Why you should or should not go to MIT…..
This is a little note for the graduating seniors who have been
admitted to MIT and their parents, to help them make some good
decisions about whether or not to go to MIT.
First let me talk about why I wrote this, and the wrong way people use
to choose a school. What people tend to do is to order the schools
from best to worst. See what schools they can get in, and then choose
the “best” school from the list. The problem with this method is that
schools have personalities just like people, and sometimes they match,
and sometimes they don’t, and the consequences of a bad match when it
comes to schools can be horrific. The reason for people do this is
that parents and students really don’t have that much good information
about what the culture of each school is like, and it’s partly to give
a detailed description of MIT culture that I wrote this.
It is also out of a sense of social responsibility. Because of the
pressure cooker nature of the Institute, when something bad happens,
it’s really bad. So before you go, I want you to know what you are
getting in to, so that all of the surprises are good ones.
The analogy I like to use to going to MIT is like joining the Marine
Corps. It’s an elite institution that makes you work hard and
eventually becomes part of your core identity. If you join the Marine
Corps, that’s great, but if you look at either the Marine Corps or
MIT, and decide that isn’t for you, there’s nothing wrong with that.
REASONS TO GO TO MIT
* MIT is wonderful for the intellectual masochist that wants to be the
dumbest person in the room sometimes.
If you’ve gotten admitted to MIT, you’ve gotten good grades, won the
awards, done the usual high school achievement things. At MIT, you
are going to end up often being below average, and some times you are
going to be the dumbest person in the room.
That might sound awful, but it isn’t. MIT makes you realize how
stupid you are, and that’s not a bad thing because it makes you
realize how stupid *everyone* is sometimes. You end up feeling
stupid, but so are your teachers, your classmates, and even that Nobel
prize winner that you’ve looked up to.
And feeling stupid isn’t a bad thing, because if you are the smartest
person in the room, then there are no more mountains to climb, no more
interesting things to challenge yourself with. The thing that makes
MIT a wonderful place for the intellectual masochist is that you learn
that no matter what you’ve learned, no matter how many letters there
are behind your name, there’s always something new to learn, some
challenge that remains untapped. You may know more about a topic than
anyone else in the world, but that’s not good enough, because there is
always more to learn and do.
* MIT teaches science and engineering in a very supportive environment.
The thing about MIT is that everyone is stupid, and every one realizes
there own stupidity, and wants to be a little smarter than the day
they were before. This means that MIT is a very supportive
environment for learning science and engineering. People are helping
you. The material is difficult. The pressure is intense. But
everyone there wants to see that you make it.
This is very different from some large public schools which have weed
out classes. The other thing about MIT is that the coursework is all
relevant. Every test and problem set at MIT is hand graded, and
unlike other schools with “gotcha” questions, the tests are designed
not only as evaluation, but also as a learning experience.
* MIT lets you see research and ideas happening up close
The primary focus of MIT is research, and this is good because it lets
you see the messy, disorganized process of coming up with new ideas
and innovations. You learn the culture of research and development,
how to ask questions and work with other people to find answers. It’s
a wonderful environment for seeing how a group of people try to figure
out ways of doing things better, faster, cheaper.
* MIT lets you see interesting people up close
You get to see a lot of interesting people up close. Every person I
know that goes to MIT has some odd, strange quirks about them, and you
learn that it is fine to have odd, strange quirks. The other thing
that you learn is that great scientists, engineers, mathematicians,
politicians are people too. This is important because there is a
tendency in society to portray people as superhuman, but when you look
at them close up, you find that they are extraordinary people, but
extraordinary people with human flaws and frailities.
This is important because as long as one thinks of great people as
superhuman, it becomes hard to challenge them or to try to be one of
them. However, once you realize that Nobel prize winners are human
too, and you get to see them when they are not giving a speech and
when the cameras are away and the microphones are turned off, you can
see what really makes them tick.
* MIT has a diverse set of people
Unlike other schools, MIT doesn’t make much of an effort to mold you.
Everyone at MIT has a commitment to learn and make themselves better,
but beyond that, there isn’t a single MIT personality, and with the
diversity of the campus, you can find some social group that you fit
* MIT is multidisciplinary
Creating a new idea and making to work takes all sorts of different
talents and skills. Unlike other schools in which there is a strong
separation between science, engineering, business, and the humanities,
MIT sees all of this as one organic whole, because you need an
understanding of all of these fields in order to create ideas and get
* MIT will prepare you for the day when the game stops working
If you are a high school senior thinking about what college to go to,
you’ve been playing the same game since kindergarten. Get good
grades, do well on the tests, go to the next level. The good news is
that this will work for a few more years, and that as an undergraduate
at MIT, this game won’t change much.
