MIT asks for a number of essays, but not a personal statement, as they aren’t on the Common App. They have their own application portal, and also seek to know the students who apply thoroughly, meaning they focus intently on what students say in their essays. Most of the students who apply are worth admitting based on their academic merits, so admissions officers use essays to further evaluate how students will fit into MIT’s campus and community.
MIT varies the prompts they ask, and the examples below are slightly out of date, as they are from a past Ivy Scholars student who got into MIT. We believe they do a good job showing what MIT is looking for from applicants.
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)
I love to make people laugh.
Beginning as a Vegas comedian for my grandparents (or so they’d say), the process of designing and executing a joke is inexplicably exhilarating. Just a year ago, I tested my very first neural network through an elaborate scheme to trick my friends into believing they had participated in make-believe conversations. Even though it took eight hours of painstaking bugs and one million lines of Messenger chat history, their hysterical confusion was 100% worth it. Don’t get tricked by my stoic appearance, ’cause I’m probably figuring out the next way to make you smile.
This essay should be somewhat light, as the question implies. This is a chance to expound upon one of your less serious activities, or even an aspect of your personality. The point is to show off your passion, and display new facets of yourself admissions officers would not know otherwise.
The example above does a good job of this. While the topic is light, it also provides a useful venue for the author to explain one of their more impressive accomplishments. Taking the trouble to build and program a neural net solely for a joke is remarkably impressive, and shows both a devotion to comedy and a willingness to go above and beyond.
This personality quirk also makes the author seem like the sort of person you’d enjoy knowing and talking with. Admissions officers don’t just want to see brilliant students, they want to admit students who will be friends with each other, and work to build a cohesive community. This essay is a good chance to show what kind of person you are, though this should be subtext in the essay.
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)
Four years ago, I’d be invested in algorithms, time complexities, and the math-heavy side of computer science. Now, my passion for change has brought me new meaning to CS.
Course 6 has a ton of intriguing classes, but the specific program offered through the IDS discipline is what really captivates me. Through courses ranging from IDS.338[J] Multidisciplinary Design Optimization to IDS.437[J] Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development, I’ll learn how computational methods can assist societal advancements, such as using convolutional networks to detect economic crises. With the research available through UROPs, my vision can become a reality.
MIT wants to know which areas you intend to focus your studies on. This is not an uncommon concern for colleges, who want to know where your passions lie academically. This question doesn’t require you to have selected a major, merely an area of study, but the main reason they ask it is so they can gauge your interests. MIT is a very practically minded institution, with less of a theoretical outlook.
This question isn’t just about your intended field of study, however, but about why you want to pursue that field of study at MIT in particular. What is offered at MIT that you can’t find elsewhere, in terms of classes, research, or other opportunities. The author above does this well, as they clearly reference numerous aspects of MIT’s computer science program which appeal to them. The author references not just specific classes, but why the overall interdisciplinary approach they can find at MIT appeals to them.
There is not much space to respond, only 100 words, so don’t go too much into the background, or get bogged down in unnecessary details. Do your best to be efficient with the words you use, as your skill as a writer, while not key, is also being evaluated.
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)
This question is looking for how you contributed positively to a community you were a part of previously. As they state in the question itself, MIT prides itself on having students who give back to the communities they are in, in ways large and small. They want to admit students who are eager to do this, and use past evidence of involvement to gauge whether students will be well suited to continue doing so in the future.
Your community impact does not have to be world-changing, as they state in the question it isn’t the scale they are concerned with, but that you showed a genuine willingness to help make the world better through your efforts. The magnitude of your impact on the community is one of the better ways to measure success.
In the example above, the author describes how their initial community involvement, impressive in its own right, grew into something larger. By showing how their connection grew naturally, and how much they were willing to do for the community they were a part of, they clearly show their values. At the end, where they discuss plans for future expansion of their program, they show that they aren’t willing to accept a modest success and coast, but are instead constantly looking to improve even further.
There is no correct answer to this question, no singular form of community service which is clearly better or which admissions officers value more. Instead, you should demonstrate your own passions and willingness to work to improve communities you are a part of. It is this passion and drive that admissions officers are looking for.
While this essay is technically optional, we recommend all students complete it. Admission into Harvard is extremely competitive, so any chance you have to show admissions officers more of how intelligent, passionate, and intellectual you are should be taken. This essay is quite long, and is a chance for you to demonstrate almost anything you think admissions officers should know about who you are as a person or scholar. You should cover new ground with this essay, and not repeat topics from your personal statement or the other essays if possible.
In the example above, the author covers many topics, with a through thread of movies. Overall, the essay has traits in common with a why major essay, as it explores why the author is interested in the subjects they are, and what intellectual avenues they desire to explore. They also manage to show off an impressive extracurricular achievement, and discuss the philosophy that underlies their experience.
The end of the essay ties the authors desires to Harvard explicitly. This is helpful, as Harvard does not have a why us essay. While Harvard assumes, often correctly, that everyone who applies wants to attend, it is still good to discuss why you want to attend Harvard specifically. This entire space should not be devoted to the subject, but a couple of lines can go a long way.
There is no single best subject to discuss, but any essay should give admissions officers new insight into you, and explore aspects of your character they wouldn’t see otherwise. The author’s love of films in the above example does this well. This is clearly a passion of theirs, but without this essay, that passion would never be known.
The philosophical dive into the message of the films, and the broader implications of the message, demonstrates the author’s intellectual vitality, and desire to understand subjects from multiple angles. Intellectual vitality is something top schools look for in students, and this essay is one of the best places to show it. Intellectual vitality, put simply, is a desire to learn and discover for its own sake, and a genuine curiosity about the world around you.
