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Can I get into Caltech or MIT?

by erikreinhart
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twofish-quant
#37
Mar9-11, 11:18 PM
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Quote Quote by Rebooter View Post
In my case, I skipped everything past lunch my senior year of HS to go dick around most days of the week(which included AP Calculus/AP Physics etc)
Was late to first period 20 something days that year, and still had a 5 on the AB Calc test and straight As.
Which is why freshman year at MIT is something of a shock. Most people that get into MIT find high school easy and can get good grades without a huge amount of work, so it comes as a shock when the fire hose gets turned on, and you get a 50/100 on a test, and turns out that this is only slightly below class average, and the uber-genius in the class got a 70/100.

What I think is a better question to figure out if you'd love or hate MIT is the question "are you bored?"

If you are aceing all of your classes, and you hate the fact that you are aceing the classes, and you'd really prefer somewhere that you end up doing badly if it means learning something new, then MIT will work. If not (and there is no shame in saying that you would prefer to keep aceing your classes), then it won't.

I'm definitely only "moderately" intelligent.
Intelligence turns out to not be that important for a lot of things, including surviving MIT.
twofish-quant
#38
Mar9-11, 11:24 PM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by mathwonk View Post
and you think my post was hogwash?
I have the advantage here that I went to MIT as an undergraduate. While I'm not directly involved in admissions, I do know alumni that have volunteered for the MIT Educational Council who is involved in recruitment and admissions. When I've talked to them, they tell me that its a depressing job, because there are far, far, far more qualified applicants than spaces.

Personally, I'd like to see MIT expand to take in 10,000 or 1 million students rather than the 1000 that get admitted now, but the Cambridge campus is too small. People wonder why MIT puts all of its classes online, and this is why. It's so that you don't have to go through a stupid committee to take 18.01.

If you have better information that contradicts what I'm saying here, let me know.
cwoodall
#39
Mar10-11, 04:21 PM
P: 2
Hey there.

I do not go to MIT, but I know some people who do go to MIT and the kids who go there are certainly brilliant and above par, but grades is tangential to their acceptance. You can win every competition have a 5.0 on a 4.0 unweighted scale, get perfect scores on all your SATs, but if you don't express a passion you will have trouble getting in... Well that might be an exaggeration for this case. However, the most important thing is portraying in your essays that you DO stuff... What little projects have you done? Did you randomly decide to make a cross bow one day? Are you working in a lab? How did you get into Half-Life 2 mapping? How did that change over time?

In short, be interesting and it will increase your choices exponentially. Don't be a cookie cutter student, dont write the essay 75% of high school students write, write about something you are passionate about, write it well and enforce that you are interesting. Also, you might be tempted to write about the struggles of IB or your academic program... Try to keep it as personal as possible, this is about you, not every IB/AP student.

Still everyones chances are slim and it is a luck of the draw situation regardless of how smart you are.
bleedblue1234
#40
Mar10-11, 08:37 PM
P: 143
Twofish-Quant, have you had a chance to look at a place like college confidential to see what the typical MIT/Caltech/HYP applicant looks like these days? It is pretty much guaranteed he/she has a very high (3.9+) GPA along with a 2200-2300+ SAT score. Even then, these schools reject plenty of perfect scorers every year. Times have changed drastically over the past few years. MIT now admits just under 10% of applicants, which has dropped significantly from what it was even 10 years ago. The game has gotten tougher and tougher.

I have stats that should put me in the "top 1%" of test takers and I go to a fantastic high school, but I didn't even bother applying to the top ivies / MIT. The only people I know who got in had rather rediculous GPAs/SATs/extracurriculars. Why would they pass on the guy with a 4.0 / 2400 / great extracurriculers for someone with a 3.8 / 2100 / ok extracurriculars...

They draw the bar somewhere, and the bar keeps rising, although it probably has "topped out." They don't just admit the guy with worse scores because he adds "diversity." Unless he brings someone else outstanding, he won't get admitted.
Skrew
#41
Mar10-11, 09:05 PM
P: 168
Can anyone provide evidence that the average student would get a better education at one of these "top tier" colleges verses state?

