MIT was an awesome experience. I was extremely fortunate to be able to attend.
I didn't know that I wanted to go to MIT until I applied on a lark my senior year. Like everyone else who was actually admitted, I didn't think I had a good shot of getting in. (Almost everyone at MIT, including our Chancellor, has felt the "imposter" syndrome, in which one feels that one was admitted by mistake.) I come from a middle class family (65th percentile) in the US. My parents don't work in industries with MIT graduates. This makes things more challenging, because, in general, students from prodigious backgrounds come to MIT better prepared and leave better off. (Prodigious does not necessarily mean family name, or a specific income-level, but working in an area which MIT grads tend to go into.)
When I was admitted, I was surprised, and I was unsure if I actually wanted to attend. "Too geeky" I wrote on my initial visit sheet. I spoke with my admissions officer for an hour where he said that he thinks I would "invent something great." Senior year of high school I had said that I wanted to study how computers and people interact. I was initially targeting an information science program. Even later on at MIT, I signed up for management first; I initially didn't sign up for computer science, till I took 6.01 and enjoyed it. I initially thought computer science would be too difficult to mater.
I think I was a perfect match for MIT. At MIT, the focus is one science and technology, which is what I am interested in. However, that also includes how technology effects people; for example, the program in Science, Technology, and Society. MIT is not mired in tradition, and is always looking for ways to improve itself. For example, future.mit.edu is an idea board where members of the MIT community can submit ideas for the future of education at MIT. MIT is also a place of limitless potential. There are no internal limits - there are no limits to transfer into a major; classes are pretty much open to all students, especially if you can convince the professor you should be in; most classes don't have caps, if they are well-subscribed, the department tries to add grad students; there is only one organization, which is open to all - unlike Harvard where undergrads dare not step foot in the business school library. Once your in, you're in. There is also an openness here. A bit over 10 years ago, MIT looked around the online education space and decided to put everything online for free as "Open Course Ware". While I was here, MIT decided to go a step further and launch EdX, a non-profit dedicated to online education. I'm not sure to what extent this is at other top schools, but MIT students are also fairly involved in how the Institute is run.
MIT is one of those very special places where students are free to explore and learn as much as possible. It's full sensory stimulation. Even for people who get bored easily, you won't get bored here! There are so many different things to master, combined with an almost infinite depth that if you're bored at MIT, you're not doing something right.
One of the best parts of MIT are the other students. With very few exceptions, people here are at the top of their game. People go to top industries: consulting, banking, entrepreneurship, so you can learn about these "1%" jobs that one would have never heard about back home. You can learn from your peers and model their behavior to fit into these jobs.
I also received a very good deal financially in order to attend. My parents and I paid about $10,000 per year to attend, about 1/5 the billed cost and perhaps 1/8 of MIT's estimated total spending per student. It would have cost me more to have gone to a lower ranked schools, where I would have had far fewer opportunities. I do have some debt, but I could pay it off today, with my cash on hand, if I wanted.
MIT is also one of those auto ladders to the upper class. It won't necessarily get you in the top 1% (~$350,000/year household income) or at least not immediately, but it will at least get into the top 10% (once you control for household size) almost right from the start. MIT and the other ivy league schools with generous financial aid policies are probably one of the 10 most important factors for social mobility in the world. I'm making more than both of my parents made last year, combined, my first year out of school.
What I learned
Focus and Intensity
MIT is like bootcamp for your brain. Everyday is not fun. I've had days where I was so tired I couldn't wait to get to sleep, but I still had work to do. There were days where I didn't think I could manage everything I had to do, or days when I thought I was going to fail a test. However, in the end, just like real bootcamp, in that it is an intense experience that is worth it in the end.
The unofficial motto of MIT is IHTFP. This can either mean "I have truly found paradise" or "I hate this fucking place" depending on your mood that day. Another benefit is that everyone is in the same boat. One of the ways you can help deal with the stress is to commiserate with other students. Since we don't have honors on degrees, the competition is not strictly against each other, but against the work and the challenge. There is also competition with students at other schools for the best jobs. I think MIT would be fairly easy if you just tried to get through doing only the minimum amount of work possible. There are a number of difficult GIRs, but they are hard to fail completely. Instead the difficulty is that most people here feel a need to do high quality work.
