidate's academic qualifications. We don't see the candidate's application, grades, or test scores, and we're not supposed to ask about them.

The EC's focus is on subjective personal qualities, but the objective academic qualifications matter as much or more. MIT uses a "Numeric Index" (a formula that uses standardized test scores, GPA, and class rank) and a "Nonnumeric Rating", which evaluates academic initiative, interpersonal skills, and extracurricular accomplishments. 5s on both ratings pretty much guarantees you an offer of admission. The lower either rating is, the less likely you'll get the fat envelope.

A class valedictorian with 800s on all the tests but without much of a personality probably won't make the cut. On the other hand, a student leader with 500s and a B average won't either. School officials have said that the Numeric Index is the strongest predictor of success at MIT.

(Unlike many colleges, MIT filters students out in the admissions process, rather than seeing them wash out after freshman year. Once you're in, MIT will do everything it can to help you succeed. Its freshman retention rate is 98%, and its graduation rate is 94%. By comparison, OU has an 83% freshman retention rate and a 60% graduation rate.)

Because I only see the nonnumeric side of that equation, every year there are applicants who really impress me -- bright, motivated, funny, strong leadership qualities -- who aren't admitted. This year was no different.

Early in my years as an EC I would call the admissions office and ask why a student who seemed quite outstanding to me didn't make the cut. The answer was always that the numeric indicators were weak, weaker than I would have guessed based on the personal qualities.

These students, who expressed a strong desire to study at MIT and had great hopes of doing so, probably wasted their time on the MIT admissions process, to some extent (in my opinion) with MIT's encouragement. Admissions officials have said that MIT admits students, not test scores, and that there are no cutoffs or minimum required scores. They emphasize the weight given to personal qualities as well as grades and scores. All this is true, but I suspect it gives false hope to many applicants who don't have a realistic chance of admission.

Here are the stats for MIT's entering freshman class of 2008. Only 1% of entering students had SAT Math scores below 600 (only 15% were below 700), 10% had SAT Critical Reading scores below 600, and 8% had Writing scores below 600. 97% were in the top 10% of their class.

(Interesting to see the disparity in applications from men and women -- men were 70.6% of the applicant pool, but only 52.1% of those admitted, and 53.5% of the entering class. 19.4% of female applicants were admitted, but only 8.7% of men made the cut. Disparate impact, anyone?)

The way I read this -- again, my opinion, not MIT's -- is that if you didn't break 600 on the two verbal SAT sections, if you didn't break 700 on the Math SAT, or if you're not in the top 10% of your class, your odds of admission are extremely slim. You had better have spectacular personal qualities, and that had better come across in your teacher recommendations, application, and alumni interview. You should strongly consider (in my opinion) whether the MIT application process is worth your time. Perhaps more importantly, it's likely (in my opinion) that your years at MIT will be academically overwhelming to the point of despair, and you'd have a more productive and enjoyable experience at another college.

(I suspect -- again, my opinion, not MIT's -- that many of those in the small percentage with low scores or low class rank who matriculate at MIT are from underrepresented minority groups or underrepresented parts of the country, and that these students are judged to have potential that, due to disadvantageous economic or academic circumstances, didn't find expression in grades or test scores. MIT's Office of Minority Education holds a seven-week summer program for entering freshmen called Project Interphase to give admitted students from weaker academic backgrounds a better shot at succeeding in a challenging environment.)

I know and have worked with some very talented engineers who graduated from Oklahoma State, the University of Arkansas, Rose-Hulman, the University of Kansas, Rice, and the University of Tulsa, among others. Most, I suspect, could have succeeded at MIT, but they received a solid engineering education closer to home and for a lot less money. If your goal is to work in engineering (as opposed to research or academia) you'll have better career networking opportunities if you go to college in the region where you intend to work. I found that having an MIT degree wasn't much of a help finding a job in northeastern Oklahoma or northwest Arkansas in 1986.

The point of college isn't to have the most impressive diploma possible. The point is to get an education to help launch you into the career and life you want, to help you glorify God in your use of the gifts and talents He's given you.

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Johnt said:

Could you share the thinking behind the "top 10% of your class" metric?not all schools are the same. (compare public high school in palo alto with public high school in NYC for example" any idea how this is taken into account.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 17, 2010 7:43 AM.

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