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Who Gets In?

A community effort ensures that the very best students come to MIT each year.
November 1, 2003

It’s 1:45 on a Tuesday afternoon in late July, and Sarah Wang* and her parents have settled into the theater-style seats in 6-120, waiting for the 2:00 admissions office information session to begin. Sarah fills out an information card that will become the basis of her electronic file in the admissions database, while her mother slowly goes through the materials they picked up at the door. Sarah’s father studies the campus map, preparing for the walking tour that will follow.

At 1:50 Bette Johnson, associate director of admissions, arrives. As she introduces herself, she circulates stacks of pale orange paper around the room. The stacks contain sheets titled “Your First MIT Quiz.” She then gives the group about five minutes to answer a set of multiple-choice questions, which include, What is MIT’s graduation rate? What percentage of undergraduate students are women? What is a competitive SAT I math score for MIT? How many students receive financial assistance?

At precisely 2:00, with 51 people present, she begins. “This is not a school for the faint of heart,” she says. “If we admit you, we know you can do the work.” Johnson then gives the visitors an overview of the Institute, using the quiz questions as a starting point: approximately 92 percent of undergraduates graduate; about 42 percent of the students are women; a 700 SAT I math score is competitive; somewhere between 55 and 65 percent of the students receive financial aid (it costs about $41,000 a year to attend MIT).

It’s important information, but when Johnson describes how MIT rates applicants, Sarah pays even closer attention. Johnson tells the group that MIT uses a ranking system that assigns students scores for academic style, personal style, and personal accomplishments. Academic style is more than just grade point average, test scores, rank in class, and other numbers, she says. MIT also looks for academic initiative. Personal style has to do with making good judgments, having a sense of humor, and motivating others to effect change. And personal accomplishments include those that demonstrate a student’s leadership skills: participating in extracurricular activities, receiving recognition at the regional, national, or international level, holding down a job, or perhaps even establishing a new group to address a problem in the community. Sarah wonders, as she looks around the room, how she will stack up against other applicants.

Every year more than 10,000 high-school seniors like Sarah apply to MIT. Almost all of them are academically qualified to meet the challenges of the Institute, but only about 1,700 of them are offered admission. Plucking the very best students from the mass of applicants is a daunting task that has become a community effort. Each year a team of 30 to 50 admissions professionals, faculty members, current students, and administrators who know the qualities required in an MIT student select the incoming class. True to the democratic character of the Institute, the opinion and perspective of every member of that team are as valued as the next one’s. And without fail, year after year the decades-old process brings to campus the very best mix of students who will fuel the innovative, creative engine that is MIT.

From Beginning to End

The first two parts of Sarah Wang’s application-one with biographical information, the other with test results, activity listings, essays, and self-reported coursework-arrive in the basement of Building 3 at the end of October, when mail is still being delivered in small plastic bins. (As the January 1 deadline approaches, the mail will begin to arrive in huge canvas sacks.) At least seven, possibly eight, more items will eventually turn up to complete her application: two teacher evaluations, a midyear grade report, a secondary-school report, her financial-aid application, athletics and arts information cards, and an interview report-if she can meet with an educational counselor, one of 2,100 alumni volunteers who talk with prospective students (see “Counting on Alumni,” previous page). Between early November and the middle of February, about half of the applications received go through a five-step selection process: triage, two individual readings, numerical ranking, selection, and fine-tuning. The other half will be dropped after the triage stage.

The growing number of applications-up 60 percent over the last 10 years-combined with a stable professional staff prompted Jones to add the triage stage four years ago. Starting in November, five of the most senior members of the staff read every application quickly, looking for the qualities that separate potential MIT students from the rest of the pack, and eliminate about half of the pool. The remaining 5,000 to 6,000 applications move on to the readers. Sarah’s is among them.

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