This is your complete guide to writing outstanding MIT supplemental essays.
We all know MIT is math- and science- focused.
But MIT isn't looking for students who can just do the work (most students applying to MIT already can).
You need to be able to tackle dense STEM subjects and communicate your ideas effectively.
Which is why your supplemental essays are still incredibly important for MIT.
Let's dive right in.
According to MIT Admissions, there are 4 required MIT supplemental essays for 2023 which they ask you to answer in "approximately 200 words."
The MIT essay prompts for 2023 are:
Prompt #1. We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it. (About 200 words)
This is a quintessential "extracurricular activity" essay.
MIT wants to know what you do for fun, and how you spend your time outside of school.
But they don't want to hear about your "resume" activities. MIT already provides their own Activities Section for that.
Instead, this prompt is about sharing something that reveals who you are as a person, not just what you do.
Your goal with this essay should be simple:
Let the admissions officer understand exactly why this activity is enjoyable to you.
You want them to be able to understand your thought process and how you see the world.
To bring them into your world, you need to show where exactly you find pleasure in this activity.
How to Choose an Activity for MIT Essay Prompt #1
First, here's what topics you should avoid or be careful about writing:
- Activities already on your activities list. You want to reveal something new about yourself. - Generic or broad activities (e.g. "I like to read"). - Common activities without having an uncommon angle (e.g. "I like to play video games"). - A "big" activity (e.g. "I love working on my non-profit to help the homeless"). - Focus on the activity itself, rather than what ideas it represent.
Why? Because these topics are overdone and easily cliché.
Instead of focusing on the activity itself, your essay should be an exploration of an idea.
- Biking around your neighborhood? → An exploration of the unknown and what it means to be free
- Doodling extensive notes and diagrams while on plane rides? → Your exploration of imagination and elaborate daydreams
- Creating a new recipe for Thanksgiving dinner? → How exactly and at what point something becomes tradition
Here's how you can find your own unique topic:
- Focused on ideas. Ask questions like, "Why do I really enjoy this activity?" or "What ideas does this activity represent?" - Be unapologetically honest. Even if your activity seems silly or trivial, you can make it meaningful by connecting to an idea of what it represents.
- Be ultra-specific. Don't write about "drawing" or "playing the piano." Write about "drawing pictures of random people on the subway" or "writing fugal counterpoint." - A "small" activity. Something close to home. Then, connect to a bigger idea. If you like to draw pictures of people on the subway, you could write your love of questioning the seemingly mundane and overlooked.
MIT is a highly intellectual school.
They want to see that you're a strong, deep thinker who can connect the dots between seemingly unrelated things.
Here's the deal:
Focus on writing about ideas, not just the literal activity itself. What does this activity represent? What unexpected connections can you form?
Here's an example of a great response to MIT's first essay prompt.
This essay was written when the prompt was limited to only 100 words, so it's a little shorter than the current 200-word limit.
You can still use this essay as inspiration for your own MIT supplemental essays.
Prompt: We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do for the pleasure of it. (100 words max)
After combining the ingredients came an hour-long wait. I tapped my fingers, paced the kitchen, watched the clock anxiously. Time to shape the dough. Then another 30-minute wait. Stress. Dough in the oven! 40-minute wait. The aroma of freshly baked bread wafted lazily through my kitchen, impossibly tantalizing, evoking daydreams of quaint little French bakeries, ceilings stacked high with masterpieces of flour. Holding the bread to my ear, squeezing, I was reminded of the quote from Ratatouille, how great bread is distinguished by the sound, the “symphony of crackle”. Finally, finally, it was time to eat.
Why This Essay Works
- It's not a "big" activity. It's a small, everyday activity that's close to home. - It's not an activity on the author's Activity List, so it reveals something new. - It's ultra-specific: the author doesn't just say "I like to bake bread," they show us exactly what that looks like. - It has a sense of voice. The author writes informally and stylistically, without being casual.
What Could Be Improved
- Connect the activity to a bigger idea. What does baking bread represent? What does it mean to them? - Too much time spent describing the activity itself. The author could have spent more time on the "why" and "how" of the activity, which is more interesting.
I'm sure if this student had 200 words, they would have been able to expand on the "why" and "how" of their activity.
That said, this is still a great example of showing your personality through a small, everyday activity.
