How We Made Our College Decisions

See also: College Decision Pokémon Stats, and Paul Graham's essays on College and Love (of work)See also: Quora: How-does-a-star-engineering-high-school-senior-choose-among-MIT-Caltech-Stanford-and-Harvard
See also: Quora: What are the pros and cons of Harvard vs. Stanford?

Add your own college decision process at the bottom!

Major/interests | Deciding between (Short list) | Chosen School | Why

Electrical engineering/computer science + English literature | Stanford, Harvard, MIT | MIT |

Go to a place where you will be around people you want to emulate.

Regardless of my decision, college is like one giant sleepover/party/robotics team meeting/lit mag meeting/programming club meeting/science museum visit/art museum visit that is going to be incredible as long as I continue to frame it right and act as I have in high school. Torrey Pines is absolutely incredible, and I will carry forward the attitudes, connections, and insights I developed their no matter what. I want to go to the place that has the resources, professors, opportunities, and other students who are most able to do things I couldn't but wanted to do while I was in high school.

While I don't match the profile for MIT best (I think I was the best match for Stanford), I hypothesize that I can gain the most value of the subset of resources I can mobilize at MIT. Moreover, worst comes to worst, I can cross register half my class at Harvard and become an English literature major at one of the best humanities schools in the world. Besides, I have my whole life to become a better writer -- this skill doesn't wither away but only grows, but I only have a limited window of time in which I can really do tech at my peak.

MIT has the critical mass of tech people that you can run into the right people randomly. I made some of my best connections by simply bumping into people in the hallway or the student center or in PE class. Just today, for instance, my floor's graduate resident tutor, who is a materials scientist, had a question about parallel computation via graphics cards in Mathematica, and I was able to help him answer it, along with another guy from four who knows a lot about the theory of computation, and another guy at my floor who has an intense machine with a powerful GPU. Stuff just happens here because there are so many competent people -- ideas get implemented, companies get founded, new technologies get developed.

MIT had a much stronger electrical engineering bent than Stanford -- almost everyone in EECS seemed to be pure computer science or symbolic systems at Stanford; while I love both of these subject areas (symbolic systems is computer science plus neuroscience effectively), I'd be missing the electrical engineering side of my education which I very much value -- programmable logic architectures are one of my favorite things, and circuit design is incredibly fun/cool. Additionally, my Intel STS project involved FPGA design which I learned almost exclusively from MIT Open Courseware. Stanford's ware on the same subject was much weaker, and moreover it would be even harder to find the community interested in this stuff there.
I'll never get off the West Coast if I go to Stanford -- I'd love to go there for grad school at the very least, and ultimately intend to return to California.
There are plenty of people who suffer and are overworked and barely squeak by MIT, but when you have your own ideas and visions, the same seemingly inescapable rules of failure don't apply to you. For instance, you're usually not supposed to be able to cross register as a first year student, but since I had a pointed set of reasons to take the class on consciousness I'm currently cross registering at Harvard, I was able to successfully petition to do so.

I will have unique experiences at MIT that I would have no chance of elsewhere. I would always wonder what it would have been like to take a more extreme option. Well, I can safely say that MIT is pretty extreme; while every day is not like CPW (admit weekend) of course, I think that last weekend really gives you a sense of the ridiculous stuff that can happen when this very self-selected group of people puts their heads together. [Having lived through it now, I wouldn't sacrifice my awesome freshman year experience for anything in the world]

The real people to look for MIT are those who either applied early and then didn't attempt any other school, and those who chose MIT over other top-notch schools. These are the motivated, driven people who are extremely happy to be here and see the rewards of the place. Those who got only into MIT of the top schools sometimes get depressed about the experience. If you are concerned about the very real potential for having a bad time under the Bunsen burner of MIT, look not for the people who are screaming because their lab coats are on fire, but instead for those who are driving the reactions of their studies/plans to glorious completion using the immense power there is to channel here.

There's plenty of stuff to do outside academics -- take up windsurfing, sailing, ice skating, rock climbing, soccer, breakdancing, anything! It's nice to have a low entry barrier to sports teams due to the school's non-focus on them; if you're interested in the sport, you can probably work your way into it.
Also, MIT is the party Central of Boston/Cambridge and the surrounding region. Lack of this should not be a concern at all

Remember all those projects you wanted to do in high school but couldn't find anyone else to talk to about them/mentor you on them? Well now you have all the equipment, support (including funding!), and enthusiasm you need (If not always the time) to dream and act big.

