An interesting virtual volunteer opportunity presented itself last fall. MIT was looking for alums to interview a pandemic-induced bumper crop of undergraduate applicants. Spending thirty minutes or so with an engaged high school senior with geeky leanings is a piece’o’cake for a guy who perfected the art of kibitzing any stranger who invited him and his bicycle overnight. Besides it would be fun to recall MIT years, time-rubbed to a fond luster, and bask in current aspirants’ enthusiasm.
Here are the ground rules. An Educational Counselor (fancy title for: me) is assigned applicants to interview. EC’s receive only an applicant’s name, high school, and home town. No academic credentials. Our task is to seek out each student’s unique story and then file a narrative report, a 1-5 Leichardt rank on ‘enthusiasm,’ ‘personality,’ and the all-important ‘Overall Match.’ ‘5’ is a gem among the multitudes; ‘4’ represents the top ten percent of interviewees; ‘3’ is a good match; ‘2’ a poor fit; and ‘1’ is a stop light.
After brief training, I was assigned to the Oklahoma region, yet received only one specific applicant. That actually turned out to be a blessing. As I free-roamed the Overflow pool. I developed personal strategy to meet applicants from my formative geographies (Jersey shore; Norman, OK; and Lubbock, TX) as well as rural places I’ve visited. In total, I interviewed twenty-eight applicants from quirky spots like Coos Bay, OR; Las Cruces, NM; Kenosha WI; and Fayetteville NC. I savored the moment in each interview where I revealed familiarity with the student’s hometown and our talk turned local.
As in any volunteer experience, the rewards I received for my effort exceeded my investment. During a depressing period of American health and history, I enjoyed meeting these impressive and optimistic candidates.
What did I learn from my experience?
I learned that the future is in capable hands. These young people are impressive in their ability, ambition, and consciousness.
I learned that, as a group, first-generation students from India run circles around everyone else. They come to the interview prepared to speak of their passion; they’ve also done their research on me. They know every box MIT wants checked: social consciousness, community service, entrepreneurial initiative; dazzling academics. Then they deliver their case with a humble yet compelling personal story.
How did my interviewees fare in the admissions race?
I interviewed six glistening candidates, each of whom rose beyond the already impressive crowd. I abided by MIT’s rules and only assigned three of them a ‘4’ match, though I wrote such glowing narratives, I hoped they would all receive four-star consideration. My top six were geographically diverse: New Mexico; Indiana; Georgia; New Jersey; Texas. But five of my top six were bound by common thread: first-generation Indians who lived in multi-generational households. Each has done impressive independent research, yet each demonstrated a passion rooted in humanitarian rather than economic impulse.
In classic geek-style, MIT issues admission notices on PI-Day (3/14). MIT’s acceptance rate is tiny—around five percent—and since I’d bypassed super-star students from prep schools, Bronx Science, and Boston Latin; as well as the flood of applicants from tech-savvy enclaves like Plano, TX; Fremont, CA; and Lexington, MA; I knew my outlier applicants’ chances were slim. Yet, as a long-ago outlier myself, I held out hope.
Exactly one of my interviewees was accepted; a woman originally from India with an open demeanor who has already done meaningful research on cancer clusters. She blew me away; though no more than the other five of my top six.
I’m thrilled that one of ‘my’ students was accepted, and I’ll be a quick to sign-on again next year should MIT need EC’s. But the overall experience reinforces my dominant concern with elite schools.
There are so many more students who can thrive at MIT than ever get the chance. Surely, they will get good educations at Georgia Tech or the University of Wisconsin. But that credential will not open the same doors and provide the same cache as the initials ‘MIT’ on their resume. In a fairer society, everyone with the ability and drive to meet the challenge of MIT would have the chance. And our world would be a whole lot better for that.