The thing that you have to realize is that some day the game will end.
There will come a day when you ace the tests, but there is no next
level to go to, or you stumble a bit, and get knocked down, or you end
up wondering what the next set of tests or the next set of levels are.
At that point, you will have to do something risky and original, you
will have to question the system, fight the old systems, and create
MIT is wonderful place to learn the skills that you will need to
figure out what to do with the game ends.
REASONS TO NOT GO TO MIT
* You will probably end up being as successful where ever you go
This is a very important point. There have been studies on this.
People who go to “top-tier” colleges tend to be more successful than
people who don’t, but if you look closely at the data, it’s because
top-tier colleges are more selective about who they admit. One you
adjust for that, except for people in very low socio-economic levels,
it turns out that people’s success in life is not very dependent on
where they go to college.
So it turns out that based on the data, that if you’ve been admitted
to MIT, you’ll probably do well where ever you go.
* When something goes bad, it can go really, really bad
The great thing about MIT is that things happen very quickly. It’s
like drinking from a firehose. However, the bad thing about this is
that when things to go bad, they can go very bad, very quickly, and
the results can be catastrophic. Things move quickly and the pressure
is so intense, that if something goes wrong, for example a family or
medical emergency, it can turn into something quite bad.
Something that happens is that someone suffers a setback of some sort.
Grades start slipping and then withdraw from their social networks,
this compounds the problem, and things spiral downward very rapidly.
The Institute does have a system in place to monitor for this, but
because things can go bad very quickly, and because there are a lot of
situations that look bad but really aren’t, by the time Institute
intervenes, it can be a very bad emergency.
* MIT is science and engineering oriented
For things that MIT is strong in, its a great place, but it’s probably
not the best place in the world to learn Greek literature or Islamic
theology. MIT does have a strong humanities department, but the
culture of the institute is overwhelming driven by science and
technology, and affects priorities.
* On the average, MIT professors are not particularly good at
classroom teaching or and the formal undergraduate curriculum is not
particularly good (or bad).
There are some great teachers at MIT. There are also some truly awful
ones. Research is a higher priority at MIT than undergraduate
classroom teaching. The quality of the classroom instruction is not a
good reason to go to MIT. Rather because research is placed at such a
high priority, because there is a culture of curiosity and learning,
and because you have highly motivated students and teachers there, the
main reasons that the undergraduate experience works, lies outside the
* It is expensive
This is a very important consideration, and it affects things in
important ways, the most important of which is that it limits your
flexibility. Because of the expense there is tremendous financial
pressure to finish in four years, and because you may need to pay off
student loans, this can limit your career options once you leave.
As with any major purchase, you should rush into it blindly, and you
need to think through what you are getting (and what you think you are
getting) for your money.
* MIT is a bad place to be if you don’t know who you are and what you want
to do with your life.
If you are sure you want to do something technical, but not sure
exactly what technical thing you want to do, MIT is a great place. On
the other hand, if you think that you might want to be an artist, a
high school teacher, or carpenter, or you aren’t sure that you want to
do with your life, then MIT may not be such a good place.
The problem is that MIT is a very busy place, and busy places make it
hard for you to sit down and think things through. At MIT, there will
always be this deadline or that activities, and it is hard to find the
time to meditate and think about what you want to do.
There are other factors that make MIT a bad place if you aren’t sure
about who you are and what you want to do. First, MIT doesn’t try to
mold people. No one at MIT is going to tell you how to act and how to
behave, or what you should do with your life. This may be a big
problem if you either want or need someone to tell you how to act and
how to behave, or what you should to with your life.
Second, MIT is expensive. At a much cheaper school, you have the
option of staying for a few years, moving from major to major, and
financing a large part of your education by working odd jobs. You
also have the option of being flexible with your coursework at other
schools, taking a few classes one year, no classes the next, and
gradually moving yourself toward a degree, maybe. The cost and pace
of MIT, makes this sort of academic wandering impractical there.
