The MIT educational experience is like a series of “ah-ha!” revelations that students
build into an arsenal for attacking problems—and it will happen to you no matter what you
major in. Everyone—this includes philosophy majors as well as physics majors—must take a
year of calculus, a year of physics, a term of chemistry and a term of biology. There are other
institute-level requirements (such as eight humanities, arts, or social science classes and a
laboratory course) but it’s really the science core that sets a quantitative ability standard for
all undergraduates. This standard makes MIT students extremely attractive to graduate schools, professional schools, and potential employers. And it provides for an unusual sense of
community—how many other schools can you name where everyone is able to solve a reasonably
complex kinematics problem?
This doesn’t mean that the only people who belong at MIT are mathematicians, physicists,
and engineers. Quantitative thinkers don’t necessarily manipulate equations for a living,
and there’s certainly a need for more of them in policy-making positions. John Deutch, an MIT
alumnus and professor, lamented the lack of technical literacy in the higher levels of government
during his tenure as Director of the CIA:
…probably two people in the Cabinet could solve quadratic equations.
If you include deputies, you might have four. And three of them will have gone to MIT.
If you’re still trying to figure out whether MIT is the place for you, consider the following
two questions: Does “fuzzy thinking” bother you? Do you want to learn how to critically
assess problems in whatever discipline interests you (whether it’s mechanical engineering or
political science)? If you can answer both with an enthusiastic “Yes!” then there’s no better
place for you academically than MIT.
First, a general overview. MIT is divided into five schools: Architecture; Engineering;
Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; Management; and Science. Within those schools
there are twenty-two academic departments (such as Brain and Cognitive Science,
Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Mathematics). Most departments offer several
majors, all of which are variations on a theme. Students aren’t expected to declare a major until the end of their freshman year, so you don’t need to apply to a particular school or
department as an undergraduate; when you’re admitted to MIT, you’re admitted to all of
MIT. Here’s one student’s perspective on the importance of this:
This lack of bureaucracy pervades MIT’s entire approach to education. With the exception
of a few humanities courses, students never have to deal with being lotteried out of oversubscribed
classes. You can add a class as late as five weeks into the term and drop a class as
late as five weeks before the end of the term. After freshman year, there are no limits on the
number of classes you can take per term or the number of majors you can declare, as long as
your advisor approves the decision (which is a rubber-stamp process for students who are performing
well). Many students double major. Undergraduates can also register for graduate-level
classes, which offer a very different type of educational experience: most graduate courses
meet in a small room with very few students and one professor. The topics in these courses are
usually closely related to the professor’s current area of research, and the class feels more like
a discussion than a lecture.
It didn’t really occur to me that the lack of administrative hassle would
turn out to be such a vital thing. I switched majors twice: from architecture to
biology and from biology to chemistry, and each time all I needed to do was get a
signature from my advisor. I was horrified to hear stories from friends at other
colleges who needed to write a long petition to switch majors, or go through a
mini-admissions process to get into another department. If I had been asked to
choose a major straight out of high school, it would have been a random choice,
As for the undergraduate classes, there’s a lot of variation in the presentation format. Most
of the freshman science core courses consist of three lectures and two recitation sections
per week. Lectures for these courses have between 200 and 300 students, but recitations are
limited to about twenty students per instructor, giving a lot of opportunity for individualized
instruction. Departments also offer variants on the basic core courses, so while the standard
freshman calculus class has the format described above, the theoretical version of freshman
calculus has far fewer students in its lectures. In addition to the other flavors of the science core classes, MIT has different versions of the freshman year program itself. Concourse, the
Experimental Studies Group (ESG), the Terrascope Program, and the Media Arts and Sciences
(MAS) Freshman Program, all offer alternative, innovative approaches to teaching the freshman
curriculum. These programs are limited in size (between twenty-four and sixty students
in each) and are first-come, first-served, so if you’re interested in learning more about them,
do your research before showing up on campus.
The institute gives Advanced Placement credit for some classes if you score well enough
on your AP exams, and in many cases will accept transfer credit from another college.
Advanced standing exams are also offered by MIT, and if you pass them you receive credit.
More than three-quarters of MIT’s enrolling freshmen receive some sort of advanced credit,
but no matter how much credit you have, MIT does not offer sophomore standing to firstterm
freshmen (although second-term sophomore standing is offered in the second term).
