How to Tackle the MIT Supplement Essays for 2014-15
Note: this blog post has been updated for the 2015-2016 application cycle. To view the most recent version, click here.
Like its Cambridge neighbor Harvard, MIT is one of the most competitive schools in the country. However, unlike Ivy League peers, MIT has its own self-programmed application, with a technical functionality worthy of one of the nation’s best computer science programs.
The MIT application has five essays, ranging in length from 100 to 250 words, and as with other schools that have a series of short essay prompts, you should treat the five essays as a portfolio, using each one to display something different about your profile or personality. While many students find the MIT essays extremely difficult to write, you should keep in mind that MIT places less importance on essays than any other elite university, so try to de-stress accordingly.
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)
This is pretty much a standard “Why Major” essay, however because the length is just 100 words, you have to be highly specific in your response to the prompt. The first component of the essay is simply stating or stipulating the major, department, or program of study, using one short sentence (either at the beginning or the end of the essay). The remaining 80-90 words should be used to describe one specific reason for your desire to pursue that field, and you can cite something about the program at MIT. Ideally, you shouldn’t just list classes, but discuss a specific departmental research or broad academic focus that you wish to study, giving at least one intrinsic reason for why it appeals to you. For example, if you wanted to pursue architecture at MIT, you could cite MIT’s diversity of architectural design studios (each with its own philosophy) offered to undergraduates and then talk about your desire to be exposed to disparate architectural styles in the course of your studies. To find out specific details about MIT’s programs of study, you can read through their course descriptions at their college catalog, which is linked below.
Alternatively, you can focus on the major or academic program itself, and discuss your personal affinity for it. In this case, you should spend half of your available words on describing why you find the major appealing, while the remaining words should be used citing one or two extracurricular activities which gave you broad experience in the field (thereby establishing your qualifications for the major). For example, if you wanted to study economics, you could discuss why you’re fascinated by the study of human interaction and exchange, and then refer to your experience in the National Economics Challenge as the inception of that interest.
What attribute of your personality are you most proud of, and how has it impacted your life so far? This could be your creativity, effective leadership, sense of humor, integrity, or anything else you’d like to tell us about. (250 words)
This essay is highly personal, and there are two different ways of approaching it. You shouldn’t just choose a personality trait that you think the admissions counselors might find interesting, rather, you should spend some time trying to discover your key personality traits (this will be useful for multiple essays). While there are several possible strategies to do so, some combination of self-reflection, asking family and friends, and using (reliable) online personality tests, yes online ones, can be useful. If you do use online ones, we suggest some version of the Meyers-Brigg personality test, or tests from psychology publications or department websites at universities. As for the two strategies, first, you can reveal a part of your personality that mostly affects your non-academic/professional life, whether it’s sentimentality, charm, or eloquence, that you think might be appealing and that you can write a detailed essay on. For example, you could discuss your realistic and pragmatic nature, and discuss how it enhanced your friendships because your friends would always come to you asking for advice about relationships and other life challenges.
The second strategy is to describe a personality trait that might be useful for your professional life, and discuss how it served you well in extracurricular pursuits. This harkens back to the portfolio of essays philosophy, and to carry over the economics example from the previous prompt, as an example you could discuss how your painstaking nature allowed you to find success in the Federal Reserve Challenge by analyzing large sets of inflation and GDP to pull out a data-driven solution.
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? (250 words)
This essay once again can either be tackled from a professional/academic or personal perspective, though it is important to strategize carefully at the mix of the two. The two 100-word prompts are equally split; one is academic and one is personal. For the three 250-word prompts, you should have either two academic/professional essays and one personal essay, or vice versa, but all three of your essays should not address the same sphere.
In terms of the approach to this essay, you have a lot of leeway in the “world” you choose to base the essay on, mainly due to the word “community.” As we have discussed for other schools, your definitions for “community” can be as disparate as your race or the online forum you use when discussing RuneScape. The key element of this essay is the shaping of your dreams, whether that’s a personalized one (that you want to achieve some sort of intrinsic goal such as accepting new members to any community), or a professional one (that you want to study biotechnology because of your good friend who had to get a prosthetic leg).
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? (250 words)
This essay prompt is difficult for many students who grapple with the type of challenge that they should write about. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers in terms of what type of challenge you should address. Obviously, tone-deaf essays discussing why you had to overcome racial discrimination as a Caucasian are a no-go, but there are more subtle questions (for example, can getting a B in a class be a “challenge”?) that make this prompt tough.
Our best advice is to pick a time that you failed (academically or in extracurricular activities) and discuss the lessons you learned, even if you didn’t overcome the failure per-se. Personal failures can often be a slippery slope (planting a questioning seed in the minds of admissions counselors), so if you do choose a personal challenge or failure of some sort, make sure that it is from your freshman year or earlier, putting enough time between the present day and the event to extinguish any questions about your character that may arise.
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)
This essay prompt is reasonably straightforward, but the biggest mistake you can make is to write something that you think the admissions counselors want to hear, rather than something you actually love. It is very easy to see through this type of disingenuous answer, so you should really try to choose something that is very pleasurable for you, within reason (i.e. no discussion of illegal, offensive, or sensitive pastimes). In terms of strategy, you can opt for a straightforward description, or a short anecdote. The anecdote frequently is the more interesting strategy because it allows you to show off some writing skill (if executed correctly) in a way that the remaining prompts probably don’t. And, if the answer to this prompt is simply that you enjoy watching romantic comedies or walking through Central Park, that’s fine. This essay alone will not get you into MIT, but a bad answer might keep you out.