Thursday, 16 June 2016

PI: Facing the MIT Interview

Chill man! Every question is not a test. In this post we have Anzo who was accepted into MIT class of 20 who will debunk the MIT interview myth. (He wrote a very nice post on rejecting the offer though) Unlike the Cambridge interview where they will literally drill you on academic questions, MIT interview is on a more casual format. In this second issue of Project Insight, Anzo will seek to shed light on the MIT interview. 

Facing the MIT Interview

by Anzo Teh
First, please read this link:
MIT does conduct interview to understand applicants better, but there’s no guarantee that you will get one. For me, my interview as shown in MyMIT was waived until Professor Ewe Hong Tat (head of Malaysian MIT club) contacted me via email that he would be conducting an interview for me. Even though you don’t get one, don’t worry: there had been people admitted without going through an interview.

Pre-interview preparation                             

I got the interview email on 31 January and was given the options of 2, 3 or 5 February, with the same venue: Starbucks Coffee at IOI Mall.

Only a day of two to prepare, so I looked up on special things about MIT like its hacking culture, and practiced in front of my father.

The interview

I picked 2nd Feb, 7:30pm. We arrived IOI mall quite early (5:30 pm if I recalled correctly), and thankfully we did that because it took me a while to look for Starbucks (even with signboard!) A quick dinner, not too heavy before I waited outside the building a 7:20, and Prof. Ewe arrived shortly after that. He recognized me as I waved my hand to him, and we quickly settled down after ordering drinks.

His first question: “Why must MIT take you?” A loaded question, but luckily I had a powerful weapon: my experience in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), for four years. I thought it was right to just say about how I stumbled upon the IMO, how I rose from the second IMO onwards, how I met the bottleneck, and how I finally won a gold medal in IMO 2014. I even went on to tell about some cool things I had done, like training the IMO juniors, composing my high school graduation song and graduation performance in Sunway. Alas, guess he wasn’t particularly impressed when he knew that I didn’t take courses outside my IMO scope (like the edX) and we got into Q&A session quite fast.

The middle of the Q&A session saw a pivotal change, as Professor advised “explore deep into what you really like, don’t do math just because of studies or competition.” He further encouraged creating math problems on my own, which I grabbed the opportunity to tell about Junior Olympiad of Mathematics (JOM), a project initiated by Justin and me, inspired by the Experimental Lincoln Mathematical Olympiad. A lot to say, but I knew I was on the right track when he said “now things are getting more interesting.” He allowed me to say another interesting, which I said about the presentation I had made in Economics classes under my teacher’s supervision. To answer the “interesting” element, I commented on the knowledge beyond textbook gained, the escaping of the cocoon of studying only for exam, and the freedom of speech witnessed in class (that could hardly be seen in high school).

The interview ended with not-so-critical topics like Chinese New Year, financial aids, and JPA’s slashing of scholarship. Professor asked for my resume through email before ‘rushing’ me off (at 8:40pm) as there was another candidate after me.


  1. FIX A DATE AS FAST AS POSSIBLE! Although it sounded like all dates are possible but some other candidates may fill the date faster than you do. Luckily Prof. Ewe could slot in two candidates in a day during my time, but that’s not a guarantee in general.
  2. Unlike interviews by Cambridge or Oxford, interviews by MIT (or by most other US universities) are a bit casual in settings. In particular, mine is in Starbucks so suit-and-tie attire is not needed (I wore a black collared T-shirt and slack pants and court shoes).
  3. Another important thing: practice before the interview! Do think of current issues, especially those that impacted you the most (for me, it was the slashing of JPA’s sponsorship to overseas universities). Anticipate more questions like “why must MIT admit you”, “why are you the top 8% of the applicants” (admission rate nowadays had been hovering around his figure), “why do you like MIT”, etc.
  4. Referring to (3), there’s no right or wrong answer but please make sure that the answers are sensible. For example, answering “I applied MIT out of random choices” to “why did you apply to MIT” will never please your interviewer, while answering “I had 2400 on SAT, straight 100’s in my A-Level, perfect 45 on IB” to “why should MIT take you” will make you sound as if you didn’t understand what does MIT look for.
  5. Prepare some questions on your own, too, so that your interviewer knows that you are interested in (no, you must be passionate about) MIT. Avoid asking questions that are available on the official website (like when to submit February Updates and Notes) : I made that mistake by asking if I need to take Biology classes while this question has been answered in General Institute Requirement webpage. You can, however, ask your interviewer’s opinion on hacking culture, for example.
  6. Be punctual to your interview. Show your interviewer that you care about being admitted into MIT and hence care about the interview. Excuses like traffic jam or overslept are just too contrived.
  7. Get to know your interviewer beforehand (especially his/her appearance) so that you will not be in the awkward position of not knowing with whom should you sit.
  8. Courtesy alert: show your interviewer that you are willing to pay for your food/drink (you can ask “how much should I pay”). Chances are, he/she will pay for you but it’s always good to leave a good impression. That said, don’t go overboard by relentlessly insisting on paying (like how your parents and their close friends behave while having meals together). Just reply with a “thank you” after your interviewer agreed to pay for you.
  9. If your interview is a lunch/dinner, it’s advisable to order only snacks since you want to focus your attention in speaking, not eating.
  10. Be yourself. Talk about things that you are truly passionate about, not things that you think that will impress your interviewer. If you talk about things that you don’t really know about or things that you lack passion in, the interviewer can sense it with years of experiences in interviewing.
  11. That said, be sure to grab the opportunity to talk about something your interviewer is waiting for if there is something in your mind, even though you can sense that the interview is about to end (if the time constraint is tight then that’s different story). I would have screwed my interview and admission if I stay silent and not talk about JOM during the Q&A session.
  12. Control your adrenaline in your head! We tend to speak fast when we talk about something we are passionate about, but that’s the time we lost our words too. I remembered my piano teacher advising me not to have my mouth faster than brain during oral test, because we might lost track on what we are about to say (which may show signs of nervousness). In any case, this is not the only way to show passion: you can always slow down and accentuate words or phrases when necessary.
  13. Courtesy alert 2.0: don’t wait for waiters to remove paper cups or plates for you; do it yourself. For me, I forgot about this until Prof. Ewe hinted me that I could take away my cup as I wish. If I didn’t, the cup may remain until the second interviewee came in and things might go very awkward.
  14. Courtesy alert 3.0: be sure to thank your interviewer on email! Do submit your form (like resume for my case) ASAP too.

Any questions? Please leave a comment below. The post by Celine Wan on MIT admissions is also fascinating to read.

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