MIT Requirements: 2 short essays of 100 words each; 3 longer essays of 200-250 words each.
Supplemental Essay Type(s):Why, Community
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 2017-2018 Application Essay Question Explanations
There’s an old cheesy joke that goes like this: A college student is standing in the “10 items or less” checkout lane at a grocery store in Boston. When she finally gets to the register, it turns out she has 12 items. The cashier rolls her eyes and says, “Okay, so either you’re from Harvard and you can’t count, or you’re from MIT and you can’t read.” (badum-chhh) Sadly, you will be expected to read and write in college – even at MIT! In fact, MIT admissions cares so much about your writing that they’ve concocted their own separate application with five required essays. Don’t worry, though, you’ll also get to show off your counting skills because each essay has a pretty tight word count; even the longest ones top out at 250 words. So the real challenge of this application is crafting tight, incisive essays that tell focused stories about your life. Got it? Okay!
Rather than asking you to write one long essay, the MIT application consists of several short response questions and essays designed to help us get to know you. Remember that this is not a writing test. These are the places in the application where we look for your voice—who you are, what drives you, what’s important to you, what makes you tick. Be honest, be open, be authentic—this is your opportunity to connect with us.
Alright, now let’s dig in!
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)
Think of this prompt as a continuation of the introduction. MIT is explicitly asking you to back away from the resume, and forget your structured activities. It’s not about proving what you can do, but revealing what you love to do. Put another way, this prompt is about self-care: What always, without fail, brings a smile to your face? What helps you recharge your batteries? What do you do and where do you go when you’re feeling down? When you start to think of things that feel a little silly or personal, you’re heading in the right direction. The activity you choose should be informal and unique to you.
Although MIT invites you to be honest, we also suggest you balance your honesty with specific details and storytelling. You might want to try to come up with something a little more original than sleep, read, or hang out with friends, but if these are your options, then you have to commit. If you like to spend time with your friends, what sorts of things do you do together? If you like to sleep, have you perfected the art of the power nap? What are your favorite things to read and how do you organize your personal library? Let your personality and tastes shine through! And before you start to say, “But I really do love volunteering at the soup kitchen during my spare time,” don’t worry. There’s a community service essay a little later in this supplement.
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)
Believe it or not, this is MIT’s version of a classic Why essay, wrapped in an academic disguise. It’s not really about your academic interests and achievements (which can be gleaned elsewhere on your application); it’s about the kind of student you hope to be. If you can build a bridge between your own interests and the resources available at MIT, you’ll be well on your way to demonstrating your fit. So set aside a few hours and commit to some hardcore research on the MIT website (sorry, there’s no way around this, folks!). Beyond the basic departmental listings, look up information about news and research coming out of your department, the kinds of courses available, and the opportunities that other undergrads have had studying in your area of choice. Even if you have a wide array of interests, consider explaining how two to three departments might complement each other or foster your interest in a larger idea or theme. Your ultimate goal is to show that your interest in MIT (just like your intellectual curiosity) runs deep!
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 biggest 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)
We recommend working your way backwards through this prompt because the last sentence really says it all! Your community can be any size or scale, from your family to your town. You likely already have a specific community service experience in mind, but before you dive in, we encourage you to take a moment and brainstorm some smaller, more informal options. You’ll also want to keep in mind how your work relates to “the world’s biggest challenges,” but starting small could lead you to a more unique and thoughtful essay. Think of a moment where you felt like you made a change in your local community. It can be something small; it does not have to be monumental, but it should mean a great deal to you. Maybe you babysit for your mom while she’s at work, and this has led you to think more seriously about the childcare challenges single parents face. Or perhaps, in helping your teacher grade papers, you feel you are taking some pressure off of an already overwhelming workload.
If you choose to write about a more formal experience, here’s another backwards piece of advice: When writing about community service, you should always start with yourself. It’s the only way to avoid platitudes and clichés. You need to ground your writing in the specificity of your life. Don’t start with the action and end with what you learned. Instead, dig into your motivations. If you spend weeks petitioning your school community to raise the hourly wage for custodial staff, what prompted you to act? What assumptions did you have about income inequality and what did you learn about your community in the process? No matter what, make sure you choose a topic that is meaningful to you.
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)
If you were torn about what to write in your community service essay, you’re in luck! MIT has gifted you a second chance to sound off about a community that matters to you. But while the earlier prompt asked about your impact on a community, this one is all about your community’s influence on you. The fun thing about community essays like this one is that the word “community” can mean anything. It could be something traditional like your church or extended family, but it could also be any other group you consider yourself a part of. Maybe you found an important group of friends and mentors once you got into breakdancing. Or perhaps there’s an online community of writers that you rely on for honest feedback. If you’re drawing a blank, try to list out a few individual people who have impacted your life for the better. Then try to fit them into a larger community. If you picked your grandpa, think about how your extended family has shaped who you are today. How have your family traditions or fishing trips given you a lens through which to see the world? How can you lead admissions to a new way of understanding the person you are today?
