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A student’s own initiative takes top priority in selection process

By May K. Tse

Have you ever wondered how you got accepted to MIT? Or have you ever heard a friend say that they must have gotten in by mistake? Everyone’s had to go through the admissions process from the student’s side, but few know the details of the process from the perspective of the admissions office.

Dean of MIT Admissions Marilee Jones says, “I have been admitting students here for a long time and I assure you that the applicant pool is so strong, we could take anyone in the top third of the pool and have the same quality class overall. Mistakes? Nah. I honestly wish we had room in each class to take a few more risk cases, but the power of the applicant pool just precludes this.”

Elizabeth S. Johnson, associate director of admissions, agreed. “I’ve been working here since 1985 and I don’t recall that anyone was ever incorrectly admitted. We are very careful about checking to make sure that the letter doesn’t go to the wrong person. People are not admitted by mistake,” she said.

Two ratings used in admit process

The admissions process is quite involved. “Each applicant is evaluated two basic ways: objectively and subjectively. The objective evaluation is actually a way of looking at the applicant’s academic preparation (grades, rank in class, SAT scores) and ranking it relative to that of all other applicants in the pool. We use an algorithm. This sorts the students academically within the applicant pool,” Jones said.

The numerical analysis is only half of the process. “The second way we sort each applicant is by the subjective evaluation of the student’s application material. Each case is read by at least two different people (admissions staff plus volunteer readers from the faculty and administration) and rated on three specific dimensions of the student’s life: initiatives in co-curricular activities; initiatives in interpersonal skills; initiatives in extra-curricular activities,” Jones said.

The applicants may vary greatly, but Jones explained what the admissions office basically looks for. “The key word, as you can see, is initiative because this is the most important characteristic we select for. We try to admit people who take initiative in their lives, who take responsibility for their education. Many students study hard, get good grades and good scores. But many of those do it because it is a family expectation or community pressure or a myriad of other reasons.”

Jones said that an applicant’s propensity toward risks also plays a role. “We want to select people who are not only planning to succeed, but who are not afraid to fail. When a person takes initiative in life, they learn resilience as a result because taking initiative ensures risk and risk leads to failure as often as it leads to success. The most creative and successful people (MIT is loaded with them) know that failure is part of life and if you don’t give up and manage to stay focused, goals ultimately get realized,” she said.

“We do have a tendency to admit students who pursue their activities at a very high level of distinction -- regional, state, national, international level,” she said. “But the nature of the activities can be anything. It’s the passion that counts.”

MIT is a need-blind university, so a student’s financial situation is not taken into consideration when the acceptance decisions are made. “The Admissions Office and the Financial Services Office are separate at MIT and play very different roles. This is not the norm in college admissions nationwide, even at top tier schools,” Jones said. “Not knowing financial information frees up the Admissions Committee to admit the best -- regardless of need.”

Some receive special attention

In looking at the applicant pool, the admissions office takes everything into consideration. For example, there are applicants from high schools of different calibers. “When we begin to make decisions, we know that in some schools, B’s are perfectly acceptable, that there might be 140 valedictorians in a particular graduating class, that it is the norm in some schools for even top students to first enroll in two year colleges,” Jones said. How the admissions office deals with this is that, “We evaluate how well the individual student is doing in their own school system.”

Another special case the admissions office looks at involves the direct descendants of alumni. Jones said, “There is a bit of professional courtesy involved in the cases of the [children or grandchildren] of MIT alumni. If the Admissions Committee turns one of these students down because the student is not one of the top candidates, I will personally review the case to ensure that the decision is a sound one. Rarely, though, do I actually change the decision made by the Committee. It’s just one more look.”

MIT also has an active commitment to affirmative action. “We do have affirmative action at MIT which means that we will admit every qualified African American, Mexican American, Puerto Rican and Native American student in our pool,” Jones said. She also noted, though, that, “The mean SAT scores of our minority undergraduate students are higher than the mean SAT’s for all of the students enrolled in the Ivy League. In short, these students are the best in the U.S.”

The admissions office also looks at international student applicants very carefully. “By far the hardest selection process is for international students because we have such limited space for them and we literally see the best in the world applying. We take about 1 in 16 internationals versus 1 in 5 U.S. applicants.,” Jones said.

There are also special admissions procedures for transfer and graduate applicants. “Transfer admissions is not as rigid as freshman admissions because the number of applications is not as high, and also because transfer students have more of a mixed bag of experiences. Still, though, we admit about 1 in 10,” Jones said.

“For those who we don’t admit, we keep their files for about a year. For those we do admit, we keep them longer, around 5 years, while they’re here. The files are eventually gotten rid of by some process like shredding to destroy it... But we have historical records on cartridges to know who applied, with things like scores, grades, high schools, anything that can be entered, but not activities lists or letters,” Johnson said.