kitchen table math, the sequel: "That said", "in your best light", and "seriously"

Saturday, August 31, 2013

"That said", "in your best light", and "seriously"

My son just got a mailing from MIT that said:

"You shouldn't stress out too much about your scores, because we admit people, not numbers. Seriously. That said, tests are important, and you should prepare for them as best you can. If you take the same test (SAT, ACT, or an SAT Subject Test) multiple times, we will consider the highest score achieved in each section."

"too much"


Then they say this on their web site:

Score Choice

"If you take the same test (SAT, ACT, or an SAT Subject Test) multiple times, we will consider the highest score achieved in each section. We do this in order to consider all applicants in their best light."

"For example, if you take the SAT Reasoning Test in 11th grade and score 750 math, 700 critical reading and 650 writing, and then take the SAT again in 12th grade and score 700 math, 650 critical reading and 700 writing, only your best scores from each sitting (i.e. 750 math, 700 critical reading and 700 writing) are used in our admissions calculations."

"Students are free to use the College Board's Score Choice option and the ACT's option to submit the scores of your choice."

Score Choice only allows one to send in the best scores from one sitting, but it sounds like MIT will supersize individual test scores. Also, the new Common App does not allow you to select Score Choice only for some schools, and many schools want to see all of your numbers. That's moot for MIT because they don't use the Common App.

In any case, I'm getting a mixed signal. My son did very well on his first and only SAT test. He should not bother to take the test again. "Seriously." Will he get kudos for that or should he take it again? He could get 60-90 more points (especially if the scores are supersized) and that would show him in his "best light" when all others are taking the test multiple times.

When admissions officers sit around talking about applications and holistic ideas come out of their mouths, are SAT scores floating around in their heads?


Anonymous said...

Steve -- Like anyone who is not in the room when the committee meets, I am just guessing here, but this is how I read it:

The "seriously" and "don't worry, be happy" are meant kindly. they are intended to dial down the anxiety -- but not to in any way suggest that the scores are not important. But the fact that they super score (and seem enthusiastic about it) suggests to me that it is worth it to take the test the second time if you think it will bump any of the scores. It's just a morning. He would not even have to prep further. For my son, we reached a point where the time it took to sit and do a practice test wasn't worth it -- you put in 3.5 hours and it doesn't even count. Might as well go take that second test. It would almost take bad luck NOT to get a bump in one of the three areas.

If you want to kick this around, feel free to email me...Cathy and Debbie have my email.


Anonymous said...

I suspect that MIT uses the SAT scores to cut out unsuitable candidates (like anyone below say 700 in 2 of the 3 categories), but doesn't make much distinction between a 760 and an 800 (knowing that the difference is one or two questions and in the noise level for the test). After students survive the SAT cut, then the holistic decision making comes into play.

So students who have a marginal SAT score for MIT (whatever that is) would get a big advantage from retaking the test if the superscoring pushed them over the threshold, but a student who was already comfortably within the range would get little benefit from bumping up a few points.

Of course, I don't know that this is the case—they may be sorting everyone strictly on SAT scores then applying a random number generator to select starting from the top of the list (the results would be indistinguishable from their current results).

The main thing super-scoring does is to let them report larger SAT scores for their entering class on their statistics page:

(which does give some useful figures about how the admit rate drops with lower SAT scores)

SteveH said...

Thanks Phil. I've pretty much come to that conclusion. Thanks also to Debbie for all of her comments offline. It took me awhile because all of his other numbers couldn't be better.

SteveH said...

"(which does give some useful figures about how the admit rate drops with lower SAT scores)"

I've seen this, and the top bucket only raises your chances to, at best, 16 percent. Interestingly, you get a better bump for CR and writing. I would also like to see percentages for SAT II and AIME test scores. I want to see how holistic (fuzzy) they are.

"...but a student who was already comfortably within the range would get little benefit from bumping up a few points."

Every little statistical bit helps?

"Of course, I don't know that this is the case—they may be sorting everyone strictly on SAT scores then applying a random number generator to select starting from the top of the list (the results would be indistinguishable from their current results)."

I said that somewhere; that they should use darts. It reminds me of the difference between a S&P index fund and one guided by the latest high-flying manager. They might, however, have a very secret merit function and admissions officers just have to agree on the holistic fudge factors for each application.

Allison said...

it's been nearly 20 years ago, but the admissions dept there then literally read every app twice, two different people reading, even the low SAT score ones (no cutoff from being read) and then ranked a candidate as 1-5. They had some kind of picture in their mind that led to that, so it wasn't even a holistic fudge factor, as much as it was an overall impression. The double fives got in, but that didn't fill the school, so somehow they kept adjusting their individual scoring functions to make sure that whatever 5 meant, it was selective enough. And then they'd argue the other holistic fudge factors on the 4s and occasional 3s. Discrepancies in scoring led to a third read by a third person.

now, the admissions dept knew LOTS of stuff about schools, and likely performance of a student from such, and who outperformed their school, and which schools GPAs were worth something, etc. That was what they did with the rest of their year--internalize that stuff.

It could have all changed, but I doubt it. It's still a read-n-score on a five point scale I bet.

SteveH said...

MIT 25/75 percent scores
SAT Critical Reading: 670 / 770
SAT Math: 740 / 800
SAT Writing: 680 / 780

The approximate average SAT score would be 2220? Half are below 2220? Either they really don't get a lot of students with high SAT scores or they have to try really hard to lower their numbers. I would like to see their percentages for SAT II scores. It's easy to dismiss the difference between a 760 and 800 on the SAT, but not between 760 and 720. And this is after taking the SAT more than once so you can be seen in your best light.

Are there a lot of students with good GPA's from strong high schools who don't have top SAT grades? The only conclusion I come to is that after a certain (relatively low) academic point, fuzzy factors dominate. It must be easy to get a 4, but getting a 5 sounds like it has little to do with academics.

Anonymous said...

SteveH: "MIT 25/75 percent scores
SAT Critical Reading: 670 / 770
SAT Math: 740 / 800
SAT Writing: 680 / 780

The approximate average SAT score would be 2220? Half are below 2220? Either they really don't get a lot of students with high SAT scores or they have to try really hard to lower their numbers."

For 2011, approximately 76K students score 700+ on the SAT-R, 112K scored 700+ on SAT-M and 72K scored 700+ on SAT-W. Looking at the MIT accepts, I'd guess that less than 40K students would meet MIT averages (most of the kids with a score of 700+ will be in the bottom half of the range and some kids will do well on one test and poorly on others ...).

But MIT isn't the only school that wants these kids. There are also the Ivy Leagues, Stanford, and Duke. For the very techy folks, CalTech. Some kids will get into MIT and choose to go to a good state school (e.g. UMich or GATech). Maybe not a lot, but some. Especially if the price difference is large.

I don't seem what MIT could do to increase the average SAT score much other than drastically reduce their tuition (to try to get more kids who could go to Princeton and MIT to pick MIT).

-Mark Roulo

Data from here:
(page 2)

SteveH said...

Even in MIT's top category for SAT [750-800] or ACT [34-36], the best admittance rate is 16 percent. Clearly, they could bump up their SAT/ACT numbers. They are not choosing one out of two applications holistically, but one out of more than five at the highest level of academic ability. This is true for all selective colleges. Are those 4+ who get rejected really holistically deficient compared to many others selected from a lower academic bracket? Do admissions people really have enough information to give those variables that much weight? The only attribute that is rated "very important" by MIT is "Character/personal qualities".

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Allison said...


20 years ago, the answer was that the 5s were the kids who were obvious MITers: not just academically tops, but academically stellar at whatever resources they had available to them (so the measure changes...the girl from the Catholic school in CA with no AP science courses that never sent anyone to MIT before had different opportunities than the boy from TJ mayh sci magnet school in NoVa), intellectually curious about sci or eng, happy to be nerds, quirky in certain ways, etc. And some of those kids will still not have bothered to get a 700 on the writing portion of the SAT because they were too busy being a Westinghouse winner that year. Likewise, some will get a C in spanish and no one cares because they won Math Olympiad.

The number of US students who "fit" like that doesn't actually fill the school, even now. The 4s then look almost like that, but not quite, and yes, there are many more of them. And the school is committed to having more "diversity" than that anyway..

The more recent numbers and more numbers might answer your question. Bluntly, they can't have higher SAT scores and have the various categories of diversity they want.

