Essay Scoop: How to Answer MIT Essays

Madeleine Karydes
Madeleine Karydes

Madeleine attended UC Berkeley and double-majored in English and Media Studies. She is now an integral part of the Empowerly team.

Wondering how to approach the writing for MIT essays? You’re not alone. It’s no surprise that the school is extremely selective, with the admission rate hovering around eight percent each year. If MIT is your dream school, you face serious odds. Read on to learn a little more about the school itself and get tips on how to think critically about your essay strategy so you can give yourself the best chance possible of standing out.


About the school

Massachusetts Institute of Technology—more commonly known as MIT—is a world-class private research university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Students can choose from thirty different departments across five schools, though the university is best known for engineering and physical science programs. The school is internationally recognized as an intellectual leader, and students are encouraged to explore and excel. With a student-to-faculty ratio of 3:1, the intimate educational environment appeals to many.

If you’re interested to read more from a real-life MIT beaver, check out Nanette’s story here to get her perspective on getting accepted.

How do the MIT essays stack up?

Now, down to the nuts and bolts. There are five supplemental questions for the MIT application, and each has a tight word limit. The application emphasizes that elusive holy grail in personal writing — ”authenticity.” While it’s smart to encourage students not to “think too much” about their answers and prioritize honesty, putting a little extra effort into planning and drafting your submission is an absolute must.

Without further ado, these are the 2020-2021 application year short essay questions straight from MIT’s site:

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)

You’ve probably written something similar to this prompt for other essays (maybe even for the Common App). Make sure that if you decide to use a piece that you’ve already drafted, you comb through it and emphasize MIT’s values in this version. The same goes for the next prompt—take your writing to the next level by aligning your personal growth journey with intellectual passion and a drive to change the world. No small job, huh? Don’t worry—you’ve got this. The great part about writing about your world is that you have so much room to be unique. 

Pick what field of study at MIT appeals to you the most right now, and tell us more about why this field of study appeals to you. (100 words or fewer)

I can’t say this enough for this prompt: please do your research. Some students may feel that since the question allows for an undecided academic path (totally valid) they don’t need to include specifics. Don’t be that student. Even if you don’t end up staying in the AeroAstro program—or even actually starting any of the prerequisites—showing that you’ve taken the time to thoughtfully consider reasons why MIT is the school for you can be the difference between immediate dismissal or a second consideration. This is a chance to demonstrate your interest in the school for the academic opportunities it provides, not just the prestige of the name.

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. (100 words or fewer)

This essay should be short and sweet. Don’t feel like you need to rehash an impressive-sounding line from your resume just to make yourself sound extra academic—that’s not what this essay is asking. If you really do live and breathe high-level mathematics and feel like nothing else would fit here, go ahead and talk about that passion. But the most important takeaway from this personal statement should be your real, honest-to-goodness, jump-out-of-bed excitement and love for something you choose to do. Don’t fake it—readers can tell.

At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (200-250 words)

Here’s a tidbit for you: MIT’s motto is “Mens et Manus,” or “Mind and Hand.” Down to the very charter philosophy, the school dedicates itself to uniting academics and real-world applications. To write something successful for this question, you must fully unpack the impacts and consequences of the topic you choose. Dissect how it changes the lives of those around you. Dig into your personal motivation to see these changes in your communities on an aggregate scale. In other words, walk the walk. 

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)

Be careful not to make this a sob story! The admissions committee is asking how you managed the situation. That means, what steps you took to remedy the issues at hand, what resources you were able to employ, what creative solutions and ideas you pulled out of your hat to come out on top. Or at least, go down fighting. Incorporate your feelings and emotional reactions wisely to make your response meaningful! But also take the time to explain your rationality and what came out of the situation in the end.

There is also one final, open-ended additional information text box, where you can tell us anything else you think we really ought to know.

This space is a chance to include any relevant information about situations that may have negatively impacted your GPA in high school, or other serious events that may impact their decision that go above and beyond. It’s not a place to copy-and-paste that extra writing sample that you’ve got laying around, just in case. Only write here if you have a good reason. And if you think you have a good reason, why not double check? It’s a good idea to get a second opinion from an advisor or counselor just in case.

So there you have it. Be honest, do your research, and have fun learning about yourself in the writing process. Once you’ve got a draft, consider submitting it to our essay editing team! You can send it through the Student Portal where we offer to get even more feedback. The sooner you get cracking, the better!

Questions? Let us know!