The author does this in their essay when they discuss how they were drawn into understanding why they enjoyed the films they did, and what made those films so enjoyable, and allowed them to convey their message so well. They also displayed it when they combined several of the things they learned to create something new, and in so doing also showed off their ability with science and technology.
Whatever you end up writing about, you should try to display your best self to admissions officers. Show how you celebrate your curiosity and satiate your need for knowledge. The worst thing you can be in this essay is boring.
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)
The satellite flew, unwavered in its approach to Venus, and then swiftly took a sharp left turn into Mars. Colorful cursing escaped our breath as my group sat back down to try again. Selecting something as difficult as a spacecraft simulation for our final Physics project was probably not the best idea from a time-management perspective, but hell, it was exciting.
My friends and I were trying to determine the most cost-efficient path from Earth to Venus using gravity assist, but more importantly, we were using our unique skills to drive one another forward. We were a hodgepodge of cultures and interests: two discussed the geology of Mars, one dealt with the gravitational field of Venus, one studied the chemical composition, and I wrote the illegible code. Yet, all of us were grinning as we sat around a table covered by samosas, sauerkraut, and dumplings.
We are a community of opposite interests, yet we are attracted by a shared goal: to investigate. Throughout high school, we’ve hypothesized about some crazy problems, like how introducing a new particle would affect conventional physics. While alone, my work is just another couple lines of Python, but collaborating with other curious peers, it becomes a means to design and model complex scenarios, something I’m incapable of doing by myself.
By presentation day, our vibrant presentation was a representation of our sweat and tears.
As a future researcher, I want to help design and create solutions to global problems with teams of diverse people, something I’ve already experienced and cherished.
This is another essay about communities you are part of, but instead of focusing on how you have contributed to the community, it asks about what you have learned instead. MIT wants to build a student body filled with unique perspectives and viewpoints, and uses an essay like this one to find out what worldviews you will bring to the table.
This is a diversity essay, but diversity in the sense of differing perspectives on the world, differing aims and goals and dreams. The author in the example above has collaboration as the main value they demonstrate in this essay. His friend group is diverse in their interests, but shares a desire to learn and discover, and to push the limits of their abilities through shared experience. The essay also dives into an interesting physics problem undertaken by the group, and highlights the author’s coding ability. In this way, the author demonstrates who they are, and where they came from. Their dream, then, is to continue in this spirit of collaborative discovery, and in so doing change the world.
When writing this essay, select which story you are telling carefully. You want to demonstrate more than one of your values, and tell admissions officers something about you that they wouldn’t know otherwise. You can elaborate on a community formed in an extracurricular, and dive deeper into that. Or do as the author of this piece did, and discuss a more informal community you were a part of, such as a friend group. You could also discuss your family, and how they influenced your worldview and dreams. Whichever community you discuss, tell admissions officers how they impacted you, and your dreams.
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)
Olsen up 5%.
It was the highest stakes competition I ever entered, and I wasn’t on the winning side. Still, while we had lost on paper, the campaign had garnered the most Democrat votes Texas’ District 22 had seen in over a decade. This failure was a first step.
Just eight weeks earlier, I was talking to the Campaign Director of Sri Preston Kulkarni’s congressional campaign about a simple Excel-based system to track potential voters. Recalling past algorithms I had used to efficiently handle large amounts of data in computing olympiads, it dawned on me that I could apply the same concepts to carry out the campaign’s vision.
To construct the system, I canvassed from one side of Houston to the other, requesting and gathering daily early voting reports from three county offices. Returning to campaign headquarters, I was immediately greeted whole-heartedly by the staff and welcomed into the tech room: I was now a fully-fledged member of the team. Freed from the confines of the digital realm, I could see my work was already having a real world impact on my new, hopeful coworkers.
For the next six weeks until the start of early voting, I tirelessly improved upon the system. I compressed hundreds of relational and voting files, creating a mailing system that updated the nearly 250 volunteers with daily emails indicating whether their friends had voted yet. By the time election day arrived, the system had gone through dozens of iterations.
As I watched the results roll in on November 6th, coding transformed from an abstract language into concrete action capable of changing the world. We lost the election, but each and every new refinement I had made to my program was a small step toward changing the political system as a whole. Even though the polls had closed, I had helped raise our percentage by 15%– an unheard of turnout for a Texas based Democrat candidate.
It was a first step– not just for political representation of the Asian community, but for me as a future programmer and conscientious citizen.
In college, as in life, things will sometimes go wrong. You’ll sleep through the start of a test, suffer a computer crash while working on your final essay, or have a lab experiment suffer catastrophic existence failure. While there’s no way to prepare for unforeseen problems, schools like MIT want to know how you handle a situation when things go wrong. This is a very nonstandard question, but it tells admissions officers about your maturity, ability to prepare, and how you respond to pressure.
While the challenge itself is less important than how you responded, you should think carefully about what to write about. Be wary of coming across as tone deaf or unaware of your own privilege when presenting your most significant challenge. There is no single right answer to this question, but there are wrong answers. If the biggest challenge you can come up with is that your parents didn’t get you another car after you totaled the first, then you might want to go back to the drawing board.
In the example above, the challenge the author faces is helping a democratic candidate win a race in Texas. The challenge is clear, as is the setback, namely that his candidate lost. This is, however, still a very hopeful essay. In it, the author displays their proficiency with excel, devotion to the democratic process, and willingness to work for what they believe in, even against long odds. While the author’s candidate didn’t win, the author’s efforts helped drive civic engagement, and there is a sense of hope that winning is a possibility going forward.
What you learn from setbacks or failure is important. Failure can be a good teacher, though a harsh one. This essay is a good place to display what you learned from failing, and what values and skills you came out of the experience with. The author above faced a significant challenge and failed, but that does not make their struggle less valiant. Admissions officers want to see your character, and how you deal with challenges and failures is one of the best places to demonstrate that.