At MIT, a war on admission terror - Institute of over-achievers becomes Marilee Jones's launchpad for campaign to reduce student stress

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 18.09.06

Cambridge, Sept. 17 (AP): Though just teenagers, the applicants to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are a scarily accomplished lot. They have started businesses and published academic research. One built a working nuclear reactor in his garage. In their high schools, they have led every extracurricular club and mastered the Scholastic Assessment Test.

But surprisingly few have done what Marilee Jones, the woman who actually decides which one in seven MIT applicants gets in, thinks 18-year-olds ought to be doing.

Not many sleep eight hours a night, or eat three meals a day. Few spend time each day just staring into space. And Jones is blunt about the consequences.

The quest for perfection “is making our children sick,” the MIT dean of admissions told a recent gathering of college admissions professionals. She means it literally, snapping off statistics on the increase in ulcers, anxiety disorders and control disorders such as cutting and anorexia.

“Kids aren’t supposed to be finished,” she said. “They’re partial. They’re raw. That’s why we’re in the business.”

For years, high school teachers have been complaining about the emotional and physical toll of the competition for slots in selective colleges. SAT prep classes and an arms race of extracurricular resume-building, they say, are draining the fun out of life for their students.

College officials have been slower to see it as a problem. Finally, that may be changing. A group of presidents from prominent colleges has been talking behind the scenes about possible steps to “lower the flame” surrounding college admissions.

Nine years as dean, and the mother’s-eye view Jones got of college admissions last year, have persuaded her something is wrong.

Would future MIT graduates make world-changing discoveries, she wondered, or merely execute the discoveries of others? “You don’t see the kind of rogue, interesting stuff we used to see at MIT.”

Now, from the pulpit of a university famous for its overachievers, she has become perhaps the field’s most visible and outspoken champion of revamping admissions. “Nothing will change unless we get up, look ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘I’m responsible,’” Jones told her admissions colleagues. “We have to look ourselves in the eye and say, ‘Am I an educator, or am I marketer?’”

Jones has tried to change the tone of MIT’s application. Students are still asked about activities, but there are fewer slots to list them, and there is less emphasis on prizes.

This year, she is dropping the lines for students to list Advanced Placement ex- ams so as not to signal any expectation.

She has asked interviewers to look for a good match, not robots with resumes. She has also told MIT’s admissions marketing company to stop sending material to high school sophomores.