Besides lack of certain research opportunities I'm not seeing what puts these colleges above others in terms of educational quality.
flemmyd
#42
Mar10-11, 09:15 PM
P: 144
Quote Quote by bleedblue1234 View Post
Twofish-Quant, have you had a chance to look at a place like college confidential to see what the typical MIT/Caltech/HYP applicant looks like these days? It is pretty much guaranteed he/she has a very high (3.9+) GPA along with a 2200-2300+ SAT score. Even then, these schools reject plenty of perfect scorers every year. Times have changed drastically over the past few years. MIT now admits just under 10% of applicants, which has dropped significantly from what it was even 10 years ago. The game has gotten tougher and tougher.
I'm going to venture out and say that the kind of people who hang out/post their stats on college confidential aren't necessarily the only type of people who get into top schools like MIT/Harvard/etc. There are a lot of high achieving students there and there are bound to be plenty of smart kids who get in (and way more who don't).
mathwonk
#43
Mar11-11, 12:00 AM
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twofish, i may have less information than you about MIT admissions. I have friends on the faculty there but did not go there myself, and my opinions are based on my own experiences elsewhere. On that basis i thought it unlikely that a student with 3's on his AP exams would either find admission or success at MIT. Do you have other information? E.g. did you gain admission to MIT with such scores?

I gather that you found MIT very challenging but also very fulfilling. In my estimation that means you did not find it "overwhelming", at least by my interpretation of that word. In my experience although there are tenacious people like yourself who respond well to conditions they find almost overwhelming at first, more are not. Thus as an advisor for over 30 years, I have learned to be conservative with my advice to the typical student. Still I am always happy to learn of cases like your own where a student rises above his initial impression.

I am especially happy to know that you took away from your experience at MIT an inspiration of what a top school can offer. I take that as a compliment to your stamina and ability, and also to the skill of the professors there.
mathwonk
#44
Mar11-11, 12:12 AM
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to skrew, i feel it is unwise for an average student to go to a top tier school, since he/she is unlikely to arrive there with the same advantages as the students coming from elite schools. every talented student can eventually achieve outstanding success, but more easily if he or she is trained at a rate commensurate with their background. in the end it does not matter whether a student takes 10 or 20 years years to flower, as success at 30 or 40 years of age is essentially the same.

My opinions are of course not necessarily correct, but they are my best assessment, after a long career of advisement, teaching, and research.
twofish-quant
#45
Mar11-11, 01:16 AM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by mathwonk View Post
On that basis i thought it unlikely that a student with 3's on his AP exams would either find admission or success at MIT. Do you have other information?
I personally know people who have gotten into MIT with 3's on the AP. AP exams are optional so for MIT admission purposes it's better to have gotten a 3 on the AP than to not have taken the tests at all.

Thus as an advisor for over 30 years, I have learned to be conservative with my advice to the typical student.
I make it a policy to try to never give advice. I try to give information. MIT can be a *AWFUL* school for the wrong student, and whether you will fit in or not has very little to do with your test scores.
twofish-quant
#46
Mar11-11, 01:36 AM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by mathwonk View Post
i feel it is unwise for an average student to go to a top tier school, since he/she is unlikely to arrive there with the same advantages as the students coming from elite schools.
But for some of us that's a good thing.

Also MIT is considerably more supportive in some ways than your average state public university. If you go to your typical state school and you fail freshman physics, then you are out of the game, and state schools often have weed out classes to get rid of students.

Since MIT has already done the weed out at the admissions level, there's no pressure to get rid of students, so if you fail freshman physics, then it's not recorded on your transcript, and you have a second bite of the apple.

Every talented student can eventually achieve outstanding success, but more easily if he or she is trained at a rate commensurate with their background.
MIT doesn't have that philosophy. They dunk you into the water and see how much sticks. Also, MIT is to a large extent student directed. The classes themselves are decent, but going to MIT for the quality of the classes is like going to the Grand Canyon for the fine dining or to NYC for the peace and quiet.

