Should you (or someone you love) go to MIT?

Today is "PI" day (written in American style, 3/14...) and MIT is holding a one day fundraiser... In honor of this day, this provides me with an excuse to post something I wrote for my Live Journal account a few years ago and which I get asked about from parents (and grandparents) of prospective students all the time. Of course the MIT I attended was nearly half a century back, but things haven't changed all that much...

This was MIT's Bexley Hall, where I lived in the early 1970's. It was not nearly as neat on the inside. I barely recognize it here without the "Impeach Nixon" banner... It's recently been demolished. (We would have done it ourselves if they'd asked.)

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 frankly he would have been much happier at a small liberal arts school. Another high school friend was admitted to some big name schools but wound up (for family/financial reasons) at the University of Detroit, which is a small Jesuit school, 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 (along with Peace Corps and the Jesuit novitiate) was one of the major experiences that formed my life, 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.)

Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

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Should you (or someone you love) go to MIT? — 1 Comment

  1. Interesting set of random colleges you picked.

    My dad was set on me going to MIT (his Alma Mater), but they didn’t accept me. They did send a very flattering rejection letter.

    I wanted to go to UM, and they DID accept me and gave me some money to sweeten the pot, so that’s where I did go.

    Penn State was my safety school. My guidance counselors told me I was setting my sights too high. They sent me an insulting acceptance letter.

    Ok, I don’t have any contact with Cal Tech (or the other schools mentioned), but you can understand why, when I got to your first point, I had that, “has he been poking around in my brain” thought.

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