There is a limit on the number of classes freshmen can take and there is one other major
difference between the first term of the freshman year and the remainder of the MIT
undergraduate experience: Pass/No Record. This refers to the grading system used for
freshmen. If you earn an A, B, or C in a course, it appears as a P on your transcript. Ds and
Fs do not appear on the external transcript at all—it will simply look as though you had
never even registered for the course. There are three reasons why MIT has this system of
grading: to level the playing field for students from different high school backgrounds; to
get students acclimated to the MIT way of thinking and problem solving; and to allow students
to explore a little (academically or otherwise) without fear of receiving a bad grade.
Many prospective students want to know if the freshman year is difficult. “Different”
would be a better word. Generally speaking, if you’re bright enough to be admitted to MIT,
you’re more than bright enough to handle the material. For students with advanced high
school preparation, most of the core classes will feel like accelerated versions of the material
in high school with slightly more complicated homework, longer tests, and some interesting
stories thrown into the lecture. If you’re truly bored with the standard fare, try one
of the theoretical versions of calculus or physics; even the brightest, most academically prepared
students find these courses to be quite challenging.
Students with less rigorous background training might have more of a shock; if you’ve
never seen a vector before, freshman physics might appear somewhat alien to you at
first. Here’s a hint: If you don’t understand something after fifteen minutes, ask someone.
More often than not, it will take a knowledgeable person five minutes to explain something
that could take you hours to extract from a book. MIT does offer one-on-one tutors for the
science core classes, but it’s usually easier to grab the first available upperclassman for
help. In fact, upperclassmen often look for freshmen working on problem sets. That may
sound bizarre, but there are a few reasons for this apparent selflessness:
- All upperclassmen have taken the core courses, so they are familiar with the material.
- There’s no freshman dormitory, so upperclassmen and freshmen occupy the same
- Realistically, all MIT students are a touch egotistical at heart; they enjoy being able to
demonstrate their knowledge.
So even though they’re not necessarily altruists, the upperclassmen are a fantastic
resource for the freshman class.
After freshman year, it’s difficult to make sweeping claims about academic life. What
people choose as a major drastically affects their experience. Generally speaking, the classes
become much smaller and more specialized. Engineering courses, design courses, and laboratory
courses will be very different from anything you’re likely to have seen in high school.
They’ll be more time consuming as well (some classes are notorious for this). One student had
the following comment:
I had never touched a computer before coming to MIT, so the first time I
took a programming class, I had a lot to learn: how to use a text editor, how to
move files around—some really basic stuff. Many of the other students in the
class had been programming for years, which was sort of intimidating, and on
the first problem set, I spent all night (from 5:00 P.M. to 8:00 A.M.) in front of a
computer and accomplished literally nothing. I was going to drop the class, but
a friend offered to come in and show me the essentials, so I took her up on the
offer. We spent about four hours working, and it was enough to give me an
overview of what I needed to do. I stayed with the course, and ended up earning
an A in it. Looking back, it’s hard for me to imagine why I thought it was so complicated
at first, but I guess that’s because I actually learned something.
Engineering Contest and Other Projects
Some MIT courses are so different, they’re famous. One of the mechanical engineering
design classes requires students to build a small robot, which they ultimately operate
against other robots in a huge contest. This is a cult experience at MIT; many of the people
who take the class are not even mechanical engineering majors! The contest itself is held
in a large lecture hall in front of a packed audience, and it’s televised for the viewers at
home. There’s an electrical engineering version of the same contest in which the robots
must be equipped with an automatic controller. For one of the architecture design courses,
students develop visual projects that they display publicly. So, for a few weeks during the
term, sandboxes, statues, performance artists, and thought-provoking signs can be found
everywhere on campus.
MIT is often thought of as primarily a science and engineering school, but in reality it’s
more of an analytical thinking school. MIT’s economics, management, political science,
and philosophy programs are all top-notch. In particular, economics and management
are always ranked as one of the top three programs in the country. For some reason, math
and music go hand-in-hand, so the music department is phenomenal; moreover, MIT students
can cross-register for classes at both Harvard and Wellesley, so if you’re really dying
to take a course in Sanskrit, that’s not an adequate reason to avoid MIT.
