Preparing for College

Road to MIT for Middle Schooler

Question: Ugh! Life is so hard, and high school hasn't even started. My parents are pressuring me to get into MIT, so I have to make very careful choices. What does MIT look for? Are sports important? What else do I need to do?

I can understand why you're stressed. While I like the fact that your parents want you to set high goals for yourself and do your best in school, the fact that you feel "pressured" to get into MIT is worrisome, whether this pressure is actually coming from your parents or really primarily from you, yourself.

Two important things you need to know:

1) You can do everything absolutely "right" throughout your high school career and still NOT get into MIT (more on that in a minute).2) There are many other fine colleges out there that will enable you to have the same sort of future career success that could be the motivating factor behind your parents' insistence on MIT. Some of these schools may, in fact, be a better match for you. Since you're not even in high school yet, it's WAY to early to know if MIT is the place you should aim for.

So, with this clearly in mind, I'll tell you what you'll need to do to at least be in the running at MIT.

-Take the most challenging classes available to you, especially in math and science, and do very well in them. If you're taking AP classes, you should also take the AP exams and expect to get a 4 or 5 on each test. (5 is the highest score; 1 is lowest). If your high school is one that ranks its students, you should be in the top tenth of your class.

-Take calculus before you graduate. If it's not offered at your high school, try to do it at a local college, over the summer, or even online.

- Pursue at least one extracurricular passion. The more unusual it is, the better. If it's math or science-related, that's a plus, too. Many students who apply to MIT have had some sort of research experience. You asked about sports. Being an athlete ... or not ... won't have a major impact on an MIT verdict. If you are an outstanding athlete and thus recruited by an MIT coach, this can be an advantage in the admission process, but many students admitted to MIT are not athletes. So if this is a strength of yours, then by all means develop it. But if it's not, don't worry about it.

-Score well on standardized tests. In particular, MIT will pay close attention to your SAT II (Subject Test) scores. As of right now, MIT requires TWO Subject Tests: one in math and one in any science. However, the majority of successful candidates take Subject Tests in more than one science. Ideally, your scores will be well up in the 700s.

Finally, read this MIT Admission Decision thread from the College Confidential discussion forum.

I think you'll find it both informative and disheartening. You'll see examples of the many amazing students MIT turns away each year, and you'll also see that those admitted often look just like those who were denied (!) So when you say that your parents are pressuring you to go to MIT, it's a little bit like saying that they expect you to win the State Lottery. In other words, you have to buy a ticket to get the Megabucks, but--beyond that--the outcome is not in your hands.

Certainly, if you aim for MIT, you'll be buying yourself a ticket to some fine college choices, however MIT may still not be among them. Remember, there are many adults who did not perform brilliantly in high school and who did not get into hyper-selective colleges, but who went on to lead happy and successful lives.

So the best advice I can give you is to set high standards for yourself but make sure that they're realistic, too. High school should be a productive time but also a fun one. If you stress yourself too much now, you WON'T succeed in the future. Sadly, some students who are under too much pressure have NO future.

If your parents want to contact me to ask more about your path to college, then please suggest that they do so. And please write again if you feel that the heat is turned up too high in the pressure cooker.