It doesn't need to be big or impressive. It doesn't need to be "quirky" or unique.
It just needs to be a meaningful activity that's close to home.
Then show us why it brings you pleasure. Specifically and vividly.
Allow the reader to relate to you and understand your thought process.
Prompt #2. Describe the world you come from (for example, your family, school, community, city, or town). How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations?
Prompt #3. MIT brings people with diverse backgrounds and experiences together to better the lives of others. Our students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way you have collaborated with people who are different from you to contribute to your community.
Prompt #4. Tell us about a significant challenge you’ve faced (that you feel comfortable sharing) or something that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation?
Common App Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. (250-650 words)
Rica nu stia sa zica rau, ratusca, ramurica. I stared at the cracked ceiling of my bedroom in Romania, repeating the eight words under my breath. Rica nu stia sa zica rau, ratusca, ramurica. More than anything, I wanted to roll my r's, to speak Romanian without the telltale American accent. The simple exercise became a prayer. Rica nu stia sa zica rau, ratusca, ramurica. More than anything, I wanted to assimilate into the country that was my second home.
My problems with identity probably sound familiar to many children of immigration. I felt most at home when surrounded by Romanians. I ate mici on the Fourth of July with Romanians. I met my best friend through the Romanian community. But when I spoke Romanian, I was something else: an American. I wanted to demolish that language barrier, to jump up and down on its remains, to destroy what marked me as an imposter, a pretender, a fake.
Instead, I ran away. When my parents spoke to me in Romanian, I answered in English. When my friends called me a "fake Romanian," I laughed. I chose to distance myself from my culture, and I made sure everyone was aware of that choice. But beneath the surface I felt adrift in a sea of ambiguous identity. I wanted to feel at home in two cultures; instead I felt like an outsider to both.
About two years ago, I caught the baking bug. Starting out with pre-made mixes and rock-hard chocolate chip cookies, I worked my way up to custards, traybakes, and the occasional cake. I loved the methodical, precise nature of baking and came to appreciate the chemical underpinnings that made it possible. Though I did bake for myself, I baked mostly for others, revelling in the warm nods and crumb-filled smiles as people tasted the cake I'd spent the weekend making.
As I started baking more on my own, I began leafing through old family recipes scrawled on yellowed scraps or typed up in long-forgotten emails. The aromas of cornulete, fursecuri, and saratele soon wafted through our house, evoking memories of summers long ago in our grandparent's apartments in Bucharest. The all-too-loud radio in Buni Doina's kitchen as she labored over prajituri de cirese. Plucking gogosi from the fryer with Buni's scoldings ringing in our ears. Watching Buni spoon generous amounts of honey and ground walnuts atop steaming mucenici. On some days, I imagined Buni's expert eye watching me stretch dough into clumsy figure eights, five thousand miles away.
Buni's most important baking lesson, though, was not about moisture or measurements. Like me, Buni Doina can be overbearing at times, stubborn in the face of offered help, unyielding in her ways. But in the kitchen, dusted in powdered sugar, there is no denying her devotion to our happiness. Every stir of her wooden spoon is a step back to the common ground that unites us, fueled by constant, unrelenting affection. Her baking is not confined to an amalgamation of sugar, butter, and flour. It's an outstretched hand, an open invitation, a makeshift bridge thrown across the divides of age and culture.
Thanks to Buni, the reason I bake has evolved. What started as stress relief is now a lifeline to my heritage, a language that allows me to communicate with my family in ways my tongue cannot. By rolling dough for saratele and crushing walnuts for cornulete, my baking speaks more fluently to my Romanian heritage than my broken Romanian ever could. Making my parents the desserts of their childhood, seeing their warm, nostalgic smiles as they taste that first bite of cremsnit, I reconnect to our family and culture. Through baking, I've come to see food not simply as sustenance, but as a universal language, a way to say the unspoken and voice the impossible.
- Subverts Expectation:
This essay starts off by posing a challenge, which is typical of essays. But rather than showing how they overcame this particular challenge of speaking Romanian without an accent, this reader shows how something unexpected—baking—came to satisfy what was missing all along. By the end, this creates a conclusion that is both surprising, connected to the beginning, and makes perfect sense once you've read it. In other words, the conclusion is inevitable, but also surprising in content.
