Can I get into Caltech or MIT?

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mathwonk
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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.
 
  • #52
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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.
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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