Why I am going to MIT next year
Part 1: My Major
Originally, I was interested in an information science program. In sophomore year, I had used the College Board’s MyRoad program to explore the various majors. I hit on the information science program because it is “where computers and people meet.” Unlike computer science, IS deals with how people will use the system and how it fulfill their needs. For example, say Investment Bank X needs to build a new computer system that all of their traders would use to get their jobs done. Well what does that mean? Someone with an information science background would start by finding out what traders actually do. They might follow one around for a few days and see what tasks they perform.
Now as part of building that system, there may be some hard problems that need to be solved. For instance, how do you keep data in sync around the world? Or how will the system support 1 million trades per hour? These problems would typically be solved by a CS student.
But how will that amazing system be used? Will it be intuitive for the traders to use? Will they need extensive training, taking them out of work for a few weeks? Will they be able to do common tasks in 1 click or 5? Will it frustrate them to no end? Will they like the old system better? These are the questions someone with an IS background must think about; they could make or break the system.
Apple gets this. The iPhone, for all its shortcomings, was revolutionary for handheld user design. Not just the actual interface, like pinching to zoom in, but the way everything fit together. It was intuitive and just worked. Have you ever seen anyone read a user’s manual for an iPhone? Is there even one? Really good user interface design should not require a manual or training.
This success has been very profitable for Apple ($$$$) and rocketed them from 0 to #2 in the US smartphone market. Every other phone maker concentrated on features. They had a checklist on a whiteboard somewhere. FM radio? Check! (even though it looks like it was put together in day and no one really knows how it works) It’s gotta work first, of course. But it must also work well. That is what an IS major makes sure of.
Now the IS program at many schools is well-funded. Many companies have realized the importance of HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) and support IS schools because they want the graduates. For instance, at Drexel University, the iSchool has the top average co-op salary of any program at Drexel. At Penn State, the Information Sciences and Technology program has the highest average starting salary of any PSU school. They also have the highest spending per student of any PSU school.
All of this is awesome. But there is one problem. MIT does not have an Information Science department. This was my major hesitation for MIT.
Actually, at first, I applied to MIT on a lark. I wanted an IS program, and MIT did not have one. I applied to see what would happen. If figured if I got it, I could boast about how I turned down MIT. (some notes from first visit; parent saying I did not like it)
Part 2: I got in
In Part 1, I talk about what I wanted to do in college and how MIT did not offer that program. On Pi day, I was down in the basement editing Tecker 911 with my friend Mike Gdovin. About 20 minutes after the decisions had been posted, I went online to decisions.mit.edu. I entered my user name and password and took a breath. I closed my eyes and clicked the button. “On behalf of the Admissions Committee, it is my pleasure to offer you admission to the MIT Class of 2013.” Wait, what did that say!?! I read it again. “offer you admission” What? I actually got in? Only 10% of students are accepted, and my academics suck compared to MIT.
Now remember, at this point in time, I wanted to go to an Information Science program. MIT did not offer one. I love the tech culture of MIT, but I didn’t think they had the program I wanted. I called the admissions office and spoke to McGreggor. He explained what MIT had to offer for me. Instead of a formal IS/HCI program, those aspects are part of other MIT programs. He pointed out that the Areo/Astro program and the Media Lab do work in these areas.
Now the Media Lab truly is in the forefront of this type of work. From my sense of it, (ie look at their website and a walk through the building) the Media Lab works on not just software, but new ways of working with hardware. A perfect example of this is “Sixed Sense” project. This is exactly what I want to do. The other schools I looked at worked mostly on software interfaces (from my sense of their schools). Now these are important, but there is no ground-breaking work being done. (Note: the Media Lab also does software work; for example, the Center for Future Budgeting’s Concrete Budgeting project)
One more problem. The Media Lab does not offer a major. It is mostly a graduate school. However, it does offer a minor (MAS). In addition, there is a freshman year program that I plan to take part in. Finally, undergrads have the opportunity to take UROPs and work on these projects. McGreggor also spoke about my history of entrepreneurship and pointed out how MIT is one of the best places for that. So after the call, I totally ignored my homework and did 3 hours of soul searching and I ended up writing 4 pages in outline form.
I also looked at some of the majors that interested me. Political Science and Management (Business) stuck out at me. Architecture seemed a remote possibility.
Let me pause and mention a recent TIME magazine article: How Obama Is Using the Science of Change. The article explains how Obama is using behavioral science to influence people to carry out his policies. For example, let's take recycling. The government has 2 brute force powers it can use. Democrats, stereotypically, would pass a law mandating recycling. If you did not recycle, you may have to pay a fine. Republicans, stereotypically, would call for a tax cut. If you claimed you recycled, you could have a $10 tax credit on your income tax. Both of these plans would create bureaucracy and cost money. But through soft power, one could achieve the same results. For instance, if it was easier to recycle, many more people would do it. In real life, Obama has had his tax cuts added to withholding. Instead of getting a much more visible $500 check, you get $10/week. You are much more likely to spend the $10 because you don’t really notice it. Historically, many people used large rebate checks for savings or to cover debts, both of which do not help the economy recover. (You may note that an MIT professor is quoted in the article.)
So this is kinda what I am interested in. HCI studies people’s behaviors to improve computers. Behavioral economics studies people’s behaviors to improve real life. I was also swept by Obama’s presidential campaign and the fervor surrounding that. I kinda want to do more than just computers. Throughout middle school, I had always liked math and science more than the humanities. However, in high school, I had discovered social science (shout out to Mr. Cobb) and became intrigued at how the world operated. The world operates through unwritten rules, which we do not fully understand.