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? (200-250 words)
You can check out our guide to Common App Prompt #2 for a full rundown on how to tackle this kind of prompt, but in summary we’ll say this: a question about failure or struggle is really a question about resilience and success! Also, if you chose to write about prompt #2 for your Common App personal statement, we’ve got some extra good news for you: MIT isn’t on the Common App! You’ll need to cut your essay down to size, but other than that, you’re home free on this prompt. Good for you!
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
-excerpt from George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language", 1946.
So once upon a time, I wrote a blog comparing the college essay to froyo. Since then, the application has been revised, and although I still believe in the merits of the first blog in regards to a long college admissions essay (500-1000 words), it definitely doesn't apply completely to the new short-answer system that MIT adopted.
A few months ago, I created a bogus account on my.mit.edu so I can actually catch a glimpse at what the new application looks like (it really doesn't look that different, ha) and I've been thinking about how I would approach these essays. Although nothing here is the product of intense cognition, I thought I'd share some of my views on these small essays.
Essentially, you have 5 "mini-essays" - What You Do For Pleasure ("pleasure" - 100 words), Department at MIT ("department" - 100 words), What You Do That's Creative ("creativity" - 250 words), World You Come From ("world" - 250 words), Significant Challenge ("challenge" - 250 words), and that's it! Less than 1000 words total.
The easy things first - the "Pleasure" and the "Department" prompts are not really "essays," but short answers, so they can be easily answered. My advice is just to go ahead and be honest with them (well, you should be honest in your entire application ;P), especially with the "Pleasure" essay. The admission officers ("adcoms") are not looking for "standard" answers, and you won't get brownie points by putting down "programming," "building robots," or other "MIT-y" answers (although they also definitely won't penalize you if they do happen to be things that you do for fun). Just be honest!
Many people stress out about the "Department" essay, but I can tell you that MIT DOES NOT admit on a quota, and you WILL NOT be penalized by which department you put down on that blank (I don't know how many emails I've gotten on this subject already - seriously, the adcoms are not lying at you, and no - there is no conspiracy either). Therefore, you will not seem more impressive if you put down Philosophy, over, say, Mechanical Engineering. When I applied, I put down Chemical Engineering (oh, such were the days of my innocent youth, when I believed that Chemistry was trivial), but now I'm happily a Biology (and pending History) major. Your interests may shift after you enroll at MIT (and realize how brutal some of the courses here can be), and that's perfectly fine! So don't worry too much.
For the "Creativity" essay, I would encourage you to look at the connotation of "creativity" from a new angle (in a sense, be creative about exploring creativity :P). You can go broader than physical things like creative projects or creative inventions. I would investigate writing about creative ideas, creative ways of looking at things, creative ways of solving problems, for example. I wrote about a concrete research project I did when I applied, but I thought that was quite boring in comparison to the other things that could have written about, so I encourage you to explore this topic a bit further. :)
Ah - ok, now we come to the challenging 250-word essays.
So back in the day, we had a choice between these two essays to write a long essay on, but I guess now they're requiring you write on both of them, but as shorter essays.
Actually, I really enjoyed the "world" essay - and I thought it was the one of the best prompts out of the prompts for the 15 colleges that I applied to (number one was still Stanford's "photograph" prompt - I loved it. Sorry MIT :P). The challenge now, however, is how to condense all the things you want to convey into mere 250 words.
In order for me to see what a 250 word word limit is really like, I wrote a 250 word essay. Not on MIT's prompts, though.
He held up the sheet of wrinkled paper, his eyes in silent protest.
The tattered bill requested 13,800 dollars for a three-day hospital stay.
"Why call the ambulance? Just leave me alone!" the frail old man muttered. Just a week ago, Mr. Vu suffered a stroke that required hospitalization. Because he could not understand English, Mr. Vu had not applied for health insurance, resulting in the exorbitant bill.
An internship at an Asian clinic opened my eyes to the untold story of limited-English proficiency patients, who often struggle to obtain health care in a maze of foreign forms and convoluted policies.
Suffering from a worsening stomachache, Mrs. Wong was neglected in the county hospital for over two hours, unable to flag down a passing nurse for assistance because of the language barrier. Clutching a X-Ray order, Mr. Park searched in vain for Radiology in a blinding flurry of English letters.