I hate easy. I get bored by easy. I want hard.
twofish-quant
#47
Mar11-11, 02:31 AM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by cwoodall View Post
However, the most important thing is portraying in your essays that you DO stuff... What little projects have you done? Did you randomly decide to make a cross bow one day? Are you working in a lab? How did you get into Half-Life 2 mapping? How did that change over time?
There is a reason for this. What everyone is afraid of is that you'll admit someone with perfect scores, and midway freshman year, they find out that it is impossible for them to get top scores and they are struggle to barely pass. Their parents are a thousand miles away, they may not have the social skills to make friends at the institute, and things just get worse and worse until something really, really bad happens.

Before they toss you into the ocean, they want to make sure that you won't drown. If you randomly decide to make a cross bow, then when everything goes totally bad freshman year (and this happens to everyone), you go out with your friends and build a trebuchet that shoots watermelons toward East Campus.

Still everyones chances are slim and it is a luck of the draw situation regardless of how smart you are.
Yup. That's why there is Open Courseware and the Enterprise Forums exist.
twofish-quant
#48
Mar11-11, 02:43 AM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by Skrew View Post
Can anyone provide evidence that the average student would get a better education at one of these "top tier" colleges verses state?
The problem with the question is that there is no average student. "Top tier" colleges are not the same. "State universities" are not the same. Also you get into the question of what a "better education" is. One thing that happens when you go to college is that it changes your standards for "better."

When I was thinking about what university to go to, I went to a presentation by a dean at the University of Florida in which he was talking about the honors program. I mentioned that I wanted to study both physics and writing, and he thought I was joking. I crossed UF off my list.

Besides lack of certain research opportunities I'm not seeing what puts these colleges above others in terms of educational quality.
I can think of a number of things....

a) I never had a multiple choice test at MIT. Every test that I ever took was hand graded with a lot of partial credit and notes explaining what I did wrong. What this means is that when you have the tests for intro calculus graded you have the entire math department in a room grading tests.
b) No weed out classes and large curves. Most classes in physics were A/B centered, which meant that you were likely to end up with a decent grade if you did the work.
c) Students were on the major faculty committees and had real input into how the university was run.
d) Meeting people that were pretty serious about physics and math
e) e-mail and internet access. That isn't a big thing in 2011, but I went to MIT in 1987, when it was a really original idea to give students e-mail and internet access. I think I was one of the first people in the world to use this new gizmo called the WWW in 1991.

The thing about these things is that none of them are magic, and you could replicate it without too much trouble outside of MIT. Also everything that you find at MIT will likely find its way to the rest of the world, but it's cool to see something five years before everyone else does.
twofish-quant
#49
Mar11-11, 11:27 AM
P: 6,863
just to confuse this discussion with facts...... :-) :-) :-)

http://www.mitadmissions.org/topics/...cs/index.shtml
cwoodall
#50
Mar11-11, 12:06 PM
P: 2
I personally go to Boston University, which is right across the river (hence why I know my fair share of MIT kids). At first it seemed daunting to me, since I am in engineering, to have them so close. In the end I feel pretty luck because I can benefit from a lot of the things MIT does... For example, most guest lectures, the awesome electronic music concerts, EC, hackathons, knowing awesome people...

Also, a lot of these things called hackerspaces are showing up around different schools. BU has one called BUILDS, which focuses on Engineering and Comp Sci. We have a lot of real world electronics projects, as well as, code projects. Brown has one that is pretty good, so does North Eastern... I don't know about Harvard or Boston College... Hackerspaces are a great way to bring a certain aspect of MIT "lets just build it" attitude to any other school, especially if the club gets college funding.

One warning about MIT, from my observations: it has a very strong and unique culture, which is not always what you might think from the "type of kid" that would go to MIT. If you get accepted, you really need to inspect dorm cultures and make sure you will enjoy the culture there, because if you don't you will be miserable.
mathwonk
#51
Mar11-11, 03:19 PM
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twofish, you sound as if you had a really wonderful time at MIT and still are having one. I am still not inclined to advise many students to follow your lead, unless their record clearly indicates excellence. As a college professor since 1970, giving academic advice has been part of my job, and of course it is not easy to do it well. I started out being more optimistic about the chances for success of most students I advised, based on the experience of a few people like yourself in bucking the odds. I found out that such cases are rather unusual, and most people tend to have unsuccessful experiences when they overextend themselves.
Perhaps all those years of reality checks have made me less suitable as an adviser for very gifted and hard working people. I am glad to have your spirited and enthusiastic advice here, but it may not serve everyone well who is looking for a place to flourish.