I also think that MIT would be more challenging for me. I had attended PA’s Governor’s School at Drexel and I was not challenged by the course work. About half of it I knew, and half was easy. In addition, I seemed to be one of the top students at the program, with the most real-world experience. I could go to one of these programs, have a relatively easy time, graduate, and make big bucks as a good corporate robot designing the UI of their new trader’s software. (Not that I could not do that after MIT, the program is not designed specifically for this goal, but it's a possibility)
Part 3: Community at CPW
What sealed the deal for me was the CPW weekend. I was overwhelmed with the sense of community. I seemed to fit right in.
The CPW program was far better than every other college visit program I went to. All of them gave the same boring presentation on the program, the same 30 minute campus tour, and a free lunch at their cafeteria. In at 9 AM, out by 2 PM. The visits did give me some idea about the school. They are important not for what they say at the program, but the feeling you get when you walk on campus. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s somewhat true. Now remember for me, I did not fall in love with MIT when I saw that campus. That’s mostly because I was telling myself I would never go there since they did not have the program I was interested in. But you don’t get a sense of the social life - which is probably compelling at any school.
One theme that stuck out to me was diversity. The welcome event opened with a hip-hop style group that I forget the name of. Imagine that at the school just up Mass Ave from MIT! In fact, I was struck at the variety of options which MIT provides and MIT students are interested in.
I stayed in the ZBT fraternity, which was a wonderful, welcoming environment. I liked the group of people there. The only issue was that ZBT is quite a ways off from campus. They did offer a shuttle and MIT offered a bus at night until 3AM. I disliked living 2 miles away from my high school, and I look forward to being closer to the action. But anyway, you must live in a dorm your first year. At that point I will decide what is right for me.
One thing which surprised me was that the German club was significantly made up by non-German heritage or speaking students. I had assumed that it was going to be all German people, who could speak German. I should point out that some do fit this pattern. This is not necessarily bad; just unexpected. I heard that the reason people join since the club cooks dinner for its members Sunday through Thursday. I may choose to join the German club.
I like the way MIT does its dorm system. Other schools clear out the dorms each summer, whitewash all built up culture through the year, and randomly assign students from a certain year to the dorm. MIT's self selection system contributes to built up cultures. Many dorms and floors have reputations that have carried on for decades. Freshman learn from upperclassmen and carry on traditions. They chose to be in that environment. Facilities does not whitewash everything over the summer for a new group of students.
The dining situation is emblematic of independence at MIT. Most every other school in the country has a dining plan and requires freshman, at least, to subscribe. This keeps the dining program afloat. MIT does not have a unified dining system. They have a few dining halls, open for dinner mostly, that lose boatloads of money. (This is actually a big, ongoing controversy about changing this) You could easily go there for 4 years and not step foot into one of their dining halls. In response, many living groups, including ZBT and German club, cook their own food. This is not necessarily bad, since you have a choice what you want to do. I just find that emblematic of the MIT experience.
From talking to the other freshmen, they seemed excited to be going there, and willing to learn. When I talked about something geeky and random, people were generally willing to listen. I did encounter some negative spirits among the current students who disliked current conditions. Not everyone is a computer geek either. At dinner, I was talking about computer security with someone, and a bio-engineering major claimed he had no clue to what I was talking about. While he talked about biology, I had no clue either.
But generally, there seemed to be a sense of community that I fit right into. Certain events contributed more to this than others. A certain illicit tour which tells stories about the MIT “hacking” culture and gives a taste of it; the idea that something awesome is going on behind every door; the long, interconnected hallways which seem to stretch on for infinity; the intellectual culture; the buildings which are open and occupied at 2AM on Sunday morning.
Here are two examples, both were not there when I was there, but certainly could have been. First, the Institvte of Nowlege sign. Second, the spontaneous moonbounce in the middle of Lobby 7. I feel that this could only happen at MIT. Now, someone else from my high school, disagrees and thinks that this could happen anywhere. Perhaps my perception is clouded.
One thing I did here is that CPW is somewhat of a lie. Of course, the weather is magically nice. But, students also put off doing their homework and have fun that weekend. So CPW is not representative of a normal weekend on campus.
The concerns I have are the workload and the subject areas I am/was interested in. I already have a full workload, so I know what that means; I don't think I can handle it getting worse. I think the subject areas will fit in and my interests will evolve while I am there.
So overall, I think I fit right in to MIT. I liked the fellow students and had fun with them. The inner commitment feeling I have ("gut" feeling) makes it seem that I made the right choice. I want to be an admissions blogger - but I don't think I would have done that at any other school.
Part 4: Opportunity and Resources
So I am writing this section on August 3. It's been 3 or 4 months since I wrote the above 3 sections. My train to Boston leaves in 19 days. Already I have been shown the opportunity and resources that are available. The first week I am there, I got into my first choice pre-orientation program (FPOP), product design . In January, me and 2 other kids will be traveling with my adviser and assistant adviser to China to study entrepreneurship. Also, looking around there are plenty of interesting projects going on. I am planning to be part of the Media Lab. I have seen the work of the MIT Design and Mobile lab and I want to take part in that. When I call an office with a question, I usually get a quick response. Policies and procedures are clearly laid out. The upperclassmen on the forums are interested in answering your questions. Now, I'm sure this stuff happens at any college, but I've experienced it at MIT.