There are two other very unique elements to MIT academics: the Independent Activities
Period (IAP) and the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). IAP
takes place during January, and it’s like a miniature, optional, month-long term. Students
can decide for themselves whether they want to be at MIT for those four weeks, but the
vast majority of students stay. Some students choose to do a wide variety of one-day seminars
and projects, some students take classes (often for credit), and others work. Here’s
a small sampling of the noncredit activities offered during IAP: the 19th Annual Paper
Airplane Contest, Basic Darkroom Techniques, Blackjack 101, Computers and the Human
Genome Project, Hebrew Reading Literacy in Eight Hours, Intro to British Politics,
Practical NMR Spectroscopy. For-credit classes included: Intro to Special Relativity,
Special Problems in Architecture, IAP Japan Workshop (which included a three-week stay
in Japan), Intro to Neuroanatomy, Experiencing Health Policy: A Week in D.C., Foreign
Currency Exchange, Intensive German. There are hundreds of course offerings during IAP; for a complete listing of last year’s activities as well as detailed descriptions of the events,
check out web.mit.edu/iap.
The majority of students who work during IAP will probably do so through UROP, which
is quite arguably one of the best things about MIT. In this program, undergraduate students
work on a research project at MIT. UROP isn’t limited to a select few, nor are the projects
watered-down pedagogical tools. More than eighty percent of all students choose to get a UROP
at some point in their undergraduate careers. The projects themselves are ongoing research
efforts, so undergraduates work together with professors, graduate students, and “postdocs.”
With a little motivation, undergraduates can even coauthor research papers with the group,
and there’s no better way to cultivate a good faculty reference for later use. UROP enables students
to interact with professors as colleagues, not just teachers; it also gives undergraduates
an excellent sense for what graduate studies in a particular field would be like. On top of all
this, students actually get paid for their work in UROP so they don’t have to choose between
meeting financial need and doing undergraduate research. For a listing of current UROP
openings and their descriptions, look at web.mit.edu/urop.
The summer after my freshman year, I got a UROP with the Communications
Biophysics Group working on a speech aid for deaf-blind people. We built
a device that decomposed sound waves into different spectral regions, and then
mapped each region to one of twelve buzzers. When you strapped the device on your
forearm, you were able to ‘feel’ people talking. The engineering was cool, but working
with the deaf-blind test subjects was probably the most interesting part. They
had been deaf and blind since birth, yet could speak pretty well and were able to
‘hear’ me talk by placing their hand across my face. Listening to their perceptions
of the world was absolutely fascinating.
Most Popular Fields of Study
From the time Early Action applications arrive in early November,
until Regular Action decisions are made in early March, each admissions staff
member will have read close to 950 applications. It seems that most MIT applicants
have high standardized test scores and very good grades. Our pool is very
self-selecting, so a lot of the applicants are quite similar. We turn down a surprising
number of straight-A students.
The take-home message is that you need to be distinctive. MIT is fortunate enough to
be able to pick and choose from a very large pool of academically superior applicants.
Distinction comes in many forms; athletes, musicians, chess players, and debaters are all distinctive
if they achieve at a high level. Applicants who work on a farm for thirty hours a week
and still manage to get straight As are distinctive. Students who have gone out of their way to
take college courses or participate in independent research are distinctive. And of course,
extreme academic talent or achievement is distinctive.
A word about how MIT defines “extreme” for academics—straight As and 800s on your
SATs are not enough to guarantee admission (more than a third of MIT applicants have at least
one 800). MIT is far more likely to admit a student with scores in the 700s, a few Bs in English
classes, and an Intel science fair project that made it into the semifinals. Why? Because the
Intel applicant has demonstrated initiative, a passion for learning, and a degree of competence
in a very competitive field. That last bit is important. No matter how brilliant you are, if the
Admissions Committee can’t see your brilliance, then it won’t help your application one iota.
And the SATs alone are not enough to prove brilliance.
So, if you’re truly gifted academically, make sure that the committee has some way of
knowing that you
- Participate in the American Mathematics Corporation
- Get into an academic competition or science fair at the state (even better, national) level.
- Find a local university professor and get involved in independent research. It helps if you
include a letter of recommendation from that professor with your application.
