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How to Answer the MIT Supplemental Essay Prompts 2019-2020

20 OCT 2019

MIT's admissions application comes with a unique set of five short questions or prompts, each of which offers an applicant the opportunity to stand out from the crowd but also the opportunity to be sincere, authentic, and measured in how one describes oneself from a number of perspectives.

One thing to keep in mind is how you chart your responses so that they seem a) holistic/organic/authentic b) tied together, unified, and focused, and c) well-researched without being over the top in their references to university offerings. At the end of each response, you should have a sense of growth through the reflections you made, no matter how small.

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Question 1: We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it. (100 words or fewer)

The first question speaks to who you are and what you really enjoy doing. The emphasis here is on an activity or a set of activities that you do of your own volition, and less on activities required of you, even if you enjoy your extracurricular activities.

You shouldn't worry about impressing an admissions committee with a description of your science fair experiments, or even a description of how much you enjoy being the poetry editor of your high school newspaper.

Instead, recall a moment or a time in your life in which you felt peace, inspiration, contentment, or even awe. Help the admissions committee reader see the scene with you, albeit a very short, focused scene.

Some examples:

Neighborhood Walk: Do you find that you enjoy listening to music while going on walks in your neighborhood? Do you find synchronicity in the music and what you see around you? Do you find yourself forgetting your worries or obligations and just enjoying the music? Do you get excited to discover new music, download the next album? Use these questions to consider what music might mean for you and how maybe listening to your favorite music enhances your life in different, subtle ways. You might want to change this suggestion up a bit to suit your musical needs.

Playing an Instrument: If you do play an instrument, you can talk about what it means for you outside of your curriculum. You shouldn't mention, necessarily, orchestra or band. But maybe you can mention the band you started with your friends, or the moments when you pick up your clarinet, guitar, violin, or saxophone to practice for the sheer enjoyment of it.

Drawing/Painting: Do you like to draw in your free time? Or do you like to paint? As an option, you can describe the value you derive from the satisfaction of seeing something both in progress and in completion, the evolution of a project even if it is not something entirely artistic but more in line with your interests, whatever they may be.

Whatever it is you find fascination and contentment in, write about it so that you evoke a scene through a description of sensory and contextual details. Focus on what makes that voluntary project or interest fascinating to you and take a snapshot, as it were, with a Polaroid. Describe that Polaroid's contents and why they matter to you.

Be honest, be concise, be yourself, and be authentic.

Question 2: Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why? (100 words or fewer)

Given the limitation on words here, indicating your academic or disciplinary interest will necessarily need to focus on the "why" of your choice, even if it is one you think you will change at a later point.

What you can do right now is research several departments and professors within each of those departments. If you want to focus on mechanical engineering, think about what a couple of professors are doing as part of their work. You could mention Professor David Trumper's research on "Magnetic levitation for nanometer-scale motion control" and mention that you are interested in the mechanical application of nanotechnologies around issues of improving computer processors.

Be careful not to generalize. Instead of generalizing your interest in MIT by referencing what is common knowledge (it's a great school, X or Y department/professor is great), be specific and tie your interests into long-term goals. You might also mention, if you do your research, an extracurricular group or club that fits into your goals and the department's offerings. Maybe there is a robotics design club that you can reference alongside entrepreneurial competitions at the school to realize your long-term interest in developing a mechanical engineering consulting firm.

By triangulating your long-term interests with specific departmental/university offerings, and professorial interests/research projects, as well as their course offerings (another contact point for being specific) in your response, you can show the reader you a) did your research b) are capable of synthesizing together opportunities at MIT for your own use and c) that you are dedicated to exploring the wide range of possibilities open to you there.

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Question 3: At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s most significant challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (200-250 words)

Essay prompt #3 provides you with more room. That doesn't mean we need to lose focus on being specific. Instead, we want to use this as an opportunity to bridge our personal lives with curricular and extra-curricular opportunities at MIT. And where the above responses merited a few sentences, essay prompts 3-5 will require an introduction, body, and conclusion. Aim to have one to three sentences in your introduction followed by three to five in your body and, again, one to three sentences in your conclusion. Don't worry about being overly formal—simply pay attention to the mechanics around the beginning and end of your response. That is, make sure it seems well considered and as a bonus, you might want to reference a community-oriented group at MIT that interests you, and that is similar to community volunteering/work you have done before. Whatever you do, be honest, as admissions committees can sense if you are exaggerating, and be sincere. Humility and creativity are essential here.

Some examples:

Neighborhood Helper: Do you help your neighbors out with babysitting for free? Do you have siblings you help to take care of? What about elders in your family or community? Do you work with an at-needs community? Have you ever spent the summer working as a camp counselor? Talk about the time you helped a student learn how to swim or the time that you took a group of inner-city kids into the forest for the first time, their look of awe, and the sense of discovery they experienced at that moment. You can talk about how bringing discovery to more communities is what drives you to be an engineer since you want to engineer the next generation of infrastructure that makes carbon-free public transportation a speedy reality.