This year's class profile
and admission stats
tell more.
Spend time reading this and you will surely answer your own question.

Distribution of SAT Reasoning Test Scores (Math)

Applicants Admits Admit rate
750-800 8,215 1,051 13%
700-740 3,011 231 8%
650-690 1,749 60 3%
600-640 821 2 0%
< 600 661 1 0%

SteveH said...

Everyone has access to olympiads and math competitions. And how many of these winners have to trade off low scores and grades? Schools expect you to take the SAT many times to show yourself in "your best light", and they expect you to do the extras while not breaking a sweat with your regular classes. Low grades or scores show a weakness that many others don't have.

"... they can't have higher SAT scores and have the various categories of diversity they want."

I'll agree with this, but diversity means something other than having the MIT ethic, which is not diverse. I read an article that said for elite colleges, about 75 percent do a preliminary sort by academics, and most of the rest sort by "institutional fit". It seems like MIT is one of the latter. However, that still leaves plenty of students left over to choose from. They could still bump up their numbers.

I would like to see the diversity categories they use at that point. Some colleges seem to value sports over most other things. They must have quotas they track during the admissions process for specific categories and sports. They want "oblong" students rather than well-rounded ones. Actually, I think they want to see well-rounded students with and extra oblong part sticking out. Coaches give ratings and students submit arts supplements that get rated.

Everything is so competitive at all levels. Even Northeastern and BC are tough to get into, let alone Tufts. There is only so much colleges can figure out from essays and recommendations unless they are really bad. After that, I think it's more about what sort of extra talent or skill you can add to the college community, and which skills they value. But which diversity or talent categories require a need to lower academic expectations? Sports? With a holistic process, many other tradeoffs can be carefully hidden away from the public.

Allison said...

Steve, the word diversity means race.

After race, it means gender. After gender it means personality, character, je ne sais quoi.

Look at the freshman profile and look at the incoming SAT scores. They can't get 15% of their students to be African American if only take the 800s.

Google the college board SAT breakdown by race. Only 1% of African Americans taking the test scored above 700 in 2012 in each category. 200k African Americans took the test. So that means just 2000 in the country got a 700 or higher in math.

MIT wants about 150 of these kids. So does Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Penn, Yale, Columbia, U Chicago, Cal, UCSD, Oberlin, Williams, Duke, Pomona, Harvey Mudd, Brown, Carleton, Johns Hopkins, etc.

Beyond that, no, not every ardent has math Olympiads. Not the black kids in Mpls who are taking care of their younger siblings because there is no dad or mom available. Not the Hmong kids in st. Paul who teach their sibs after school. Not every rural kid or the homeschooled one either.

Jen said...

I think the closest analogy I can give you is this one (and the caveat is that I have no idea how exactly the online dating services do this!):

The SATs are the equivalent of a detailed survey on a dating site about your own likes and interests and what you are looking for in someone else.

You (your viewpoint, actually, not YOU!) are the guy who is complaining because of the women who turn out to be in the match category for your profile, the one or two YOU really want to go out with are not responding to your emails.

That is, while on that measure you match up, their pool of applicants is HUGE because they are one of the most desirable people on the site. MIT etc. are that woman -- they just don't think you stand out of that crowd, despite your high score on one measure.

They are looking at other things too -- looks, how your initial email sounds, what your picture looks like, your bio. They may well end up choosing someone who looks like less of a match on that one measure, and still be very happy, even if you aren't.

SteveH said...

I understand the analogy of the boy asking the pretty girl to the dance. I understand that holistic is a way to imply that the decision process is more meaningful (less illegal) than the list given by Allison. Sports are also a big drag on SAT numbers for some colleges.

I have no lament for the low statistics. My interest is in understanding the factors of academics and institutional fit. Students apply to many different colleges, but most colleges are looking for the same sorts of students. The worst scenario would be to get your message wrong and find yourself consistently on the wrong side of the statistics.

Yale asks "Why choose Yale?", knowing full well that they will have to reject many students who seem like perfect fits. From an applicant's standpoint, the goal is to understand and highlight those factors which will best influence their decision. One way to do that is to try to analyze the academic and holistic factors that are most important to them, and see which ones you have control over.

This thread started out talking about academic factors and whether one can believe what they are saying. My view now is that there is no downside to taking the SAT twice. Three or more might raise a red flag, especially at the top end. The thread then evolved into understanding why the average SAT scores are lower than one would expect. Clearly, there are many non-academic factors that allow for lower SAT scores, but schools do not have to sacrifice academics for personality, character, and other institutional fit factors.

Then there is the issue or risk of stating your academic area of interest. Do admissions people have lists of how different departments are filling up with students selected for admission?

There are also the oblong special talents that colleges are looking for, but you either have what they are looking for or not. That really leaves little room left for making your case.

All colleges are looking for nice kids who play well with others, but they know nothing about you except for what is in your application, and they severely limit your space to get the job done. My son has been working on his essays and there is just not enough space to explain who he is. You might think they would invite top candidates to the college for interviews with admissions and with one or more departments.

Allison said...

Steve said:'the worst scenario would be to get your message wrong...'

No, it isn't the worst scenario. The worst scenario is to go somewhere bad for you and end up diving off the roof of a building. The next worst spend years there doing poorly, unable to find joy, and end up doing massive amounts of drugs or alcohol so you end up in rehab or prison. Not to be overly dramatic, but those things happened to my MIT acquaintances.

Going somewhere good for you matters more. Being yourself in your application is good for you even if you don't get in.

"Easy for you to say, you went to MIT at 16.” and while not that bad, my time there was a disaster from beginning to end.

Of myself and my friends, a grand total of 2 graduated on time and were accepted to grad school. Another dozen took 5-9 years to graduate. Another dozen never finished.

Teaching our children resilience is better than teaching them to massage who they are for someone else.

To the specific issue of telling who you are: letters of recommendation are huge for the school knowing who you are. Pick three people who know you for different things and see different parts of you. They hold tremendous sway.

That's because when you are 17, the adults in your life can easily know more about you than you do.

And they have a lot more space to write it than you do.

Last, when you see someone who didn't get in when you were sure they would, assume the recs were the issue. All a rec has to say is "brilliant but unstable" and that is a HUGE red flag.

Glen said...

Allison, you mentioned that your time at MIT was "a disaster from beginning to end." Would you mind elaborating on that a bit? I'm not asking you to be more personal than you are comfortable with; each individual will have unique, private crosses to bear.

But as the father of a couple of young boys who think getting into MIT would be the best thing that could ever happen to a person, I'm interested in anything about the MIT undergrad world that I might not be aware of that could apply to them. Forewarned is forearmed.

Allison said...

Oh, I could talk about this forever, so it's more staying on task :)

I would add that i know some of my issues were due to me and my psychology, some due to my being a girl, and some due to the MIT culture and then the stew of all those things together.

I'd also add that despite the pain, I can't waste time on counterfactuals. I am here in this kife with this husband and these kids and MSMI because of those experiences. So when we as parents try to balance the good-for-them-now and the good-for-future-them, we won't be eradicating pain. hopefully though the suffering will have value.

so with those asides, let me re-post the generalities I posted on a different comment thread

Here's the thing about MIT and MIT physics in particular: it's a terrible place if you are unsure if you can handle something, or if you need encouragement or emotional kindness and warmth to take a risk or in order to succeed. You won't get that there 9 times out of 10, even from people you might think have that as their job--your advisor, your research or thesis advisor, your dorm's housemaster, nearly any prof. Even if you get a research position as an ugrad (quite common) mostly won't even get a model of what a good employee looks like (show up every day, on time, take good notes, etc.)

So having learned that before arriving distinguishes the most successful.

It is also a bad place if you lack any need for external validation, because they will let you get away with anything for longer than is good for you.
you can barely-pass/late drop/incomplete/disappear from class for a long time--terms-- before they step in, and then they will overreact. they will indulge the cool hacking on the side stuff to your own detriment.

So long as you are in between, in that sweet spot where grades positively motivate you and where being humiliated only knocks you down for a couple hours, it can be a great place.

It is a great place if you already know how to learn and study from books, and if you can force yourself to go to lecture even when exhausted, even when the lecture is taped and rebroadcast. It is great if you know how to find friends who are intellectually excited to be there, which a shockingly large set are not.