E.g. When my son was applying, Stanford sent out FAQ's for applicants that included the question: "should I take harder classes even if it means I get some B's, or is it better for my chances of acceptance to have all A's?". The answer of course was: "Successful applicants to Stanford tend to take harder classes AND get all A's." It was my impression that this is still the attitude of admissions offices at very selective schools like MIT.


I went to Harvard in 1960, and saw many young people there become disillusioned and unhappy because they had hoped to be stars as they were in high school, and found themselves unable to shine in that environment. The courses in physics in those days were certainly not A/B centered, and the attrition rate in the elite honors math classes was over 50% per semester. Most of those who fell by the wayside did not continue in their originally chosen field.


On the other hand since then I have known more people who went to schools like Rice, or Haverford, or Grinnell or Swarthmore, and became scientific stars later. The people who went to the wrong place for them at the wrong time in their careers, just left the field. I often see the attitude expressed here by young people that if they could just get into the most prestigious school, then all would be well. This is not my experience. I definitely believe it is not who you know but what you can do that matters, and you usually develop that ability with good teaching, not just being thrown into the water. Of course there are remarkable exceptions, but they are just that, exceptions.


I have also coached high school students who wanted to enter top tier schools, in several variable calculus, Galois theory, number theory, fractal geometry, and topology. Some of them have been accepted to MIT, Harvard, and Chicago, and took very challenging classes at those schools, of which they were very proud. But I am not sure those classes helped their training as much as their egos. None of those students became scientists. Some who went to somewhat less famous schools however are today active and productive mathematicians. I conclude that a person whose main desire is to do mathematics is more likely to become a mathematician than someone whose main desire is to get into MIT or Harvard.

Still I applaud your success and your desire to encourage people to shoot for the stars.
twofish-quant
#52
Mar11-11, 11:30 PM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by mathwonk View Post
twofish, you sound as if you had a really wonderful time at MIT and still are having one. I am still not inclined to advise many students to follow your lead, unless their record clearly indicates excellence.
Excellence is a difficult concept.

I can say that there is a minimum level of math skill and if you don't meet that minimum level, it's a bad idea for you to go because you won't be able to keep up with the work. That minimum level is probably something like 650 on the SAT. You also need to do decent on the standard college prep course.

However, the number of people that meet that minimum level of math skill is rather high (and pretty much everyone on the list). If you've taken calculus and pre-calculus in high school and you don't have any particular problems with it, then you have the basic math skills that you need for the MIT curriculum, and at that point you shouldn't be excluded because of grades or GPA.

At that point it becomes an issue of mental toughness and other personality traits, which is something that you can't see with test scores. One thing about things like motivation is that the student probably knows better what they want they I do. I can't tell from talking to someone whether they *really* like science or are just saying the right things to get something.

Also, this is why I call the MIT admissions process, bogus. You are trying to figure out a human being based on a short one to two page essay. Ultimately you can't. Lot's of people don't get in that should. Some people get in that shouldn't. However, when I've seen people that have done badly at MIT, it's never been because they just couldn't handle the math. It's trivial to write a test that would exclude people that are clearly unqualified to get in, but most high school students that have taken pre-calculus would pass that test. The really bad things that cause people to drop out or worse are personality issues.

I started out being more optimistic about the chances for success of most students I advised, based on the experience of a few people like yourself in bucking the odds. I found out that such cases are rather unusual, and most people tend to have unsuccessful experiences when they overextend themselves.
It depends on what you mean by overextend. Because of the personality traits of people at MIT, most students *do* try to overextend themselves, and a good part of what the faculty have to do is to try to keep students from doing things that cause permanent damage. One good thing about MIT is that unlike most state schools, if you do seriously mess up, then it's not a permanent mark against you. If you fail a class freshman year, then it doesn't go on your transcript, and no one will ever know that it happened,

The culture of MIT embraces failure. One thing about MIT grading is I've never had a test in which anyone had any chance of getting a perfect score. That's intentional, and it's designed to teach you something. You are an idiot. But the cool thing is that you are an idiot, but so are your teachers and your administrators. They are idiots too. If you aren't being an idiot, then you aren't inventing new stuff, or doing new things.