One of the best parts is that everyone is all in when at MIT. When you here you are singularly focused on education. There aren't many distractions. People, even those that live nearby, don't go home on the weekends. This is a significant difference from what I've heard from my friends happens at other schools, where people have other commitments and go home. This helps contribute to productivity. I've found I am more productive when I am busier - as it forces me to focus. Even though I get started early and force myself to work on stuff, I get stuff done faster under pressure. In addition, when I go home for breaks I find that I am also much less productive at home. I can't watch commercial television anymore, there is just too much redundancy and simplification.
When you look back, you remember the good parts, and forget the bad parts. Plus, I've been told by MIT grads that after MIT, everything else after this is easy.
I think I am able to look at situations much more clearly now. In part this is due to greater specific, content knowledge, but I think it's mostly because I think my analytic abilities have improved. When I see something, I being to decompose the problem into multiple, independent sub-problems. This process, which is the hallmark of management consultants, makes it easier to think about big problems.
Things in the world no longer seem random. Instead things seem to fit into some sort of pattern or framework. MIT also give you plenty of examples - over and over again in different situations. For example, in high school, I didn't understand how the school board or township board of commissioners operated to approve a project. I now understand this much better, not only so I can interact with, but so I can analyze and compare the process.
I see a huge difference in how I interacted at my Disney internship after junior year and how I interacted at my Deutsche Bahn internship. At DB, I broke every rule in the MBA playbook, since I was not aware of them at the time. On the other hand, at Disney, I was much more aware of the rules and I worked much more in concert with the organization.
Although it seemed like I had a greater impact at the Deutsche Bahn project (designing the UI of the Touch&Travel app), I think this is because I got very lucky with the Deutsche Bahn project - I was in the right place at the right time, and I augmented a skill-set that they lacked. Disney was much more on top of it, but I also tried to not reach too far beyond my own role, which is probably the best long-term strategy for a manager in a big firm.
What I did
It also took me a while to adjust to MIT. I came in fairly not well prepared. However, I did better than I did the previous term 6 of the 7 terms. I ended up with a 4.4 GPA, which is respectable, but not on the high end.
I sampled a lot of fields at MIT. I was a double major of Management and Computer Science. I also took about a class or two which were not strictly required for either of my majors many terms. I took 7 classes a term three of my terms here. This amounts to almost double the average of 48 units a term.
I did fairly poorly my first few years. I came into MIT not really being prepared. I even took the "easy"-version of Calculus in high school. Other MIT students did math competitions in high school, which I wasn't even aware of, and if I was, I would have never considered joining, as I didn't have the drive to improve my skills back then, as I do now.
In addition, as with many MIT students, I never really had to study in high school. My first semester was a shock to me, as I wrote about in Learning to Learn. Since then, I used those techniques all of the time, and greatly improved my ability to learn stuff. I wish I have known that in high school, so I would be better prepared for MIT-level work. I think I would do far better if I was able to retake those classes.
On the management side, I think I cracked the code about how to get stuff done at MIT. In my 4 years, I've made connections with people at every level from the line staff to President Reif. I remember reading every page on the MIT First Year website super carefully in the summer before MIT. Once I got here, I learned more about the inside working of those policies and the politics behind them; I even helped shape some of the policies.
I think every MIT focuses on something. I just happened to focus a lot on Institute management and politics. I learned a great deal from this arrangement. From my position on various Institute committees on both the student life and academic sides, I got to know the Institute's leadership. I got to work with a real-life $2 billion dollar organization and understand how its leaders operate and how it makes decisions at every level. I developed my ability to inflence and persuade, writing up what I learned in a white paper for future student advocates.
With Baker Exec, I got the opportunity to run an organization with about 20 volunteers and a $50,000 budget. It had its ups and downs, but I got to learn a lot from how much autonomy to give subordinates to how to motivation volunteers to setting high-level strategy.