I have tons more opinions that apply to women in particular and not your boys, but I will add that the status issues at MIT are huge, even if they aren't quite the typical Breakfast Club roles. MIT is perfectly described By Tom Wolfe in I am Charlotte Simmons even though they lack NCAA sports.

I found this piece today about HBS was perhaps the best description I've ever read (same situations even though different school) of why being a chick at MIT is so awful. In many ways, the culture that HBS was trying to change matches MIT's, and in the resulting the heavy handedness that HBS (and MIT) employed to change it.

More later specific to why my friends and I were so bad at MIT.

kcab said...

Chiming in on the issue of MIT...

My experience there was not nearly as bad as Allison's, and most of my friends graduated on time. Many of them have done very well in life, for a variety of definitions of "well". Given the way my freshman year played out, it could have gone very differently. Here's what I think helped (based on hindsight and watching DH's students at a different, highly selective college):

- extra-curricular activities that imposed a schedule and demands (for me this was swimming)

- contact with people who were NOT MIT undergrads - I had a job the entire time I was there and spent a lot of time each week with coworkers who were not highly educated

- close ties with individual faculty members, some in my department and some not (some being parents of friends, some being advisors for my undergrad research projects)

also, I probably lived in a different place - but it was one that had just as much stuff going on.

I thought similar things about that HBS article in the NYT, btw.

I haven't read the book "8 First Choices" yet, but it's on my to-read list (or, to buy for my kid). Seems like being OK with several different schools is a good plan. I hope your son isn't focused too intently on a single school, SteveH.

Anonymous said...

The MIT culture is not new—one of my best friends in high school killed himself at MIT around 1972 or 1973.

Despite that, I think that MIT might be a good fit for my son. I don't think it is the *best* fit for him, but all the schools that are a good fit are 10–15% probability of admission, so getting into any of them would be a good thing.

We'll be touring MIT later this week, and I'll be open to changing my opinion of MIT either up or down.

Allison said...

Kcab's list is dynamite. I failed on each one. But doing any of those things is being outside the entire culture. The culture is to live on campus or in campus ILGs, eat on campus, socialize in campus, seek entertainment on campus. For me and my friends, it was a recipe for going off the rails.

I was 3k miles away from my parents, had no extended family or sibs in my life, had no local adults in my life. I had no one to tell me that my behavior was not the median behavior--in fact it was not even within 1 st deviation by the end. But it was the behavior around me, so I thought it was normal.

I am not bipolar, but I have a lot of anxiety. In that environment, the stresses made it easy for me to stop taking care of myself, and have no one notice. I literally had no one reminding me to eat or sleep. My friends didn't really either. It was a status thing to pull all nighters--to literally stay up for 20, 25, 30 hours at a time without sleep. It was common for us to skip meals. So those alone had dramatic impact on well being.

I had no one to ask for advice. I felt I couldn't ask my parents for advice for a host of reasons But the adults I asked for hope weren't better, because they were MIT profs--a group whose mean emotional IQ is near 0. I chose poorly, but lacked the maturity to discern which adults to ask for advice from.

One prof a group of us were close to was a real jerk, unintentionally or not I don't know. He would try to play matchmaker in the group of us groupies, gossip about us to the other kids, even write problem sets with our names in the problems, in embarrassing situations.

Another time, an ex asked to be moved into my floor the following term, so I asked to be moved off. Students were responsible for internal housing decisions; the cmte chose to deny his request and mine, so I stayed and he couldn't be on my floor. The ex complained to our housemaster, a philosophy prof, and then proceeded to move in anyway. I finally went to the prof, who spent ten minutes pontificating whether a request to be moved away from someone was ontologically the same as a request to be moved near someone, whether ethically, if I had any right to say who lived near me. Never did he ask *why* I had made the request. Finally, I showed him an email where ex said he would rescind his claim to the new room only if I physically moved all of his stuff. Prof immediately said "this situation does not involve you", and ended the meeting--with me shocked and even less clueful (the prof had then told the boy to buzz off, basically, but still I had to learn that third hand.)

Point being, I didn't learn better how to ask for help from adults, I learned not to ask and instead ask my friends. Bad choice, as they were not wiser than me. But they were more worldly, more manipulative, more extroverted.

My friends were largely a mish mash, but in common was that almost none of us had parents who were academics (the two who did had math prof fathers, and finished in time.) So we were naive out how to navigate the culture, the social stuff just as much as how to navigate studying or research expectations. And relatedly, we all lacked external motivations -- maybe because we were in uncharted territory in our families for what defined success. But we also had too much distrust or disrespect of authority, so we were likely to work hard to learn something and then not turn it in for a grade, unable to care.My friends would tool all night on an interesting math puzzle problem that wasn't our problem set, etc.

I had enough sense to avoid the alcohol-infested frat subculture, but that was because I had contempt for it. My dorm wasn't any better, though; the drugs were just different. Again, we were way way out of bounds but no one told us we were.

Glen said...

Thanks, Allison.

Allison said...

Did that give some perspective, Glen? Or not what you were looking for?

Allan Folz said...

Steve H, while not necessarily actionable advice, I think this week's Am Life has some useful perspective...

Actually, IMO, there is some very actionable advice, but it's subtle.

Cheers, and best of luck to your son!

Anonymous said...


Any idea if CalTech has a culture similar to MIT? Both schools are big into tech, but I do get the idea that they are quite different culturally. Though possibly not along this axis.

Any idea?

[For curiosity only ... I don't expect my child to go to either place]

-Mark Roulo

Glen said...

Yes, thanks, Allison (and kcab and gassstationWP). That does give me some perspective. It was at least partly what I was looking for, but I can't help wondering if there are things I'm not asking, because I don't know enough to ask.

I spent some time working for a strategy consulting firm based in Cambridge, MA, run by Harvard Business School professors and full of Harvard MBAs. I didn't mesh very well with them, in part, because they seemed to share a world view that differed from mine. They tended to be very focused on things that had the potential to make them wealthy, powerful, big shots eventually. They seemed to feel that this was what everyone with elite potential (as opposed to your ordinary, average IQ loser) was after. They weren't sure whether my choice of physics over MBA was foolish, because quants usually work for MBAs not the other way around, or very clever, because I might end up running a hedge fund using tricky math that MBAs couldn't follow, then buy my power. I thought this was amusing, because I was doing quant work to pay the bills so I could afford to do what I loved: explore mysteries and figure things out.

So I guess I'm wondering what assumptions make up the world view, the culture, of MIT. What do they assume you value? What do they tend to assume is worth sacrificing for what?

SteveH said...

"Going somewhere good for you matters more."

We are far past picking a college just by the name.

"Being yourself in your application is good for you even if you don't get in."

My questions have nothing to do with misrepresenting oneself. Being oneself doesn't mean not knowing the rules of the game.

"Of myself and my friends, a grand total of 2 graduated on time and were accepted to grad school. Another dozen took 5-9 years to graduate. Another dozen never finished."

Apparently their holistic judgment is not very good.

"..letters of recommendation are huge for the school knowing who you are."

Unfortunately, one has little control over those things.

"...the adults in your life can easily know more about you than you do."

I could write more telling essays about my son than he could, but his teachers have only a narrow view.

"All a rec has to say is "brilliant but unstable" and that is a HUGE red flag."

That's the obvious case, but how many fall into that category? I think a lot of the remaining holistic judgment comes down to any special (oblong) talent or skill that might seem unique or wanted.

SteveH said...

"I hope your son isn't focused too intently on a single school, SteveH."

He is realistic. He knows the probabilities, but all schools try very hard to make you really want them. MIT had, by far, the best info session of any of the top colleges we went to. He also knows that I was accepted to MIT for grad school but didn't go there. He knows that what you get out of a college is directly related to what you put in.

"contact with people who were NOT MIT undergrads"

I knew many people (adults and families) outside of the university. I had some of my best experiences that way. Not everything has to be focused on a college organization.

"close ties with individual faculty members"

The department can make a huge difference. One of my departments had picnics. I used to go sailing with one of my professors. In my other department, it was completely different.

My recommendation to my son is to find good people (students and adults) to be with no matter where he goes.

However, we are at the stage of trying to maximize the probabilities for all colleges. Hopefully, there will be some acceptances where we can apply our own holistic judgments.

SteveH said...

"...but all the schools that are a good fit are 10–15% probability of admission, so getting into any of them would be a good thing."