- Descriptive and Specific Language:
This student uses Romanian words to help exemplify the culture and language. If you're writing about a culture, using foreign language words can be a compelling way of adding depth to your essay. By including specific terms like "muni" and "cornulete," it shows a depth of knowledge which cannot be faked. Always use specific, tangible language where possible, because it is "evidence" that you know what you're talking about.
- Shows Self-Awareness:
This student exhibits strong self-awareness by noting characteristics about themself, even some which may not be the most glamorous ("can be overbearing at times, stubborn in the face of offered help"). Rather than telling the reader flat out about these personal attributes, they are able to discuss them by connecting to another person—their grandmother Buni. Using another person to showcase your own character (through comparison or contrast) is a literary "foil," which can be an effective way of showing your character without stating it outright, which generally is boring and less convincing.
- Connects To Deep Ideas:
This student doesn't focus on surface-level ideas like "how they got better at speaking Romanian." Instead, they reflect in a creative way by connecting the Romanian language to baking. Revealing unseen connections between topics is a great way to show that you're a thoughtful and clever thinker. Ultimately, having unique ideas that are specific to you is what will create a compelling essay, and this essay is a perfect example of what that could look like.
Prompt: Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why? (100 words max)
I remember boiling down cabbage with my dad to make titration indicators. When I first read about the process of translation, of rendering mRNA into proteins, my eyes filled with tears; this is what I would do, apply the chemistry that had defined my childhood to my love of biology. In the past few months alone, MIT researchers have visualized a critical growth kinase and decoded the kavalactone gene. To major in both the chemistry and biology departments at MIT would be an unequaled opportunity to explore the molecular basis of life and apply that knowledge to real-world innovation.
Prompt: Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations? (200-250 words)
I grew up in a household with a physicist and a chemist. Our cupboards are occupied by periodic table mugs, our closets by t-shirts with taglines like “velociraptor= displacementeraptor/timeraptor”.
Underneath all the unabashed nerdiness, my parents fostered an environment of inquiry. Our kitchen moonlighted as a laboratory, complete with burets. My mom once brought home a 3D printed likeness of her own brain; I traced each sulcus in wonderment, imagining how each fold shaped her personality. My house was a sanctuary, a place where no question was too small, no claim uninvestigated.
It is precisely this background that drew me to research. Spending the past two summers in a neuroscience clinic, I found my second home surrounded by quirky med students, exhausted post-docs, and incisive surgeons. I felt more comfortable than I ever had in high school; loving science was no longer an embarrassment, but an asset. Lunch was spent in discussion about anticipatory alpha activity, and that’s just how I liked it. Though we used EEG’s in place of homemade indicators, MATLAB instead of “borrowed” dry ice, we were working towards the fundamental goal I’d spent my childhood developing: finding new knowledge.
Every one of my dreams can be traced back to my past, to individuals and experiences that have shaped the way I see the world and how I hope to better it. My parent's passion for learning by doing was passed down to me, finding its intersection with my love for the brain in one field: neurosurgery.
Prompt: Tell us about the most significant challenge you've faced or something important that didn't go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (200-250 words)
Bluntly put, moving in high school was difficult. I remember waving good-bye to my best friend through tear-filled eyes. I remember staying up the night before the first day at my new school, dreading having to eat lunch alone. I remember crying on my birthday. Most of all, I remember hating how my life had become a movie cliche, how I had seemingly been reduced to a shell of myself by relocating 399.2 miles south.
Resolute in my desire to restore some semblance of normalcy, I started running incremental exploratory missions on this alien planet. I joined Science Olympiad, finding comfort in the companionship of fellow biology geeks. Fulfilling a longtime goal, I joined a volunteer station and became an EMT, loving the urgency of working in an ambulance and the unique satisfaction of saving a life. I spent countless hours reading papers about spinal cord stimulation, temporarily forgetting my social isolation with academic collaboration. I learned to drive, much to my parent’s chagrin.
Though I still had the occasional bad day (as do we all), things were looking up. Reluctant optimism replaced hopeless despair as I became more confident in my abilities and less reliant on the context in which I applied them. Moving compelled me to meet different people, try new things, and succeed in an environment I hadn’t grown up in. The result was resilience, a firm belief that with hard work, a willingness to diversify, and a little self-deprecation, no situation was impossible, no crisis un-manageable.
Ryan Chiang, Founder of EssaysThatWorked
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