It also got me thinking about policy design with the Baker Rooming Policy, Baker Security Plan, and the Framework for Student Engagement. Policy design is a lot like programming, you have to anticipate every edge case.
MOOCs: MITx and edX
I was also very fortunate to being in the right place at the right time with the roll out of EdX. Since early high school, I've wanted to improve the world's access to educational materials. I started scanning and putting all of my notes available online in 8th grade. When I started this, I remember being influenced by MIT's OCW program. Because of this, I ran for the undergraduate spot on MITCET, the MIT Committee on Educational Technology. While I was on the committee, it came to light that then-Provost Rafael Reif wanted to counter Stanford's AI class with an Institute-wide initiative of our own. I was involved in the initial discussions with MITCET and then-Provost Reif on how the new group should be organized with respect to MIT. In that memo, I proposed a platform which I called "EDUx" as a software platform which would help both MOOCs and traditional classes. This was about 6 months before MIT and Harvard announced "edX".
I would certainly come to MIT again. The quality of the exits and the experience that one can have here is almost unparalleled (save perhaps Harvard and Stanford, but they have slightly different twists but are otherwise on-par).
I sought a non-traditional exit from MIT by going to the management track of a large company. I think many MIT students try to either start their own firm or go into engineering at large tech firms like Facebook or Dropbox. That never particularly appealed to me, so I didn't prepare enough for those roles.
I'm sad to leave. There are a number of things that I know I will never be able to replicate. Living in Baker was amazing. Not only is it a architectural landmark with million-dollar views and handmade, hardwood furniture but it had my friends living right next door. I had plenty of amazing conversations at 2am when friends just stopped by my open door. In work, especially at the entry level, you focus on one or two things at once. Only once you rise through the ranks, must you balance multiple challenges again, but you still generally have a small set of goals.
What would I do differently?
As I said before, I wish I would have prepared more in high school. I should have been less reliant on sites like HotMath and studied more intensely to master the material. I just didn't have the interest, focus, or role models at the time.
At the end of freshman year, I said that I wanted to focus on classes while at MIT, because I felt like that was an experience that I wanted to maximize while I had access to those resources (ie. was paying tuition). I've since learned that there are many other resources which are only available to one while they are at MIT, such as close contact to the many very smart people here. Perhaps I could have focused more on those; but on the other hand, I don't know which classes I would have skipped instead - besides the ones I had to take, but I didn't enjoy.
If I was targeting an engineering role, I should have focused more on quality and engineering classes. I could have just focused on engineering, worked as an engineer for two years, and then have gone to business school. However, as I confirmed when I was at CardSpring last IAP, I don't think I would have found concentrating as an engineer to be very fun.
I wish I would have spent more time with my peers. I think I made a good number of close friends, but I always think I should have done more. I never really spent much time on the Sloan side because I never really paid attention to Sloan events or classmates.
I wish I had taken on more leadership roles. At first, I thought that I liked to be in the background, but being President of Baker helped me see that I like being in the spotlight as well. I was also cautious with my time. I could have been more directly involved in the UA. Looking back, I actually held less formal positions than my title suggested.
I think part of the problem was is that I didn't know where I wanted to end up. I still really don’t. I wrote a vision document my last week of summer before senior year. It was two pages or so, but it wasn't helpful. There were many possible paths to implementation which I was unsure between. Still I am fairly happy with where I ended up.
I threw away some opportunities as well. For example, I was well positioned to work in the MOOC space. However, I was just not interested in it. Instead, I took a position for which I didn't have an inside connection on. Do I just get too bored too quick?
I think MIT misses some things from not being a larger school like Harvard or Stanford. For example, there is no law school nearby, so people don't really think about those things. MIT is also more centralized, than entrepreneurial. I think I would have been slightly more entrepreneurial than management oriented at Stanford.
For that matter, I did very little to reach out to the outside community. For example, despite knowing about it in high school and being on their mailing list I only went to one Harvard Berkman Center event. I just never got to opening up their emails and adding them to my calendar. I probably also would have been too busy to make the ~20-30 min trip up to Harvard.