I don't know of anyone that went to MIT that didn't have something like a nervous breakdown at one point. But you learn at MIT how to handle nervous breakdowns and bad moments. The thing that I loved about MIT was that I think I was working at the limits of what was physically possible for me. My body and brain just would not let me work harder than I did, and I taught myself tricks for being productive, and figured out what worked, and didn't work.

Just to give you a funny example of "what I learned at MIT." At home, my mother always told me to eat my vegetables. Once I ended up at MIT, I could eat whatever I wanted, and after two months, I just felt lousy and I constantly had stomach problems. It's because no one was telling me to eat my vegetables, and so after I did those problems disappeared. That's the type of thing that you learn at MIT.

The answer of course was: "Successful applicants to Stanford tend to take harder classes AND get all A's." It was my impression that this is still the attitude of admissions offices at very selective schools like MIT.
MIT is MIT. MIT isn't Stanford. MIT sure as hell isn't Harvard. One problem with thinking in terms of "elite schools" is that it makes you think that MIT and Harvard/Stanford are the same, when they really are totally different. Personally, I think I would have been miserable at Harvard, since it's a totally, totally different school. I look a few classes there, and I really hated the environment.

I went to Harvard in 1960, and saw many young people there become disillusioned and unhappy because they had hoped to be stars as they were in high school, and found themselves unable to shine in that environment.
Sure, and everyone that goes to MIT figures out that they are no longer stars, and it's a traumatic experience for a lot of people.

Personally, it was a relief for me. One of my deep dark secrets in high school was that I hated being number one. I found MIT to be a relief because since it was impossible to be number one, there was no point in trying and no shame in failing. The other one of my deep dark secrets in high school was that I was profoundly lonely. I was really the only science geek in my school. The nice thing about MIT was that I was now in a school full of science geeks, and "science was cool."

The problem with MIT admissions is that there is no way that I'd put any of this on an admissions application, partly because I didn't realize a lot of this stuff was going on at the time. If you really want to see whether someone will thrive at MIT or not, you have to look into a person's soul, and the student coming in knows more about their soul than the admissions committee.

Part of what I'm trying to do is to scare people away from MIT.

The courses in physics in those days were certainly not A/B centered, and the attrition rate in the elite honors math classes was over 50% per semester. Most of those who fell by the wayside did not continue in their originally chosen field.
Something that one dean told me is that Vietnam changed things a lot. One failing out of college meant getting shipped off to Vietnam, college grading policies changed radically. Also physics at MIT feels a lot like "lost nobility." In the 1960's, the physicists were the kings of the Institute. In the 1970's that role moved to EECS, and today, it's the biologists that are the masters of the institute. What that means that the physics department has a very strong interest in getting people to stay in physics.

One of the things that the physics department at MIT did was to totally revamp the intro physics classes 8.01 and 8.02. The political reason for this was that there was serious talk of dropping physics as a general institute requirement, and if the physics department didn't do something original with 8.01 and 8.02, they would have lost that battle.

There is a persistent academic fight at MIT that started when I was there and is still going on between the "old school" physics/math people and the "new school" biology/management people. One thing that was traumatic for me, but probably good in the long run is that because you had different professors telling me different things, I had to figure out for myself what worked for me.

The people who went to the wrong place for them at the wrong time in their careers, just left the field. I often see the attitude expressed here by young people that if they could just get into the most prestigious school, then all would be well. This is not my experience.
Nor mine. People don't spend enough time researching schools. Part of it is that most of the material that schools put out are glossy marketing materials that really don't tell you useful information.

I definitely believe it is not who you know but what you can do that matters, and you usually develop that ability with good teaching, not just being thrown into the water.
I'm a bit more cynical. It does matter who you know, but then figuring out how to know the right people is just part of the problem.

Also, it really depends on the student and the place. One reason that MIT worked well for me is that there was never anyone that told me that I couldn't do something.


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