That's the thing. Even the lower tier colleges have tough probabilities, and most of them talk about the same holistic factors. One wants to avoid the "Tufts Effect". Colleges make it clear that academics are only one part. For each level, students have to maximize their holistic factors.

I understand that the college population peaked a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, we are not very far along the downside of that curve.

"We'll be touring MIT later this week, and I'll be open to changing my opinion of MIT either up or down."

It will be interesting to hear your opinion. I thought their "hacking" ethic was pushed too much (the police car is enshrined in the Stata Center and one handout asks you what sort of hacks you can think of), but they did a good job promoting themselves, and they really didn't have to. It's a perfect fit for my son. Harvard, clearly, didn't try at all.

SteveH said...

Thanks for the link Allan.

My son also has a college brochure stack two feet tall. He also made the comment that if you put your hand over the name of the college, you could not tell which one it is. (That would make a good YouTube video. Name This College.) I also liked the survey where they asked students why they got into a top college and the general response was: "I have no clue whatsoever." For others, however, it seemed like the extra oblong interest and special talent made the difference. It has to be special or at some particularly high level.

Unfortunately, the segment talks only about the most egregious application mistakes and stupid parents. I would like to be a fly on the wall when admissions people make the final decision. After they process race, gender, sports, and alumni parents, (grades are given), there will still be many to choose from - maybe one in five. what are the deciding factors? It might depend on whether you catch the eye of one of the strong or powerful admissions people. It might be your essay that does it, but it might also be your special talent.

SteveH said...

Name This College.

My son received a mailing that showed three students on the cover. One was an Asian male that said "Straight A's". One was a girl that said "4 AP classes" and one was an African-American that said "National Merit Scholar". Then they asked the question: "Why was only one of these students admitted?"

Is it one of the HYP-level schools? No. Was it one of the second tier schools? Not really. They wanted us to come to an "invitation-only" program in our area to find out the answer. Maybe we could find out what was so wrong with two of those students that they were not accepted. Maybe we could find out what's more special about BU's holistic approach than any other school's approach.

It's BU, which they say is ranked in (they mean "at") the top 4% of all universities in the nation. That sounds better than giving the actual rank.

SteveH said...

Studying the details of a high demand application/reward process might seem like one has no larger life perspective. Ideally, one would like to be completely natural and genuine (isn't that what colleges are looking for?), but still be successful. It doesn't work that way. I don't think Sinatra did it his way when he first started out. This make me think of an ad I saw once for a hair salon which said: "When you want your hair to say 'Whatever'".

The answer doesn't lie in pulling your cart in your own direction and pretending not to see the carrot dangling in front of your nose. It also doesn't involve buying into hype and reputation about places like Harvard. However, it doesn't mean rejecting those places because of them. We have gotten many of those comments. It's kind of like a backlash effect.

I could make a big case for not going to college at all, but I don't think that fits my son. I could make a big case for going into music rather than the high tech world. (See the recent IEEE article called "The STEM Crisis is a Myth".) Right now, however, we are going through the very unnatural process of maximizing college admittance chances, and all of the remaining unknowns have to do with fuzzy holistic thinking. We can overanalyze, but there is not much time for that. It will be all over in a few months.

SteveH said...

I've had people tell unequivocally that one should NOT go to MIT or UChicago as an undergrad. The two who said that about UChicago had PhD's from the school. Yikes! How does one assimilate all of the information? You can read the comments on CollegeConfidential, but many of them are superficial or express only anecdotes. According to student polls, Brown is the best school. I'm reduced to looking for specific negative anecdotes about a school or a department. In the end, however, how the heck does anyone know for sure? I think it's important that my son take some time to study the schools and have some level of excitement about going to each one. Then we can try to maximize his admittances. Ideally, EA will work and all of this will be over by December 15th.

Allison said...

Glen asked:-- I'm wondering what assumptions make up the world view, the culture, of MIT. What do they assume you value? What do they tend to assume is worth sacrificing for what?

I was shocked to get to MIT and meet a huge cohort of kids who seemingly found intellectual curiosity as something to be ashamed of. So I avoided those kids as much as possible. It was basically easy to avoid them permanently, but it meant avoiding certain majors, certain classes, certain buildings, certain events.

At the time, I just didn't understand why they were there, because I didn't get their worldview. In retrospect, some of it was their downplaying their curiosity, but much of it was 1) they went to MIT either for some kind of prestige, 2) they went to be engineers because engineering was how they would be employable, or 3) they got to MIT, saw what brilliance and hard work really looked like, and decided drinking away 4 years was better than trying and still being (relatively) dumb.

The "investigate mysteries" cohort wasn't a plurality of the kids. It was a minority, but it was tight knit, and reinforcing. We lived in certain portions of certain dorms and a couple ILGs. This group was filled with kids who naturally didn't care about money or power, but they also didn't care about the immediate currencies of grades or letters of rec. They lacked the perspective an adult has to say "I work this day job to buy me that freedom."

Some kids managed, of course, but they tended to have already learned the routines and discipline well enough to maintain them when there were no guardrails left.

There is a totally different power game there, though, and it's the male-female thing. Men who might not care in the slightest about money and power still find themselves caring about getting a girlfriend, and they do some awfully bizarre things to get to the top of the pecking order in order to get the girl. Girls who don't care about money or power still find that the constant barrage of interested men makes it impossible to study, so pairing up with the highest pecking order guy keeps the others at bay. Nerds cope very poorly with this stuff though, since they din;t seem to comprehend the system they are in.

Glen said...

Thanks again, Allison.

I was shocked to get to MIT and meet a huge cohort of kids who seemingly found intellectual curiosity as something to be ashamed of.

That surprises me, too. In retrospect, it's not surprising that the Harvard MBAs I've known (not the HBS professors, but their graduates) have had no more intellectual curiosity than the average person their age. They were the winners of a competition where ambition, not curiosity, seems to have been the primary motivator.

But it still surprises me a little to hear that this is so common among MIT students. I guess any school that achieves enough prestige for X eventually attracts a lot of people more interested in the prestige itself than in X.

Glen said...

SteveH, I hope your son gets accepted by a school he wants. I share your frustration at the asymmetricality of information in the application process. The schools know a lot more about what their real, as opposed to advertised, criteria really are, but they aren't going to willingly reveal this information. That means we have to look for clues, like Kremlinologists trying to figure out what the Politburo is really thinking.

I keep thinking that, given the stochastic nature of college admissions, the best thing I can do is to try to prepare my kids academically for life after college and hope that that preparation doesn't handicap them when trying to get into college.

kcab said...

I don't know if those of you with high school students are already reading his blog, but gasstationwithoutpumps has done a good job writing up college visits he's done with his son. His most recent ones are for East Coast schools but there were some last year that dealt with a few CA schools. My daughter (a junior) has different interests but I'm finding the posts informative anyway.

Another item that I thought might be of interest, re MIT, is Lydia K's blog post from last Oct 29, in the MIT Admissions blogs:
I think the Tech article that covered the response to her post is at

Anyway...I would have said that MIT students are excited by ideas and serendipity, so that's a bit different from Allison's experience. Then again, I spent longer there as a grad student than an undergrad so that may color my memories. The folks I'm still friends with from ugrad *do* love ideas and serendipity. I would say that the truly good hacks are expressions of some idea or another, more like unsanctioned, extremely large, art installations than anything else that's occurring to me right now. Some hacks fall short of this, to be sure.

The other reason I wanted to comment again is - that list I gave would have applied at any college. I was just lucky that things fell into place for me since I had no idea at the time.

Allan Folz said...

Wow, quite the thread we have here... :)

the segment talks only about the most egregious application mistakes and stupid parents.

While the specific anecdotes were pretty egregious, it seemed to me he was saying they represented entirely common, to the point of being mundane, occurrences. He had to recount the egregious cases because the rest all run together.

I would like to be a fly on the wall when admissions people make the final decision.

I'm pretty sure there's not much to it. Perhaps remarkable only for how ordinary it is.

After they process race, gender, sports, and alumni parents, (grades are given), there will still be many to choose from - maybe one in five.

I don't think it's that many, unless one's scores are below the median for your demographic at the school in question.

what are the deciding factors? It might depend on whether you catch the eye of one of the strong or powerful admissions people. It might be your essay that does it, but it might also be your special talent.

