Admissions, from the other side

When I applied to the Graduate Program many years ago, I felt like my application was being delivered to some shadowy, anonymous committee for judgment. So later when I was able to serve on the admissions committee, it was enlightening to be on the other side of the process. Here’s what I can tell you from that vantage point.

Although it was daunting to read through dozens of applications in my spare time over a few weeks, it was also often a pleasure. I sat with stacks of folders in the Hayden Library at MIT, which has wide windows and views of the Charles River, reading the thoughts of many ambitious, hopeful people eager to join my profession. It was nice to be reminded that people out there wanted the job I was struggling with each day.

After taking notes and scoring the applicants, I met with the faculty to hash out our choices. Although we were all busy and had to move efficiently, everyone read the applications carefully (which was heartening to realize as a former applicant). Sometimes we were in agreement on an applicant’s potential. But often an essay or writing sample that charmed one person left another indifferent, and we had lengthy discussions about several candidates.

I was struck by the variety of backgrounds, personalities, and reasons for applying. Some were immediately inappropriate. Some seemed too naïve (“I saw a poster for the MIT program and just knew it was my destiny!”). Others were model students with great resumes, but they lacked passion for science writing.

It’s always easy to get caught up in your own concerns about what you’re writing and lose sight of your readers. The same is true with applications. Some wanted to impress us, to banish any doubt about their genius and “seal the deal.” But we were all working writers and imperfect people to boot. Perfection didn’t impress us. We glanced at GPAs and test scores, but we knew they wouldn’t help anyone express a complex idea under deadline.

What matters most is your writing. A writing sample that’s relevant—that shows the kind of writing you want to do in the program—is extremely helpful. Academic papers are not only boring to read but target the wrong audience. A paper written for a professor who’s paid to read your work doesn’t show how you’ll capture the attention of a media-drenched reader with no knowledge about your topic. Not everyone was fortunate enough to have a great published clip. Several applicants took it upon themselves to blog about science, and I admired their initiative in taking a stab at the writing they ultimately wanted to do. The essay was, of course, a chance to see an applicant’s style if the clips didn’t shine.

The process gave me a unique window into these people’s lives, and it was great to meet members of the class later and see how they fared. It also made me realize that, as mysterious and impersonal as an application process can be, it is ultimately about people getting to know people. So the best advice I can give is to be honest; go ahead and impress, but also show who you are.

Courtney Humphries graduated from the Program in 2004.  She is the author of “Superdove: How the Pigeon took Manhattan…and the World” and countless magazine and web articles.  She served on the admissions committee for the GPSW class of 2009.