Playing pingpong reveals a lot about the players at the table. I was involved in an intense game with a group of freshmen when we lost track of whose turn it was to serve. After some arithmetic to clear up the confusion, one freshman declared, “I am a math major,” with a haughty smirk sprawled across his face.
I was quite puzzled as to why this person would use simple addition to brag about his aptitude in mathematics. Too many times on campus I have heard fellow students say, “We are MIT students,” followed by some absurdly arrogant statement about their supernatural intelligence or abilities. I’ve noticed airs of superiority hidden in subtle comments from many freshmen — it seems to be a recurring pattern.
In reality, being admitted as an undergraduate at MIT, or at any other top school for that matter, by itself does not mean much. The admittance surely indicates stellar grades, glowing recommendations, extracurricular activities, and insightful essays. But such features are offered by thousands of other applicants in the pool.
What it really means is that you are extremely lucky to be here. In its rejection letters and on online blogs, the admissions office indicates that it could have filled several equally talented classes with its applicant pool, but did not simply because of the lack of space.
Either the admissions office is lying to rejected applicants, which is unlikely, or admitted students are here in a large part due to a stroke of luck. The fine line between “in” and “out” ends up depending on factors nobody really understands.
The point is not to downplay the merits of our undergraduates, but rather to highlight what genuinely does matter: how MIT students make use of the remarkable facilities at their disposal. It is not the academic material, but the distinct undergraduate programs that set this school apart from its rival institutions.
Maybe what older students recognize is that taking four classes a semester and getting A’s in everything is not much to brag about, but taking the initiative to research with professors or intern in industry certainly is.
There is a wilderness of opportunities to explore beyond the realm of the classroom, but it is this constant obsession with grades and coursework that leaves many students blind to their surroundings and simply content with the fact that “they are here.” A significant proportion of students never venture beyond their comfort zone out of fear of compromising their academic performance.
The freshman mindset should be that leaving with a mere diploma is not the goal, but rather the bare minimum. One can take four classes a semester and cruise through an MIT degree by junior year. But those who embrace risk and adventure are the ones who will ultimately shine outside the bubble of our little school.
It may just be that studying here for a while is in itself a humbling experience. I have met the most outstanding and impressive people at this school, and what is most surprising is that it is these very people who are least aware of their sheer brilliance.
While being a student at MIT may not say much alone, taking advantage of the remarkable opportunities this university has to offer is what ultimately makes a world of difference.