If you can pull it off, it's the essay. They've said it a million times: the great essays speak for themselves. They get a 5 and the kids are in.

If the essay is a 4, then it's a matter of showing passion and demonstrating excellence in whatever "oblong" interest the student has. Often when they speak of leadership, they mean has the student demonstrated excellence in something.

After that, there is a certain amount of randomness, or as you call it "catch they eye of someone". Absolutely. The schools themselves play the odds (whole 'nother thread), and so must the students.

If you're honest in figuring out how your standardized test scores measure up relative to your demographic for the school's student body, if you're honest in figuring out how your essay is going to sit with a person that's reading a few hundred others, and if you apply to a reasonable number of schools for which your stats "fit", then it should be a matter of seeing which come back with an acceptance and then picking which will offer the best financial aid package.

I think if you approach it as a probability problem, where you're playing the odds; as opposed to an engineering problem, where you must figure out and solve for the optimal solution, you'll be fine.

Allison said...

Kcab, I don't think your list does apply everywhere else. It didn't apply at Cal, that is, UC Berkeley. At Cal, some of the list is reversed. I bet other big state schools are different too.

There, an excited young student needs to hear
--Go out of your way to meet people at Cal in your major right now. If you are in engineering, you will be lonely lonely kid if you don't crack this immediately. If you are white, recognize now that the chances the Chinese or Russian students will talk to you is small. Plan accordingly, but don't get pulled off major. make that study group and keep it.

--be careful about extra curriculars. You can't compete with ncaa athletes who are cheating their way through school. There's a reason Jason Kidd drove that Mustang on campus, and you won't pass EE40 on that track.

--don't live so far off campus that late night studying on campus is difficult. you want to be with other students there. be as close to campus as possible.

--learn how to navigate Sproul Hall right now. no one will help you. learn how to handle the bursar's office, the forms, the bureaucracy.

At Cal, you don't have to worry that they give you enough rope to hang yourself. You screw up, you are out. many less chances than at MIT.

Allison said...


I don;t know anything about Caltech beyond a couple friends who were there. I really don't have a clear sense.

SteveH said...

"to prepare my kids academically for life after college"

This is my goal too, and for my son (who could get into a top music conservatory), we are trying to keep all doors open. Too many tell my son that he could always do music on the side. I dislike these people. I want them to read the IEEE article I mentioned. My brother-in-law and I were trying to come up with careers that focused on music, but did math or physics on the side.

Then there are the ones who just say something like "do what you love". OK, but he loves music and he loves math. There are cases where those with undergraduate degrees in science go on to get a master's degree at a conservatory, but not the other way around. We met with one of these people who now teaches at Yale. However, there are a lot of musicians who end up really hating what they have to do to earn a living.

My long-term view for my son is that he has to carefully manage his career path and his "product". He needs to find paths that offer control and flexibility. Having a degree, even from MIT, is not enough. You can get specialized out of existence and your ability to move to a new area (based on your degree) won't matter. You can get sequestered out of a career. Your part of a large corporation can get axed or sold off.

I can make a better argument for a career where you create, own and control your own product, even when the product is just your knowledge and skills. I can imagine that going to a top name college might make a student too unaware of how their diploma will not do anything for them after 5 or 10 years.

Allison said...

Yeah that blog entry at mitadmission sounded about right. I'd also add she sounds like she is in that sweet spot for success. And therein lies the issue: any number of tiny factors could have changed that story for her to one much worse.

Her Tech comments about Maclean hospital show MIT hasn't learned how to deal with its students in the last 25 years. Same place still.

SteveH said...

"is Lydia K's blog post from last Oct 29"

Is this some kind of norm, or is it bimodal based on some personality trait? And why wouldn't MIT calibrate this for their holistic admissions? In all of this admissions process I find what seems to be extreme anecdotes. Does MIT enjoy seeing so many of their holistically-picked students flunk out or take 5+ years to graduate? My engineering department at UofM was stronger than MIT's counterpart. It was a breeze. How difficult can undergraduate material be? If students are competing to see who is best, then what is the prize?

I've heard this sort of story from several sources, but I don't see the nuances. Generally, the stories are used for effect, not to provide detailed information.

I like the other link to pressure, but it's hard to calibrate. I tell my son that he should NEVER skip class and he should do ALL of the homework (and understand it). It's interesting to see the skipping class statistic by dorm. I will have to reinforce my message.

"Some hacks fall short of this, to be sure."

They mentioned an app that texts you when your laundry is done, which falls into this category. They made a big deal out of turning the Green Building into a Tetris game, but failed to mention that students at Brown beat them to it.

SteveH said...

"it seemed to me he was saying they represented entirely common, to the point of being mundane, occurrences"

That would indicate that my son is guaranteed to get in. I suspect that it would only get his application down to one-in-three.

Knowing the importance of the variables in the optimization problem will increase his probability. Don't I sound like an analytical type? It reminds me of safety factors in engineering. I always thought it was odd that we calculated stress so carefully and then slapped on a huge safety factor even when we accounted for S-N fatigue data.

"...if you're honest in figuring out how your essay is going to sit with a person that's reading a few hundred others..."

As a writer, you should always know your audience. That's what we are trying to figure out. We got a packet from MIT telling us the five or six traits they are looking for. So my son is trying to find his best examples and anecdotes. Actually, I like MIT's (shorter) essays better than the main one (and supplements) of the Common App. The maximum size is 250 words, so you have to be direct. You have no room whatsoever for literary effect. You have to be interesting based on content, not writing style.

Allan Folz said...

That would indicate that my son is guaranteed to get in. I suspect that it would only get his application down to one-in-three.

Agreed. And that's quite an improvement from 1 in 5, no? If he's applying to 5 "stretch schools", he could feel reasonably confident he'll get one admit, and maybe even 2. At 1 in 5, he'd have to apply to 8 or 9 schools to get those odds, at which point he's raising other red flags with the admissions folks and probably hurting his chances.

But I suppose my original point for mentioning those is that when a school boosts a 16% acceptance rate, you can double that based on 1/2 the applications being, shall we say, unserious.

Finally, when it comes to writing for an audience, it should be obvious: they are bored numb. Show some humor, some humility, and a certain irresistible positive mental attitude. Admittedly this is a tall order, but it's quantifiable, no? Compared to the usual recommendations to "be yourself" and "sell your accomplishments" I think it's pretty useful.

Cheers, and again good luck to your son.

Allison said...

Well Steve's last comment got my gander up. I have two long comments.

Not all MIT departments are equal in difficulty. And inside a department you can often take the hard or easy class.

But MIT physics is hard. Truly hard.
Hard in content. Hard in workload. Hard in attitude.

I had a boyfriend at UC Berkeley in their phys undergrad program at the time I was a phys major at MIT.
Same course names. Same textbooks sometimes. Vastly different though.

First, his semester was two weeks longer than ours. We covered at least as much material per class as his courses did, sometimes more in a semester that had at least 6 less hours.

Second his courses typically had 3-4 problems per problem set per week. Ours has 10. Same week same material. But hours more work.

His junior year lab course literally did half the experiments we did. He did give a year. We did five a term, in 13 weeks.

Our upper level courses were harder in content. At MIT the upper division e&m course was the grad course anywhere else. And incoming grad students took it with us because they had to. The upper div stat mech class was based on 3 grad level texts. The upper div mechanics class was equivalent to the Cal and UCSD grad course.

The tests were harder. At cal, midterms covered the material taught in class. At MIT you could not get an A on a midterm unless you could go beyond what was taught. A typical midterm problem expected you to see in 45 minutes how this totally new question you had never seen before related to what you were taught so you could derive a new-to-you result.

And you had to have a thesis.

And all of that was harder without even beginning to consider how the culture itself was more difficult.

The CS department was similarly harder. The courses at cal used the same books as at MIT yet covered only 3/4 of the same syllabus and again with 2 more weeks at least of school. The opening freshman course at cal used exactly the same books and materials for decades and never even tried to teach the last quarter and the most interesting portion of the course (where you wrote the meta circular evaluator). The theory courses were similar: hardest problems removed from the homework and tests. Less material.

Allison said...

So I will be less elliptical.

Lydia's post Meltdown is basically my experience at MIT, except mine was like that basically all the time.

I'd say I felt like that at least once a week every week for my first, second, third, fifth, sixth semesters there. By my seventh I felt that way nearly every day.

