I remember driving down Massachusetts Avenue with my mom when I was 16. We were in New England on a family vacation, so she arranged a campus visit at MIT for me since I was trying to decide which colleges I should apply to. It was a beautiful July day. We had a meeting with an undergraduate admissions counselor in the infinite corridor (the legendary long hallways that stretch MIT’s main buildings), we met with an administrator in the nuclear department, and we toured the MIT nuclear reactor. It was a fun day, and by the end of it, I definitely wanted to apply to MIT. When we got back from the campus visit and joined the rest of the family for dinner, everyone excitedly wanted to know “How was MIT?????” Even at that tender age, imposter syndrome1 took over: I shrugged, not knowing if I should get my hopes up.
When the MIT application deadline rolled around, I submitted mine to early decision. This is a chance to get accepted or rejected in an earlier round of admissions. I was neither, instead waitlisted – which means my application was not outstandingly good or bad, just perfectly average (by MIT’s high standards at least). Ultimately, I was accepted into 3 universities, waitlisted by one, and rejected by MIT.
I had a great time in college at the University of Pittsburgh! I made great friends, lived near my grandparents, learned a ton about engineering, and did a bunch of internships. My junior year, I got into the MIT Summer Research Program, which gave me research experience in the Nuclear Science & Engineering Department. By the time I applied to grad school, I knew I was a competitive applicant, mainly because one of my references was the MIT advisor I wanted to work with. I’m here now with a strong sense that I belong. However, I don’t think that would have been the case as an undergraduate student since I had so much to learn about myself. I am less fragile now, more confident in my technical abilities, and more experienced in leadership. Gaining a solid footing in who I am and what I want to do has given me freedom to focus on my work and not worry about fitting in.
Undergraduate education is a different beast from graduate school. The primary goal of an undergraduate student is to take classes, get technical and leadership experience, and earn a degree. To some extent, it doesn’t matter where you go to do those things. In grad school however, a determining factor of your success is who you pick to be your advisor. If a single relationship can shape so much of your job, it very much matters where you go and who you pick to be your advisor.
I believe I would have done fine at MIT if I had been given the opportunity to study here for undergrad, but I almost never think about that alternate reality. I’m happy with where I went to college because college is very much what you make it, whereas success in graduate school more often relies on external factors. In fact, there are specific experiences that have shaped my career that I couldn’t have gotten if I had gone anywhere else. My school was starting up a new chapter of the American Nuclear Society which gave me an early opportunity to showcase my leadership skills. This experience wouldn’t have been possible at a more established chapter. There is no way I could have planned for those types of chance encounters. For that reason, I think high school students are better off picking a school based on the cost, location, and of course the quality of the education. They will never know ahead of time who they will meet or what they will do which will make all the difference in their lives. As graduate students at MIT, we can’t look back with regret at our past academic experiences. Embrace how your past has gotten you here today!
As imposter syndrome continues to creep up in my life (and it seems it always will), I focus on building my skills because competence is the best confidence booster. When the time was right, I did come to MIT. I love it now, but who knows if I would have loved it for undergrad. I don’t think it matters in the end.
Photo from the University of Pittsburgh. Engineering Society of Western Pennsylvania awards ceremony.
1 A feeling of inferiority that is often untrue.