When you’re living on three hours of sleep, your self-esteem is lower than your GPA, and you’re just starting to slog through the p-set for the class that you haven’t been to in a month, it’s easy to feel like you don’t belong.
“What am I doing here?” and “How did I get in?” are questions that nearly everyone has asked themselves at some point during their time here.
Dean of Admissions Stu Schmill ’86 remembers the doubt he felt as a student. “When I applied and got in, my first thought was, ‘Is this a mistake?’”
“Maybe if I don’t say anything, no one will notice,” he laughed.
Schmill, who majored in mechanical engineering and became the Dean of Admissions in 2008, says that the unique pressures and challenges MIT students face can make anyone doubt their place here. Not only do students have to deal with the transition of no longer being the smartest person in the room, as they may have been in high school, MIT is famous for the grueling rigor of its coursework.
“MIT has an extremely high concentration of academic talent. But it’s not just the fact that your classmates are extremely talented — the classwork is demanding too,” said Schmill. “If you’re already in an environment where you’re personally or academically struggling, even if you do group work, you still feel like the challenge is your own. The combination of these things can amplify the feeling of not belonging.”
Humility plays a large role too; it can make any student wonder, “How did this happen? Do I really deserve it — am I that smart?”
But Schmill assures students that their admission into their Institute was not a fluke. “Every student we admit to the extent we can tell has the capacity and ability to do well here. Students doubt this, but if they can work through that doubt, with help of course, they can succeed.”
“We try to assure students that we are all-knowing too,” he joked.
According to Schmill, the admissions department looks for students who, in addition to being academically talented and interested in science and technology, will thrive in MIT’s challenging environment. “We look for the quality of resilience. We want to know that if applicants take on challenges, that they aren’t stopped by failure.”
Schmill added that balance is important as well. “We’re actually very interested in the question of what applicants do for fun — it’s not a trick question! We like to see some sense of balance, which can often be hard to find at MIT,” he said. “In fact if you think about MIT students, the number of people who participate in extracurricular activities like varsity sports or performing arts groups, we really do have students who understand it’s not all about academic life.”
Schmill says that one of MIT’s greatest strengths is the way the Institute challenges students to do things they otherwise may have thought were impossible. “To me, the definition of success at MIT is if you are able to come out of here willing to take on challenges and hard problems. The world needs people to do these kinds of things, things that not just anyone can do.”
In this way, MIT is a great “proving ground.”
“There exist times and places in life where you can avoid challenges, but MIT isn’t one of them. The only way to face challenges is to meet them head on; the trick is to not get stopped by them.”