By my eighth I had stopped feeling anything. What happened then is long and complicated. My ninth I spent going to a shrink multiple times a week and living a basically parallel life along with few other friends as we punted all classes. My tenth was me desperately pulling it together just barely enough to escape with the degree.

My first few semesters were so lonely as Lydia describes. My dating life and friendships weren't helping though because those kids were all unable to cope too.
The next few semesters got worse as my (male) best friend became unhinged over a girl and my ex boyfriend became unhinged too.
Trying to study became impossible basically because I couldn't think.

I am happy to tell more details.
There's more but the reality is the level of pain Lydia describes was the norm for many of us. And that is why kids dive off the roof or take heroin or cut themselves with razor blades.

How much of this is the female thing I don't know. Certainly some of my male friends had the same kinds of crises but it did not manifest the same way. They didn't talk about it. Some of the men did far better, and occasionally the women did too.

Anonymous said...

SteveH said "He knows the probabilities, but all schools try very hard to make you really want them. MIT had, by far, the best info session of any of the top colleges we went to."

Our experience was different—MIT had a completely run-of-the-mill info session. We had better (more informative) sessions at Harvey Mudd and at Brown. MIT seemed to be working hard to sound generic. Both Caltech and MIT made way too much of the prank culture—a culture that we find mildly amusing, but not particularly attractive.

My MIT tour is written up at

You can see the full set of tours we've done at

GoogleMaster said...

(Sorry, this got way too lengthy as I added to it as the day went along.)

The latest US News & World Report rankings just came out. SteveH seems to have his heart set on a school on one of the coasts, but there are several excellent schools (top 20 overall) in flyover country: Chicago, Northwestern, Wash U, Vandy, Rice, Notre Dame. Northwestern has a top-10 music school, Rice's is top-25.

I think it's important to realize that there may not be a single best college for your child. SteveH, you seem to be stressing out over getting your son into the exact right school. A top student, as you seem to believe your son to be, may be equally successful at any of a number of schools in the top 25.

The differences will be more in the size, the culture, the feel -- and for that, I think it's important to let your child make the final decision. After all, he is the one who will live there and study there for the next four years. He is also the one who will have to live with the decision for the rest of his life.

Things must be different today. I don't remember my parents being this involved with my college choices 30 years ago. I didn't make a two-foot pile out of the mailings I received, but I did collect them into two paper grocery sacks. I took the SAT twice, and about 3 AP exams and about 3 SAT IIs each of junior and senior years (no repeats). My parents helped me by suggesting schools that I might want to look at, but beyond that, the sorting into "top six" and "second six" was all mine. I visited all but one of the schools in my top six, by myself, up to 1200 miles from home, no parents tagging along. The only one I didn't visit was the geographically closest one, the University of My State, my safety school, which is still in the top 25 of USNWR's rankings. The final decision amongst the six was also mine.

I made my decision based on cost (Harvard and Princeton offered me no financial aid), culture/feel/fit (Wash U seemed "too Jewish" (that was my impression at 16), Princeton too northeastern-insular-preppy), and the fact that I honestly didn't want to be in the Navy for the rest of my life, which seemed to me to be the only honorable way to attend USNA (I had both nomination and acceptance in hand). I dropped my safety school out of consideration altogether once I had received more than one acceptance. It was only later that I found out that in doing so I had apparently snubbed some prestigious honors college and nobody ever did that. There remained what became my alma mater, a small, quirky, then-rarely-heard-of place at which I ended up fitting in so well that I stayed in this town 1200 miles from my parents and have lived here ever since, regularly interacting with students, alumni, faculty, and staff.

Your son, if you give him the chance, may very well prefer some school that isn't your top choice for him. He may even like it there and thrive there, if you give him the chance to fly. But it's got to be his flight, not yours.

I don't mean to sound as if I'm picking on SteveH. I'm not. I see the same plural pronouns in gasstationwithoutpumps's posts, and it makes me wonder, "but what does the kid want to do with his life?"

Allison said...

So in an attempt to answer why MIT can't predict who will find MIT painful and not admit them, I suggest the answer is 1) most everyone does, and more, and 2) it is MIT's self view that this pain is part of the brand, and is baked into the cake.

They are proud of saying "studying at MIT is like taking a drink from the fire hose."

They are quite comfortable that MIT's informal motto is IHTFP(I hate this place.)

They are quite comfortable that students wear t shirts that say "SPAMIT, stupid people @ MIT"

I am quite comfortable suggesting as well that the pain is worse for women and ethnic minorities, but MIT needs those kids, so MIT does not want to see what damage they are doing to those kids. so they admit them for MIT's benefit.

I will describe more later about why MIT was so painful.

kcab said...

@Allison, that's going off the rails pretty hard. I definitely did not have an equivalent experience.

as far as the list I made & applicability at different places - yeah, you're right. I'm pretty sure I would have washed out of Berkeley freshman year.(*) That's what happened to my sister at UCSD. None of the things on that list would have been likely to fall into place at Cal or any of the other colleges I might have attended (all Div 1 schools, mostly large). I'm just saying that, if there's an area of interest outside of a student's potential academic major, then they should find a college where that can have a place in their life too. Which is what I see SteveH & gasstationwithoutpumps describing. (Though, at the time I left high school I had no intention of ever doing any sports or anything else ever again. Especially no swim workouts.)

If I remember correctly, some of the response to Lydia K's post came from students at other colleges - I don't think one has to be at MIT to feel that way.

*(Maybe, given your description of the difference in workload at Berkeley & MIT, I'm wrong about what would have happened to me - but my sister's experience was really dreadful & did not end in a degree.)

SteveH said...

"he could feel reasonably confident he'll get one admit, and maybe even 2."

That's the hope unless he gets his some part of his message wrong for all, and it looks like all of the schools are looking for the same sorts of holistic students.

SteveH said...

"Well Steve's last comment got my gander up"

I knew it might have that effect, but the comments about MIT seem to be generalities, not about specific departments.

"Lydia's post Meltdown is basically my experience at MIT"

But how common is that? That's what I'm trying to figure out. Is it a department thing? If it's common throughout the school, then something is seriously wrong with MIT's holistic one-in-ten admissions process. Their admissions people talk about some sort of base academic level past which they think students will have no problem. Their holistic process looks for students who do all sorts of EC activities in spite of getting really high grades. Maybe there is a tendency for them to draw in people who would RATHER do their own thing than class work. I know that I felt that way, but it happened late in grad school. However, I've seen many students who hit that phase in their first semester. They want college to be meaningful and not like high school. I distinctly remember thinking that I will have to put up with at least a couple of years of high school like learning before the material got interesting.

There is also a support issue. When I was in college, it was completely sink-or-swim. Now, many colleges (perhaps departments) try very hard to help students. They don't let them sink too quickly. I talked to my old advisor about this. He was positive about it, but seemed slightly annoyed at the level and the rules.

SteveH said...

".. made way too much of the prank culture—a culture that we find mildly amusing, but not particularly attractive."

My thoughts exactly. We tried to ignore it, except that they make a point of showing us the police car and an exhibit showing how students thought they could get the car on the dome mechanically. Actually, I thought it was annoying.

"SteveH seems to have his heart set on a school on one of the coasts,.."

I (!) don't. My son loves Boston, and the West coast is only for the geographical angle. We did stop in at UMich (it's on his list) to see their math department and honors program. He likes Ann Arbor well enough (It has a top music department), but kids tend to like what they (think they) know. How many kids make sound decisions about colleges? Should we give them that much control? I went to Michigan for a particular department. I never visited the college before going there. I didn't care about sports and didn't concern myself with other factors.

We've run into many people who like Rice (and the Shepherd School of Music), but how do you get a someone (from New England) to even consider a place like Houston? I've pushed to include some colleges on his list, but ultimately, he will have to like where he is going. I could argue that parents give their kids too much say in where they go to college. However, I think it's best to argue only what goes on the application list. After the rejections start coming in, some schools might look pretty good to them.

SteveH said...

"SteveH, you seem to be stressing out over getting your son into the exact right school."

Nope. I'm concerned only about maximizing the number of choices he will have.

"A top student, as you seem to believe your son to be, ..."

Ah, questioning my judgment? Again.

"Things must be different today."

Of course. Just look at the percentages. So go ahead and approach the process without studying the details. What level of analysis (or talk about it) is appropriate?

