In the course of my day job, I had the pleasure of meeting a former MIT Admissions Officer who’s now an engineer. Nevertheless, I took every spare opportunity to grill him about the admissions process at MIT. Some of his answers were not only eye-opening but controversial. Keep in mind that this is just one person’s experience at one school a few years ago and that other schools may do things differently.
Please note: The person I talked to was not a senior officer but a student officer. This is by no means the most authoritative interview. Questions and answers are summarized from our conversation.
Q: Give me a general overview of how the admissions process works. How does MIT begin to filter out the thousands of applications that come in?
A: Well, they train a batch of 30-40 students under work-study to do a first pass over the applications. Each application will go through two readers and each reader will have two piles in front of them — accept and reject. If the two readers don’t agree, the application will go to a third reader. After this first pass, the applications that make the cut go to the more senior admissions officers. You have to work in the admissions office for at least 3 years before you can make final decisions.
Q: How are these initial readers trained? How do they know which to accept and which to reject?
A: Every reader is given guidelines. They are then tested on “mock” applications to ensure they don’t make any egregious decisions. I would put any application that I was unsure about into the accept pile and let the senior officers make the final call.
Q: So what would determine whether a student would get through the first pass?
A: The typical stuff that you hear is important actually is important — SAT scores, grades, extracurriculars, awards, the essay, teacher recommendations. If you don’t have sufficiently high SAT scores, you’re out. If you don’t have any extracurriculars, you’re out. All the components need to be there.
Q: What is the cutoff for SAT scores?
A: There is no standard cutoff. I would say that 700+ on each of your SAT sections and 700+ on your SAT subject tests are usually enough to get you through the first round. At a place like MIT, however, you really need to get 800’s or close to it for any math/science tests to compete with other students. Those would include SAT math, SAT Math Level 2, Chemistry, Physics, etc.
Q: What components of the application are weighed more heavily than others?
A: SAT scores are weighed more heavily than grades. The essay is more important than teacher recommendations. Perhaps in the second round, things are weighed differently, but for the first pass, SAT scores are usually what filter people out. Then subject test scores. Then extracurriculars.
Q: What about the interview?
A: The interview can make your application a binary decision. If your interviewer likes you, it’s a benefit. But if your interview doesn’t like you, you’re pretty much out. There are so many great qualified applicants that they’re unlikely to take a risk on someone who’s had a bad interview. For that reason, I would advise you not to take the interview. Now will it look bad if you’re offered an interview and you don’t take it? Yes, but you can come up with acceptable reasons for why you can’t do it.
Q: What advice would you give regarding the essay? Are they actually read?
A: Yes, every essay is read by someone. Be creative and try to convey your aspirations and dreams. Tell a story. Don’t write anything that’s too academic or analytical like you would in an English literature class.
Q: How about extracurriculars? Which ones stand out?
A: Extracurriculars in which you demonstrate leadership or receive recognition are viewed quite highly. Awards, 1st-2nd places, being at the top in something – those look really good.
Q: Do AP/IB exams and scores matter?
A: Yes they do matter, but I do not know how much. I generally did not look at AP exam scores on the first pass.
Q: What other advice would give future applicants to MIT?
A: Make sure to visit the school. Get on a tour. Try to talk to professors. Do everything you can to demonstrate interest in MIT. It matters. If you’re an artist or musician, send a piece of your work in. Don’t send in stuff haphazardly. That looks bad. But if you have something meaningful to submit, go for it. They love that stuff.
Q: If you’re an international student, how are you evaluated? Are there quotas?
A: When you are in the international pool, you are compared against other international students. Because of that, it’s more competitive — more students competing for fewer spots. There are quotas and their numbers depend on the population size of your country. There would be more spots for students from China than say, France.
Q: How strongly does MIT value diversity? If you’re from some remote island in Africa, are your chances greatly increased?
A: If you’re from some remote island in Africa and you’ve heard of MIT, congratulations because you’re in. You have to realize that if someone from some crazy unheard-of place has heard of and can pay for an MIT education, then they’re probably the wealthy son of a king. And yes, being the son of a king will get you into MIT.
I plan to do a follow-up interview where I clarify some points and ask even more questions. If you’d like me to ask a specific question, please leave it in the comments.