- For those of you who spend a solitary forty hours a week hacking on the internals of some
compiler, please make sure that you have some way of providing verification of this work
in your application.
- Get your independent programming projects supervised by teachers at your high school
and then choose these supervisors to write your letters of recommendation.
This touches nicely on another point: how to present yourself in the application. Pick
teachers who know you well (preferably, ones who like you) to write your evaluations. Ask them
to relate some anecdote that they think captures you as a student. It’s very difficult to get a feel
for an applicant from a list of adjectives; “intelligent,” “motivated,” and “curious” all have different
meanings, depending on who is using them. A story, on the other hand, provides context
for the reader of the application, and has the nice side effect of making you appear more of a
living, breathing, human being.
Description of Activities
Also, when you list your extracurricular activities, be very descriptive. The Admissions
Committee probably doesn’t know a lot of specifics about your high school, so if you
write that you are the president of the National Honor Society, the reader doesn’t know if
there are five people in the NHS or 500. Detail is good. Detail is also important in writing
your application essays. Expounding on some formative event in your life is a reasonable
start, but remember that you’re not just telling a story—you’re trying to convince the
reader why you belong at MIT more than 12,000 other students. Show off your creativity. If you choose to take a humorous route, be witty, not just funny. Above all, try to display some
element of intellectual curiosity in your writing. Speak to the reader.
As for the interview, it can be a mixed bag. In most cases, the interview lasts for about an
hour and consists of fairly low-stress questions. The questions will probably be reasonably
vague (as in, “Why do you want to go to MIT?”), so it helps to think about these types of questions
in advance. You should also come up with a set of meaningful questions to ask, something
beyond “How good is the food?” because it will indicate to the interviewer that you’re serious
about your decision to apply. Questions turn the interview into a two-way conversation, which
will help to make it less stressful. In reality, a negative interview report is unlikely to hurt your
application very much, but a good interview can give you an extra edge in gaining admission.
There are a few more highlights you should probably know about the MIT admissions
- Of the 13,396 applications received in a recent year, 1,589 students were admitted, so competition
- MIT is Early Action, not Early Decision (if you’re admitted early, you don’t have to enroll).
- MIT admissions are need-blind, so the admissions staff has no idea how much your parents
make or whether you’re applying for financial aid.
- MIT is looking to build a diverse class, including diversity of ethnicity, socioeconomic
status, geography, and interests—both academic and non-academic.
- Finally, international applicants go through a more competitive admissions process.
All of this factual information, plus a lot of other detail, can be found in the MIT admissions
By now you’ve probably realized that MIT is expensive. Fortunately though, we’re not
cheap. In fact, this year, MIT will award $74 million in undergraduate aid. That’s one of the
highest amounts per enrolled student in the U.S. Because MIT is dedicated to finding the best
students in the world, we follow a need-blind admissions policy. This means a student’s ability
to pay has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not he or she is admitted.
And once you’re admitted we want to make sure you can get here. Financial aid is widely
available and is provided in a need-based fashion to any student who needs assistance.
Approximately two-thirds of our students receive scholarships based on need. And for low-andmiddle-
income families earning less than $75,000 per year, MIT will cover the full cost of tuition
with scholarship. And believe it or not, the amount of financial aid we give students is rising
faster than tuition rates. Students at MIT today pay 15% less net tuition (tuition after MIT
scholarships) than they did 10 years ago—inflation included.
Bottom line: we’re not after your money. So even though many students do find it necessary
to seek outside loans, there’s a good chance you won’t have to. Or, if you do, you’ll have
no trouble paying them back. In the most recent class, half of the students graduated with no
debt whatsoever. For undergraduates who do borrow, the median debt upon graduation currently
totals $11,500, which is 51% less than it was ten years ago, and less than a quarter of the
cost of one year at MIT.
As an MIT grad you’ll literally have the potential to change the world—and companies
know it. The job placement rate for MIT students is incredibly high compared to other universities
and the average starting salary for students graduating with a bachelor’s degree is
$61,260. Basically we’re determined to make sure that what you get from MIT (and we’re not
just talking money) is a whole lot more than what you pay for.
Student Financial Aid Details
MIT’s housing system has a lot to offer: a diversity of experiences; a place truly to call
home; active communities, with opportunities to connect with undergraduate students
of all years, as well as faculty and graduate students. But most of all, it offers the freedom to
choose housing most appropriate to you and that best suits your personality and lifestyle.