I took the PSAT and SAT (once) with absolutely no preparation. That was common. Go ahead and do that these days. Lots of colleges are perfectly fine for undergraduate work. Why should students expect to have anything just the way they want?

"But it's got to be his flight, not yours."

You either are not reading my posts carefully, or I have to be much more blatant with my caveats.

SteveH said...

I think there is a tendency for threads to mix up detailed analysis and general considerations. This was supposed to be an analysis of the admissions process, not for gaming purposes, but for maximizing opportunities in a very competitive process. This can be useful for students at many levels of academics. As I mentioned, even Northeastern is tough to get into.

Such analyses might generate questions of perspective, but the two are not incompatible by definition. I've never pushed my son to join clubs, do volunteer work, or take on extra jobs just to make his application look good. He has never been on any math team. However, the application process is not natural. Colleges only know what is in your application and they don't want to see a thick file. As they say, a thick file means a thick student.

It is quite possible to keep things in perspective while at the same time acting like a wonk about the process, especially when one is in the middle of it all.

SteveH said...

Then there is the issue of culture at different colleges. As I said, people have told me specifically to avoid MIT and U. of Chicago for undergrad work. But then I've gotten other reactions. These warnings concern me, and our general reaction is to drop them from the list. This stopped us from putting U of Chicago on his list, but then again, he has no interest in going to Chicago.

The problem is that if the college is not on his application list, he won't go there. Building this list is a vague process that has little to do with detailed analysis, and visiting the campus may hurt more than help. Once he gets his acceptances (more than one, I hope), he will be much more interested in doing detailed analyses of which would be best.

My goal is to learn how to maximize his acceptances. I would rather not play this game, but everyone talks about how important the essays are and how you need to take the SAT multiple times to be seen "in your best light". He sat down last weekend and cranked out the MIT essays (not Common App) in less than two hours. That should be it, shouldn't it? It's easy to keep everything in perspective when it's not staring you in the face.

Glen said...

GoogleMaster, I think you're misjudging SteveH and gasstationwithoutpumps. Both are STEMmy fathers with STEMmy sons. Both have sons with passionate interests outside STEM: piano and acting, respectively. These are the sons' interests, the sons' choices, not the fathers', yet I see both fathers going to great lengths to figure out how well each potential school will support their sons' individual, non-STEM interests.

You say the sons should make the decision. I think both fathers agree. You say the fathers are "stressing out." I think they are contributing enormous time, energy, and expertise to making sure their sons have the best information possible with which to make their choices and to maximize the probability that their sons' top choices will be available to them.

I do agree with your point, though, that the best choice might be someplace the son, and most people, know nothing about. But that's also a place where the parents' can help the decision maker.

Glen said...

Allison & kcab, I'm finding your comments fascinating.

GSWP & SteveH, I agree completely about what MIT and Caltech call their "hacker ethos," and GSWP more accurately terms "prank culture." I can be surprised by a prank, but I'm seldom favorably impressed. Pranks tend to be about causing someone else trouble as a way to demonstrate your own cleverness. Are people who like to do this really the best people to arm with more powerful tools? MIT & Caltech apparently think so.

I'd be a lot more impressed if these schools only looked favorably on exploits that found surprisingly clever ways to help others. I'd like to see them expressing disdain or approval in proportion to, say, the product of cleverness x helpfulness.

Allison said...

I am really suprised by the common dislike of hacking!

I think the MIT hacking culture was one of the most pleasant parts of MIT. Seriously, I can't understand any disdain or animosity for this--I think this may be a word meaning issue. I wish I had been more involved in the hacking community in retrospect. Now--I'm referring to building hacking and other kinds of jokes primarily, though yes,the word has other usages. What do they tell you in these school tours?

This relates to a comment thread a long time ago about "being clever". I think we were talking about math competitions or the kind or math team puzzle classes or books. Or maybe we were talking about Google?

MIT values "clever", in a way that I found deeply annoying while there since I was so seldom the cleverest. The chest-bumping status pecking order garbage was why clever mattered. MIT physics dept rewarded clever. Not all of MIT math did.

But I would have said MIT hacking is mostly sweeter or more humorous than that. It was a lot less about being clever and more about having fun. And it was never for outside publicity, though maybe that would happen. it was a way to blow off steam.

The truest use of the word hacking was building hacking, not computer hacking, and I can't imagine how it survived Sept. 11, but apparently has. There were very strong codes of ethics and conduct in that hacking--no one was ever to break anything; you left everywhere better and cleaner than you found it; if you assembled something on the dome, you left proper instruction on how it was to be disassembled safely, etc.

The only hack I was involved in was the turning of Lobby 7 into The Cathedral of Our Lady of the All Night Tool, where I played an insignificant role, but the thoughtfulness that went into that was extraordinary---the cellophane stained glass windows were hung by people with proper climbing experience and gear and spotters, to name just one tiny piece of it. The whole thing was done to decorate it for a real wedding that took place there the next evening.

But the benefit isn't external--it's internal. it's benefiting the people at MIT who need to rally around doing something that feels fun and irreverent, because every bloody thing at MIT can be too serious otherwise.

Allison said...

Steve mentioned the issue of support. This is where I think students and parents should pay close attention!

Basically, big state schools don't profess to offer support. There are sink or swim. They have student support services, but they don't advertise a culture that would look out for a student, pre-emptively shepherding, etc. These schools are effectively HONEST: they are not bald-faced lying to students or students' families.

My parents would never have let me go off to a state school by myself 3k miles away from home while still a minor. They let me go to MIT because MIT went to GREAT LENGTHS to convince them that the school would look out for, watch over, and really, take care to keep me safe.

When asked, MIT admins *directly* told parents that there were no drug problems in the dorms. They said the adult professors who lived in the dorms, the housemasters, were deeply involved in students' lives, and would know be there to act in loco parentis. They lied about crime stats for murder, burglary, rape (until that legal case and law change forced all schools to make them public..)

And then at the same time, MIT was behaving in ways which directly contradicted these claims. The attitude was wink, wink, nudge, nudge, you can be unfettered adults as long as you don't screw up too badly. I knew kids who routinely smoked joints in the dining hall at lunch. Then there was MIT's idiotic alcohol policy, which was a death and a lawsuit waiting to happen (which did happen in the late 90s I think.) There was the all-women dorm which they advertised as having locked doors at night--no visitors after X am-- but they neglected to advertise that male visitors who arrived earlier were allowed to stay past that time.

And they ignored kids who needed intervention in small forms, and ignored vandalism, fights with assaults, etc.

They hushed up every crime they could, hushed up massive drug use in certain dorms and ILGs. They prevented Cambridge cops from getting involved whenever possible. Housemasters were of course pleasant but were not involved in the lives of the students--and did not feel that was their job.

And like the overindulgent parent, when some totally foreseeable tragedy happened, they would overreact, clamp down, and be even more nuts.

So if you were having a hard time, you could get a 10 minute appt and receive antidepressants at the drop of a hat, but not longer term counseling. But then if they decided you were a danger, they'd have you immediately committed to Mclean hospital in Belmont.

Their favorite trick was to blackmail you: you would be told that you were flunking classes that term, and would lose your finaid if you did, but if you "voluntarily" agreed to go to Mclean, they would retroactively wipe out the term, no grades, no tuition, and then you could come back next term.

in loco parentis indeed.

I have been trying to count up the number of kids I knew who had a stay at Mclean (I wasn't one of them.) I got to 8 that I knew of, but am sure it was a lot higher. Were any of them actual suicide risks? I don't know. I know one was told by the docs there she just needed "more milkshakes and less calculus". Another was locked up for climbing the Green building--with proper ropes, cables, etc. He was just a climber, but that got him taken away.

Are all of the ivies and other elite schools like this? I don't know. I certainly wouldn't trust them to tell the truth; their reputation matters too much. So take their claims of supoort with a big tablet of salt.

SteveH said...

"But that's also a place where the parents' can help the decision maker."

My son tore up and threw out a mailing from Harvey Mudd yesterday. I retrieved it from the trash and asked him if he knew anything about it? He said no. I told him to go to their web site and study it. He will never do a detailed analysis before application time, but I can and do try to get him to open up his world. I tried with Rice, but that is a no-go. I tried with Williams, but that won't make the list. I think that kids are less open about college choice than parents.

SteveH said...