* MIT is exhausting
MIT is a very exhausting and tiring place. In a lot of institutions,
the administration and the faculty’s make concern is to get the
students to do the work. At MIT, a larger concern is to keep students
from overworking themselves. There are so many things to do, so many
things to learn, so many interesting ideas and people there, that it
can get overwhelming. It’s not a place for quiet contemplation.
* MIT will be painful sometimes
At some point when you are at MIT, you will likely feel totally
miserable. There was one anonymous survey that indicated that most
people at MIT had a mental health issue that interfered with their
functioning sometime in the past year. The fact that the everyone at
the Institute is trying to push themselves at thir limits is what
makes MIT a great place, but there is a cost to this.
The nice thing about MIT is that because everyone is in more or less
the same situation, there is a community there that lets you know that
what you are going through is normal. Everyone at MIT has moments
where they feel overwhelmed, and the fears and anxieties that you will
go through, are similar to ones that everyone there has. But it is
* MIT will eventually come to you
The final point is that, if you want, MIT or something like it will
eventually come to you. One thing that is breathtaking to watch is
how a technology and educational idea that starts at MIT eventually
spreads to the rest of the world. MIT is an elite institution, but it
is an eliteness that is based on technical excellence, and not
exclusivity or bureaucratic rank. This is why MIT is a very open
institution. The idea of free software and open source was invented
at MIT, and this is part of the culture.
MIT Open Courseware is a marvelous thing, but it is only the
beginning. I don’t know what formal plans exist for the next steps or
even if there are any formal plans, but there is an irrepressible
spirit of learning and sharing that underlies the Institute, which
will in the course of your lifetime, change the world in ways that I’m
not sure any of us can imagine or understand right now.
Don’t be under the mistaken notion that accepting an admission to MIT
is the one and only chance you will have to interact with it, it
GETTING ON MY SOAPBOX
Now that I have your attention, let me bring up two issues which
The first is what feels like the increasing polarization of American
society and the role of education in that polarization. The unspoken
fear that is in the backs of many people’s minds is the fear that if
you go to the wrong school or don’t connect with the right people,
that your opportunities to advance in life are limited. Tocquville
pointed out that the basis of the American dream and American optimism
was the fact that anyone could get off the boat, find a plot of land,
and start farming it, without answers to a lord or master. MIT was
founded during this period, and one of the core principles of the
Institute, which is why it came into existence in the first place, is
the idea that if machines do the work, you won’t need slaves or serfs.
In the 21st century, there are two major trends that are badly
impacting American society. The first is that the United States can
no longer ignore the global divide between have’s and have not’s.
Wealth in the world is profoundly unequal, and with improvements in
technology it is impossible for these inequalities not to affect the
United States. The basic question is can the United States export its
dream of opportunity and prosperty to the rest of the world, which
involves addressing these wealth differences, or will the American
dream die behind fences and gates.
The second trend is that increasingly wealth and social status is
based on skills and social connections. In the 19th century, someone
could get a plot of land, a mule, and a shotgun, and what happened
next was up to them. The problem with having wealth and status based
on skills and social connections is that it is easier to have
gatekeepers prevent the diffusion of these skills and connections.
One’s life should not be determined by a group of anonymous people in
a committee room looking over a college application, and I worry that
we are moving to this sort of world.
The second thing that concerns me is that young people are being
encouraged to go into science and engineering and there isn’t enough
thinking being done on the consequences of this. For all of the take
about a shortage of scientists and engineers, the market is flooded
with Ph.D.’s, jobs are scare, and salaries are low. What concerns me
is that the academic system seems intent on creating a generation of
bitter and angry Ph.D.’s who have molded their entire lives around
academics and scholarship, and are finding that their skills do not
seem to be useful in society. When I see the eyes of eight year olds
light up when they hear about science and engineering, I wonder what
will happen to them twenty years from now, when their enthusiasm for
science and engineering becomes a curse on their lives.
As with the issue of class stratification in the United States, I’m
not sure what the solution to this issue is, but I do think it is
necessary to discuss this, and at the very least let young people
going into science and engineering know what the actual job situation
is, so that they can help figure out a solution to the problem, and
not blame themselves when they hit the problem.
Anyway that’s a capsule summary of things that you should thing about
in deciding whether or not to accept the admission to MIT. I hope I’ve
given you a clearer idea of what the culture is like, and I’m hoping
that people from other schools do the same thing. I’m particularly
interested in what the people from the small liberal arts college down
Massachusetts Avenue have to say about their school.
Anyway if you have questions, please add a comment and I’ll go my best to answer them.