School Volunteer: When it comes to the classroom, have you served a volunteer or consistently volunteered with some group or community project? When have you felt a call to participate in your community and how did you do that? You could talk about your motivation to help an afterschool group that volunteers with people who have Down Syndrome. You could talk about the summer you spent with people who have Down Syndrome and the inspiration you felt in working with people whose needs exceeded your own but nevertheless revealed how far they had come in their own accomplishments. You can talk about how you want to continue working with differently abled communities through technological innovation that is geared towards their educational needs and interests.

Humanitarian Worker: Have you ever spent a summer in Guatemala or Lagos? Have you volunteered abroad? You might want to describe a time abroad in which you helped bring vaccines, food, potable water, or something else to an at needs communities. From that time abroad, you can talk about how your work in Guatemala helping Maya children learn English as a third language revealed to you how linguistic interaction in the 21st century has a long way to go. Inspired by apps like Duo Lingo, you want to make the next generation of translation software for communities that are beginning to participate in the global marketplace.

Each of these questions and examples illustrates the connections you should make between your volunteer experience and the world at large. In other words, even if you just help your friend get to school on time by picking them up, talk about why it takes a village to get something done. And show how your involvement in the community is fundamental to your academic interests at MIT through examples that creatively outline possibilities for your career.

Question 4: Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations? (200-250 words)

This may be the most open-ended question in the series of five questions MIT has provided to you. Begin, if you wish, by considering what your dreams and aspirations truly are. Do you want to start a company, write the next great American novel, earn a Ph.D., or discover the cure to cancer, or maybe even find a significant solution to climate change?

Once you've done that, ask yourself: How has your life up until now informed and developed those dreams and aspirations? Remember you can have multiple dreams and aspirations, and they can be similar and mutually dependent.

Then, having reflected, consider your surroundings as they were when you were growing up. Be honest but also be generous with yourself. Be empathetic in your reflection here and consider your surroundings honestly: did you have to help around the house a bit more than your friends? Were you parents not native-English speakers? Did you learn to translate or help them understand some things in the United States? Were you a member of your debate team? Did you help your father or mother garden in the Spring? As a member of your family or school activity, how did the goal or responsibility there shift or inform your passions and interests?

Here you will want to be very specific in addressing the world you came from by drawing on both anecdote and general context.

Some examples:

Growing up in New York City: Growing up in NYC, you realized that the world is a dynamic place with many cultures and languages. As a result, you knew you wanted to be involved in the dynamic processes that are leading to an increasingly urban society around the world. As a mechanical engineer at MIT, you believe that your experiences in NYC as a young kid can contribute to your passion for helping urban spaces become more stream-lined and egalitarian.

Your father worked as a firefighter in Boston: Maybe when you were growing up, someone in your family had a dangerous job in the public service sector that involved late nights and irregular hours. You can draw on your reflections of these experiences to talk about how you realized how much the unexpected and tragic inform the human condition. At a young age, your empathy for the victims of fires started to motivate your interest in developing new resources and outfits for firefighters and fire prevention through chemical engineering.

Question 5: Tell us about the most significant challenge you’ve faced or something important that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (Response required in 200-250 words)

Here MIT is asking you essentially one thing: consider a challenge you faced and how you faced it. Adjusting to unexpected outcomes is a part of life and one's development into an adult and a professional in any field. MIT wants to see how you manage the unexpected.

You want to tell a story here that describes a challenging situation and your response to it. Make sure you address how this challenge was beyond the pale, i.e., how it was something that isn't common to daily life. Running out of gas on the road near your house won't cut it. Instead, you want to focus on how you overcame tragedy in the Greek sense of the word. That is, you didn't receive the justice or outcome you might have immediately deserved but preserved anyways and met the challenge to the best of your ability. Be specific and don't be afraid to address a difficult situation honestly.

Some examples:

  1. As a competitive chess player, you grew up attending tournaments and competed well in many of them. In one recent tournament, you were not permitted to play because of a change in the bylaws that rejected anyone under the age of eighteen. In the face of outright rejection, you petitioned the competition organizers to reverse the rules to what they were before, citing that your rank and skill were commensurate to the organization and that the rules were not in keeping with either the national rules or the culture of the game. In the end, the organizers relented and agreed that you were right. While you did not win the competition, you and your friends competed successfully to the quarterfinals and gained rank points to compete again.
  2. At the Rhode Island Science Fair, you discovered that one of your competitors sabotaged your presentation at the last hour. Instead of giving up and resigning yourself to defeat, you rewrote your script and salvaged your presentation to the best of your ability. At the presentation, the judges gave you top marks for oral presentation. But while you did not win as you might have expected, you still came out on top of the person who had clearly sabotaged your equipment. Without taking revenge into your own hands, you politely addressed their behavior and revealed how in a moment of stress and difficulty you could outthink them by performing creatively. In the end, your advisor found out and told the judges who reversed their decision and awarded you higher marks after giving you an opportunity to present again later that day.

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