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December 20th, 2008

Advice to a High School Senior...

...who is graduating from the high school I went to (University of Detroit High) and trying to decide between studying engineering at the University of Michigan and MIT. He had heard that I went to MIT (albeit a long time ago) and wanted my take on the place.

He also sent a picture of himself, dressed up in a tux for his Junior Prom. A purple tux. That he made himself. Out of duct tape.

My reply to him is below the cut:

Advice to a prospective MIT studentCollapse )
Seriously... let me start by pointing out the obvious: you will learn exactly the same things in the classroom at U of M that you will at MIT, and in that classroom will have students just as capable and professors just as good at their work (and just as bad at their teaching); and it will be a whole lot cheaper and closer to home.
Let me also warn you that I roomed at MIT with my best friend and debate partner from U of D High, and that in retrospect it was a terrible place for him; he would have been much happier at U of M. Likewise, another U of D High classmate was (as I recall) admitted to Cal Tech but wound up at the University of Detroit, and as a result is one of the best-educated people I know -- he got a better education there than most Harvard grads get.
With those things out of the way: do I recommend MIT? Only if you are the right kind of student. There is a reason why MITs are so rare; because, for most people, it is the wrong school to go to. But... for me, it was exactly the right place to go, it formed my life more than anything else I have ever done (including joining the Peace Corps), and I love the place to this day.
It is, of course, the life outside the classroom that makes MIT so different from U of M, or U of Illinois, or even Michigan Tech (which is in its own way a wonderful school, from which a lot of my friends have graduated).
Here's what you get at MIT, and only MIT:
1. An institute that is known and respected around the world. Coming from Detroit and the inevitable "do I measure up to the rest of the world?" anxieties that we midwesterners all have (even if we never admit to them), there is a lot to be said for going to a place with a well-earned reputation. There have been many times in my later career when I might have doubted my ability to move forward, but then looked at that MIT ring on my finger and told myself to suck it up and get back to work. I have never regretted that; and, for myself at least, I don't think a degree from UM or MTU would have given me that same sense of confidence. And, likewise, getting at MIT degree gives you world-wide credibility; and membership in a very impressive club of alumni.
2. An institute that immediately treats you as an adult, expecting you to take care of yourself. It doesn't give you an education so much as providing a place where you can educate yourself. This attitude is very different from what you find at most other colleges, which do tend to treat their students as kids who need hand-holding. Of course, most 18-year-olds do need some hand-holding. It can be scary to go to an institution that will happily let you fail.
3. On the other hand... you get an institution that is not out to weed people out. At UM the attitude is that they've admitted more students than they can graduate, and so the first year or two is full of hurdles to test how much you really want to get an education. MIT is just the opposite; it is hard enough to get in, that they don't want to admit they made a mistake in admitting you! So, while they will give you enough rope to hang yourself, they will also be there to help you when you finally admit you need help.
4. A student body where you will fit in; or at least where no one will judge you harshly for not fitting in. And where you will actually be given the space to learn how to interact and deal with other very smart people. And yet, the majority of the students at MIT are not (as they are at Cal Tech, say), hopeless geeks. Yes, MIT has its large share of Asperger's, but they are not the majority! Do you want to know what it is like being a student at MIT? See the movie Real Genius. (Yes, it is actually based on Cal Tech, but it is the same idea; and it is not that much of an exaggeration.)
4. The best location in Boston, which is the best city in the world to be a student.
5. The world's largest open-shelf collection of science fiction.
With all these good points, why then did I start out being so negative about MIT? Because it is such an intense environment, it can be devastating to anyone who doesn't already have a strong sense of who they are and where they want to go. (Mind you, after MIT is finished with you, the person you thought you were at 18 won't be the person you are at 22; but if that were not so, then what would be the point of going there?)
It is *not* a place to find yourself. And frankly, any normal 18-year-old really ought to be at a place where they can explore more sides of their lives than just the Techie side. So I go back to my original point -- you have to be crazy to want to go to MIT. But if you are crazy, in the right sort of way, then it will do, very nicely.
I think one great advantage of going to U of D High is that you probably already have a background in the arts and humanities that is as good as most kids get in college. That means you can afford to spend the time on the techie side without winding up as some one-dimensional supernerd.
Oddly enough, the things I use from The High to this day in my work include things I never thought were important at the time I was learning them... the ability to speak on my feet (which I learned in Speech class, a class I thought at the time was a total waste of time); the ability to present my work in writing and in posters (which I learned not only in the classroom but also working on the Cub Annual and Cub News); and the ability to handle foreign languages. Turns out I have just been appointed to a nomenclature committee for the International Astronomical Union, thanks to my Latin classes... which would be shocking to my Latin teachers, I am sure.
Thanks for writing, and best of luck wherever you wind up.

(And, yes, I know there are two point 4's...)



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