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March 9th, 2015

Tis the season of students wondering about where to to go college, so I thought I would post here my standard set of advice... one size does not fit all, and that is especially true of advice!
Oddly enough, the things from high school I use 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 back then 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 yearbook and school newspaper);

  and the ability to handle foreign languages.

If you are to be a successful scientist you need to be able to describe what you did so that other people will understand not only your results, but why they matter. (And why they should give you a grant to do it.) This means, public speaking. Writing. Art.

Writing means reading; you only learn to write well by reading things that are written well. And the exercise of analyzing a poem or a play is exactly the same skill you eventually use to analyze data. Or someone else' s paper.

In this connection, an ability with a foreign language is really useful. It gets you used to looking at things you have taken for granted from a completely different context and point of view. I found when I was teaching physics that my best students had all had Latin in high school. And I don't think it's just because the best students are tracked into Latin classes!

Art! A good figure is something that can make your paper, and your reputation. Furthermore, a lot of scientific work today is presented as posters; learn how to do layout properly. I learned that, working on the Yearbook. Likewise, an artistic training is the foundation for how to make a good powerpoint presentation, as opposed to one full of useless and distracting bells and whistles.

These things are essential for a scientific career. (They're also essential for being a well-rounded human being, but that's another issue.) And you learn them now, in high school. You won't have time to get them at MIT, or any other school with a strong science or engineering program.

Thus if you are serious about being a scientist or engineer, then an important thing to do RIGHT NOW in high school is to get a background in the arts and humanities. If possible, take AP courses in them, to get to the same level that most kids get in college. This will mean that you can afford to spend the time at MIT (or wherever) on the techie side without winding up as some one-dimensional supernerd.
Do I recommend MIT? Only if you are a very particular type of student.

There is a reason why schools like MIT are so rare: because for most people, it is the wrong school to go to.

MIT is *not* a place to find yourself. 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?)

I roomed at MIT with my best friend from high school, and it was a terrible place for him. He would have been much happier at a small liberal arts school.

Furthermore, another high school friend was admitted to Cal Tech but wound up at the University of Detroit, which is not a top-flight school; but he made a point of seeking out the best professors there, regardless of their subject matter, and as a result is one of the best-educated people I know. He got a better education there than most Harvard grads get. (His daughter went to Harvard.)

The fact is, you will learn exactly the same things in the classroom at the University of Michigan (or any other big state school) that you will at MIT, and in the classroom at Enormous State University you will find students just as capable and professors just as good at their work (and just as bad at their teaching); and that would be a whole lot cheaper and closer to home.

But... for me, MIT was exactly the right place to go. It formed my life more than anything else I have ever done, and I love the place to this day.

Here's what you get at MIT, and only MIT:

1. You get a degree that opens doors around the world... including doors inside yourself. 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. For myself at least, I don't think a degree from Penn State would have given me that same sense of confidence.

2. You get 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 provide a place where you can educate yourself. This attitude is very different from what you find at most other colleges, who pride themselves on their support and guidance. You don't get much support or guidance at MIT. 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 big state schools, 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. (But you have to take the first step.)

4. You get 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. Note that 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.)

5. You're at the best location in Boston, which is the best city in the world to be a student.

6. You get the world's largest open-shelf collection of science fiction. (The sailing pavilion is excellent, too.)



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