Over the summer, these stories became too common - accounts of immigrants fighting for their right to care in a shockingly monolingual health system. After the internship, I participated in a medical interpretation training program and was licensed as a Mandarin health interpreter in November. I wanted to change the status quo.
My experiences this summer solidified my conviction of entering into public health, especially immigrant health, as my future course of study. America has long prided itself as a "melting pot" of cultures. Isn't it only fitting that there exists equitable access to health care, regardless of the language spoken?
The word limit is kinda short.
Now, a disclaimer: I want to stay that this is not intended to be a "model essay" (I think the ending can use some more work, among other things), but I thought this would be easier in illustrating a point.
If you look at the essay, I like going narrative -> point -> how it connects to me. In fact, this is what I use for most of my essays :3
Here's the same essay, deliberately made worse (but to illustrate a very common problem in college application essays):
Last summer, I worked in an Asian clinic in Oakland, California. Over the course of the summer, I realized the plight of immigrants when it comes to obtaining equitable health care. In the modern health industry, immigrants and other residents who possess limited English proficiency are often overlooked because of their inability to communicate their symptoms to the doctor and complete paperwork in English. This problem is exacerbated when they cannot apply for health insurance, resulting in exorbitant health bills. In a country that claims to be the "melting pot" of cultures, this kind of neglect is no longer acceptable.
Many patients suffer extended waits in the hospital, unable to obtain assistance. It is possible that a worsening stomachache is the initial sign for appendicitis, which needs to be treated expeditiously. Often, hospital signs are also not translated into other languages, making navigation difficult for elderly patients. These scenes are played across hospitals in the nation everyday.
After my experiences this summer, I realized that I wanted to channel my energy into the revitalization of this system. It is no longer sufficient for us to stand on the sidelines and watch. To this end, I participated in a medical interpretation training program and was licensed as a Mandarin health interpreter. I hope I will be able to contribute my efforts to the field of public health, especially immigrant health, in the future. These patients cannot afford to passively wait for language-accessible care and continue to sacrifice their right to treatment.
Also 250 words, but this essay is riddled with problems, many of which Orwell pointed out in the blurb above.
1. The essay is filled with extraneous and needlessly difficult words. ("I wanted to channel my energy into the revitalization of this system")
2. The essay lacks a personal voice - it's very passive ("These scenes are played," "immigrants are often overlooked," "the problem is exacerbated")
3. The essay never "shows" - it only "tells."
Show, don't tell!
I can't emphasize this enough. This essay points out many problems of the health care system, but doesn't offer any examples of the problems. At the end of the day, which essay will readers remember better? An essay that speaks in general terms or Mr. Vu with his bill?
Personally, I think after MIT made the switch from the long essay to short essays, this point is even more pertinent. You just can't afford to waste words speaking in vague terms that doesn't convey much in terms of meaning.
When adcoms read thousands of essays on end, you need to stand out. Ideally, your essay should pack enough punch (that's a cliche :P) so that your readers have a "take-home message" (another cliche :P). Simply put, you need something memorable about your essay. If you feel bored writing your essay, chances are that the person reading your essay will be bored too. Make it vivid - let your story shine.
Finally, the other point I want to convey:
Trim the extra fat!
I narrowed down the first essay from over 400 words to just 250. Chances are, you can do the same too. The second essay is plagued with extraneous words, and actually it can be narrowed down to just this without loss of meaning:
Last summer, I worked in an Asian clinic, where I realized the struggle of immigrants in obtaining equitable health care because of the language barrier. They often cannot apply for health insurance, resulting in exorbitant bills. This is not acceptable in America, which claims to be a "melting pot" of cultures.
Many patients suffer long waits in the hospital, unable to get help. A worsening stomachache can lead to appendicitis that requires rapid treatment. Often, signs are only written in English, making navigation difficult for elderly patients.
It is no longer sufficient for me stand on the sidelines - I want to make a difference. To this end, I participated in a medical interpretation training program and was licensed in Mandarin. Eventually, I hope I can work in the field of public health, especially immigrant health. These patients cannot afford to passively wait for language-accessible care and continue to sacrifice their right to treatment.
This new essay is only 154 words. Although it definitely sounds stilted and shouldn't be submitted as a complete essay, it still goes to show how much excess fat one can usually trim from a typical essay.
Not to reiterate myself too much from the previous blog that I wrote, but the effective essay, IMO, is the essay that really shows who you are, where you're coming from, and what your loves are - in your own voice. Both the "world" and the "challenges" essay are structured so that it's focused on you and your stories. Use these opportunities to tell a story - to convey who you are. There's no need to repackage your tale in fancy rhetoric or educated vocabulary.
Just as we see in world literature: often the best stories are, really, the simplest stories.