Sometimes a university’s essay prompts can reveal as much about the school’s values as an applicant’s personal statement can divulge what the student will bring to the university. If you’ve ever wondered what you should share in your application essay, fear not; some schools break down their personal statement into a few short responses and give you instructions for each solicited paragraph. MIT, for example, not only tells you what they deem important—how they aspire to positively impact the world—they tell students exactly what MIT is hoping to hear from its applicants: ideals and dreams that match up to theirs. So let’s try hunting for the clues MIT is dropping, prompt by prompt.
- 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.
MIT is being pretty explicit in this prompt. If you don’t dream about bettering “the lives of others,” you’re probably not a match for the school. But if you do hope to improve upon our world, this is your chance to provide the evidence. MIT can determine, from your transcript and test scores, whether or not you can tackle the school academically. What the numbers don’t tell them, however, is how you’re going to put your smarts to good use. Do you share MIT’s goals? If so, show them how. They’re not expecting you will have discovered a cure for cancer— realistically speaking, you’re a high school student. They just want to know how, in your own way, you’ve been positively impacting those around you. But go deep here—they’re looking for one example, not ten.
- 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?
To MIT, context is king. They don’t expect everyone will have been exposed to the same world or will have had the same experiences. No two applicants are alike. This is your shot to show MIT your world. What’s providing the fodder for your dreams, your goals, your hopes? How are you reacting to the world you see? Scientists and engineers are not oblivious to the problems around them; they engage them. So what’s prompting your purpose? Describe the world that’s setting your dreams afire.
- 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?
Just ask any MIT student, and she’ll tell you how much her education is centered upon problem-solving. It’s never easy, and things don’t always “go according to plan.” MIT’s not looking for perfection; they’re looking for people who are comfortable with failure, people who can pick themselves up after hitting a wall. Think about it: Even Stephen Hawking has questions he has yet to solve. So how do you handle setbacks or defeat? Prove to MIT you can manage the obstacles in front of you—that you can cope, move on, and don’t get stuck when you hit a bump in the road.
- 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.
MIT gives you plenty of opportunities to write about the deep stuff; not only is their application composed of several prompts, they also ask you to provide a list of your activities. So don’t think they’re asking you to tell them how much you like to do research simply because you think that’s what they want to hear. Seriously: when you’re not trying to impress anyone, what do you do for pleasure? What is it you do that brings you joy? And it doesn’t have to be math or science related. If you have to think too hard about this one, you’re probably not being honest with yourself. So have a little fun. After working hard on the rest of your MIT application, you deserve it!