"I can be surprised by a prank, but I'm seldom favorably impressed."

My reaction is the same, but I now understand that it's viewed differently at MIT. I'm a fan of fast prototyping, as opposed to analysis paralysis, but I've seen too much code that is hacked together with no formality of structure or design. You have to throw it away and start again. Then again, proving a concept quickly is important, even if you have to throw it away.

"I think this may be a word meaning issue."


"What do they tell you in these school tours?"

It was a major theme of both the info session and tour. Major. One of the handouts rhetorically asked students if they could think of their own hacks. (Yes. Hack the admissions system.) They talked about how a student made an app that texted him when his laundry was done. (Ho hum.) Another one was an app that would unlock the dorm door when the person got close. The big ones were turning the Green Building into a huge Tetris game and the classic police car on the roof stunt. (Apparently it wasn't a real police car and they brought it up in pieces.) The tour makes a specific point of showing the car enshrined in the air at the Stata Center. It was a little too much. Kind of like Rolling Stone going corporate. However, I suppose that's better than many other cultures.

I came across this a while back, and it relates to my view of MIT versus Harvard.

I really liked the fact that the admissions people and our tour guide (a woman) were tech people. It was not like our "gender studies" guide at Harvard who talked about courses that could substitute for their math requirements. Another world may exist at Harvard, but you won't find that at admissions.

"MIT values "clever", in a way that I found deeply annoying .."

I can understand that. Feynman was considered to be clever (or smart) due to slight of hand (he didn't need it). There was that old dorm (frat) door that he hid. I found it more "clever" when he studied ants and sleep. Then there was his cleverness about picking locks. Many of his colleagues saw it as fakery. Yes and no.

I think I understand now, but it would be better if it was still a counter-culture. Having admissions focus on it? Ick. However, my son loved (!) it.

SteveH said...

"big state schools don't profess to offer support"

This has changed somewhat, both at the "college" level and at the department level. My old advisor has mixed feelings about the rules, but I think it's because the support is about giving more chances grade-wise. The university has services for emotional support, but they won't go chasing after you. However, I doubt that your care would be affected by any considerations for how it might impact the image of the university.

"When asked, MIT admins *directly* told parents that there were no drug problems in the dorms."

I'll bet they word it differently these days. My brother-in-law and his daughter went on a tour of Oberlin a few years ago that went through a dorm where there was a special aroma. Later, they overheard the tour guide laughing to another student about how some of the parents were shocked. Apparently, this is (was?) a common culture at Oberlin. I asked my brother-in-law what their graduation rate was. Apparently, they have a bunch of high-functioning drug users.

By the way. Are marijuana users require to go outdoors to smoke? It's interesting how I now tend to get annoyed anytime I smell smoke.

Of course all of this is anecdotal. "Your results might vary." I'm sure we will analyze this 'ad nauseam' after acceptances come in - assuming there is more than one. It will be a good chance to reinforce the idea that he can't look to others to define normal. He reacts very poorly to caffeine (compared to others), so he knows something.

Anonymous said...

Googlemaster wrote 'I don't mean to sound as if I'm picking on SteveH. I'm not. I see the same plural pronouns in gasstationwithoutpumps's posts, and it makes me wonder, "but what does the kid want to do with his life?" '

Yes, I am stressing out a bit, because I'm a homeschooling parent and I have even more paperwork to do on the Common App than my son does (I'm responsible for the school profile, the transcript and description of all the courses, and the counselor letter).

My son is free to apply to whatever schools he is interested in, to go to wherever he gets accepted at (assuming we can afford it, which we probably can, since we've been saving 10% of my gross salary since the day he was born), and to major in whatever he wants. Right now, he wants to be a computer science major (with some computer engineering and physics) doing a lot of acting as well.

My main role in the college trips is to debrief him after each visit, so that he can get clear in his own head about what he likes and dislikes in each school. I try not to let my own opinions color his too much (so far, I think that his priority list is right for him, though it is not the list I would have come up with on my own).

On the hacker ethos:
Our Caltech tour guide made the pranks much more a theme than the MIT guide did. I agree with Allison that the MIT pranks seem to be mainly unauthorized installation art (some of the Caltech ones seemed a bit more mean-spirited—but maybe the MIT tour guide just didn't mention that type).

Allison said...

--They talked about how a student made an app that texted him when his laundry was done. (Ho hum.)

i don't think this is ho hum.

I knew a kid who did this when I was there, before texting; instead he got a phone call.

That meant a 19 yr old had to figure out how to read some aspect of the cycle from something--presumably from the current or voltage, figure out how to interface that reading to a phone using telephony. That may be ho hum to you, the established engineer, but no way that was ho hum to the kids there in the 90s--that was real EE and telephony, which most kids knew nothing about before entering. So that was a cool project.

The bigger issue is what are they trying to tell. Bluntly, these schools are trying to tell you that their school is really for nerds. this is fundamentally different than the culture of extremely bright students at the ivies. But they can't use the word nerd or geek to good effect as much as they can with this kind of object lesson.

Bostonian said...

MIT graduation rates are slightly higher for women than men , which you would not expect if MIT were especially inhospitable to women.

Allison said...

Bostonian, I expect more from a Sailer reader. Stop using Occam's butter knife.

it doesn't follow. First, almost assuredly, the bell curve of admitted women is narrower than that of admitted men because the bell curve of women on any measure is narrower. So the "bottom" 8% are not equally likely to be men and women.

Second, not graduating occurs for a variety of reasons. Flunking out is very rare; leaving to start a startup or become a poker player or some other high risk high reward reason occurs too. These activities are far more likely to be done by men than women.

Third, there is little reason to think graduation rate is a proxy for happiness at MIT or some sort of hospitableness. First, they really don't want to fail out anyone. Grades aren't inflated on the top end, but breathing is usually enough to get a C. So they will graduate you. It is in their interest.

Being miserable and doing badly makes you *less likely* to leave because your grades aren't high enough to get in elsewhere. But more, the female student who goes to MIT doesn't have the temperament of a quitter or one who fails easily.

But it should be obvious from an HBD perspective that generally speaking, the top n% of women don't enjoy not being as good at something as the top n% of men. They don't have the same ambition or drive, and they find that out after they get there. They take personally not performing as well because in general they are more conscientious. And then there are the status issues. Women who never before were remotely award or ever told the reality about how men and women compete for status find it is highly unpleasant. To this day, MIT has a sister school that is 99.9% women, and many MIT men prefer Wellesley women. The men who prefer MIT women are not uniformly distributing their interests.

The MIT report on women in the 90s specifically quoted women profs as saying they felt life was inhospitable there even after tenure. That is because men and women aren't the same. An environment like MIT cannot become hospitable to what makes women feel comfortable and continue to excel at innovation and research.

SteveH said...

"I knew a kid who did this when I was there, before texting; instead he got a phone call."

They, and I, were not talking about the 90's.

It's a marketing ploy, and as such, it doesn't give the full story.

Allison said...

I have been thinking more about this hacking ethos issue.

I think this is just a way for the marketeers, as you call them, to show students what Play looks like at MIT.

Hacking is play. Giving how hard the kids work, they need play. Play at other schools consists in big parties on game day; here it is hacking or gaming.

I think this is why it seemed healthy to me. Too little play makes everyone dull kids : ) I think this is why students respond to it immediately. Adults may not be looking to have their young adults engage in play of this sort, but I think this is what it's about. To the extent that it looks like cruel or at least unkind pranks, I think that's because the kids aren't morally developed yet.

Re: the issue of drugs: there is as much pot in college as there is liquor. Students get stoned as routinely as they get drunk. There is also a never ending stream of other drugs too if you want to find them. Just as lots of adults are perfectly capable of being alcohol users without it destroying their life, there are lots of adults capable of using drugs without it destroying their lives.

The problem is, of course, you don't know which you'll be ahead of time, do you? And for many, you won't know when you've passed out of "occasional temporary user" to "habitual user" to "having a problem". And again, like Tom Wolfe points out, you determine how normal your behavior is by looking around you. And then there is simply the issue of luck: some kids behave stupidly and nothing bad happens to them. Others are not so lucky.

But it doesn't mean the drug users end up dead in a ditch. Personally, I can't stand pot users; they bother me more than hippies. I wouldn't want their life, but I can't say that all of the kids who wasted months of their lives on pot ended up worse for it.