All freshmen are required to spend their first year at MIT living in one of MIT’s eleven
undergraduate residence halls. However, this doesn’t mean that the decision of where to live is
going to be simple or boring—in fact, quite opposite is true. MIT has an amazingly diverse residential
community. Each residence hall has a different flavor, and most floors within these
houses have distinct cultures. For example, there is a brand new residence hall; an all-women’s
residence hall; a residence hall that is world famous for its architectural significance; a residential
hall that wired its laundry and bathroom facilities to the Internet. There are also five
cultural houses that celebrate the languages, foods, and customs of different cultures.
On-campus housing is guaranteed for freshmen and for upper-class students for eight
consecutive semesters. After the freshman year, many students will take the opportunity to
move into one of MIT’s many fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups (FSILGs).
Today, there are twenty-seven fraternities, six NPC sororities, five living groups and four NPHC
fraternities and sororities. Each fraternity, sorority, and living group has its own unique characteristics.
However, each group’s primary purpose is to foster brother/sisterhood and camaraderie,
and provide a supportive and healthy environment for its members.
Loyalty to one’s living group is common at MIT. Undergraduates find that the residence
halls and FSILGs are a great support network, academically, socially, and otherwise.
There are more than 430 student activities at MIT, including cultural groups, student
government, journalistic organizations, performance groups, and clubs for people
interested in games. Getting involved at the institute is very easy—just ask. MIT students
are about as anti-elitist as people can get; they’re usually thrilled to find someone else
who’s interested in what they do. They’re also enthusiastic teachers, so even if you know nothing about a particular game or skill, you’ll probably be able to find someone who will
spend hours showing you the ropes. Free of charge.
MIT students are famous for the elaborate practical jokes, or hacks, that they manage
to pull off. Cars, telephone booths, makeshift houses, and plastic cows have all appeared on the
tops of MIT buildings at various points throughout MIT history. While many hacks require what
seems to be a small miracle of engineering, others are just really good ideas put into action.
The history of MIT’s hacks is chronicled in three books and on the web at http://hacks.mit.edu
Student Enrollment Demographics
Student Graduation Demographics
MIT has an amazingly large athletics program—there are forty-one varsity teams at the
institute. In many of these sports, MIT is quite competitive, even by national standards.
Athletics at MIT are accessible; it is not uncommon for a person with no rowing experience
to join the crew team as a freshman and then stay with it at the varsity level for four
years (the Charles River is literally across the street from MIT). Club and intramural (IM)
teams are also very common; at last count there were more than 1,000 IM teams participating
in thirty different sports. D-league ice hockey is a great example of the IM spirit. It’s
hockey for people who don’t necessarily know how to skate. The A-league teams, however,
are considerably less forgiving.
Many extraordinarily bright people have attended MIT. The institute has had more than
its share of Nobel Laureates, National Medal of Science recipients, and the like. Rattling off a
long list of MIT’s all-time stars would be interesting but probably wouldn’t tell you much about
how the average graduate fares.
MIT students have very high acceptance rates
into postbaccalaureate programs, and more than fifty
percent of graduating seniors choose to go directly to
graduate, medical, or law school. Industry and government
employers heavily recruit students seeking jobs
after graduation. A nice side benefit of MIT is the
name recognition—simply saying you’re a graduate
commands a certain level of respect. Of course, it also
sets a pretty high expectation level for your abilities.
MIT prepares its graduates to be more than just
cogs in the machine, unless you like being a cog, in
which case that’s your choice. In 1997, the BankBoston Economics Department prepared a
report titled “MIT: The Impact of Innovation.”
MIT graduates excel at whatever they choose to do, primarily because they can often
think circles around people with less quantitative backgrounds. While they’re here, students
may complain about the work load, but it’s unlikely that you’ll ever hear the phrase “I regret
getting an MIT degree.”
- Richard Feynman, ’39, Nobel Prize
Winner in Physics
- I.M. Pei, ’40, Architect
- Sheila Widnall, ’61, Former Secretary
of Air Force
- Shirley Jackson, ’68, U.S. Nuclear
- Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper ’84,
- Alex Rigopulos ’92, CEO of