I'm not sure what your current decision is between, but given your interests, I would probably say MIT/Stanford are the best two matches for your profile. I didn't even apply to Yale myself because of its comparatively weak engineering program

All this said, college for me is a hypothesis, I'm not sure if MIT was the right decision. I'm not sure if Stanford would have been a right decision. Maybe I should've gone to some other different school entirely. I think about what my life would have been like if I'd made a different choice very frequently. But I think that MIT is a hypothesis worth testing: I'm going to see how awesome I can make college if I pit my mental Faculties Against the task. My current pursuits involve many tech related research/entrepreneurial projects, as well as studying the neurobiology of consciousness, and starting on writing a screenplay and a book.

Regardless, the wrong attitude to take is "I can't go wrong" -- instead, the right attitude to take is "I can make college awesome everywhere". Being passive about it will get you nowhere -- if you can imagine jumping up and being completely stoked to drop everything and go to a certain college right now right now, then it's probably worth considering. If you can't, that's a major red flag. This is the RIGHT mindset for college in general (any college; it's a friend's quote):"i'm so excited for college though / i mean my senioritis will disappear in an instant once i show up to stanford or yale"
Additionally, college is not about the education so much -- education you can get online, by reading open courseware, by hacking around on your own, or by attending any college. Instead, it's the people and resources that will define your time at a place. I was really struck by how open and helpful people at MIT were, how people would stay up and help each other on problem sets even if doing so was not to their advantage. And when someone develops a tool that helps them study for a test, they share it with the whole class because they have fun learning the material and writing the tools to help them understand it better.

Well, don't make any decisions until you have to, and still give all the other schools a fair consideration, though I think you [my EE-loving, and generally awesome friend] would be an awesome match here. I had nearly as good as set of reasons to go to each of the schools in my final three short list; that's what my decision was so hard.

That said, MIT is pretty intense with regard to entrepreneurship my "big brother" in The Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity just won 100k To start a company in the Thiel Foundation entrepreneurship competition, and I know several other freshmen/undergrads who own companies. Additionally, the founder of Quizlet goes here (he lives in East campus). You just have to find these people by being interesting yourself, talking to people, and standing out in your own endeavors. If you just start good conversations with interesting people about interesting stuff, It's easy to get project started which, down the road, can easily become companies. Hangout in the computing club (SIPB). Not only will these guys blow your mind with their ridiculous typing speeds, but they will really revolutionize your view of computer science, computers, etc (Side note: it's very important to seek out good clubs in good classes in college -- just because other people are actively pursuing these things, doesn't mean you shouldn't. Treat your freshman year of college like you did high school, like you're trying to find awesome things to do that are fun in and of themselves and that you can put on a college application. There is no college application after college of course, graduate school admissions are very different (see Paul Graham's essay; search "only thing professors trust is recommendations"), but the process of finding awesome things to do will guarantee that you have a fun and rewarding time here. The algorithm for winning at college admissions is not dissimilar from the algorithm for winning at life.)[more to come: check out the Entrepreneurship Center, the student clubs, and Startlabs; talk to R. Colin Kennedy if you have questions]
MIT actually puts a lot of resources to entrepreneurial projects, perhaps most notably through the venue of the MIT 100k competition, which is one of the premier entrepreneurship competitions in the world. Honestly though, most tech startups don't take a ton of venture capital, so this isn't even a limiting factor. What's more relevant is that (at least I've heard) you can get very good and inexpensive legal counsel through MIT if you are starting a company; this is can cost a fortune otherwise. Stanford has a lot of comparable resources, but there's a much greater ratio of businesspeople to tech people, which, according to Paul Graham, is not a good thing.
"In a technology startup, which most startups are, the founders should include technical people. During the Internet Bubble there were a number of startups founded by business people who then went looking for hackers to create their product for them. This doesn't work well. Business people are bad at deciding what to do with technology, because they don't know what the options are, or which kinds of problems are hard and which are easy. And when business people try to hire hackers, they can't tell which ones are good. Even other hackers have a hard time doing that. For business people it's roulette."
This is from the same essay, "how to start a startup"" that has the quote: "It's no coincidence that startups start around universities, because that's where smart people meet. It's not what people learn in classes at MIT and Stanford that has made technology companies spring up around them. They could sing campfire songs in the classes so long as admissions worked the same.""

Paul Graham, for the record, was a Computer science PhD student at Harvard (I believe) when he started viaweb, which he sold for something like $40 million; this company's product exists now as Yahoo store


Additionally, college is not about the education so much -- education you can get online, by reading open courseware, by hacking around on your own, or by attending any college. Instead, it's the people and resources that will define your time at a place. I was really struck by how open and helpful people at MIT were, how people would stay up and help each other on problem sets even if doing so was not to their advantage. And when someone develops a tool that helps them study for a test, they share it with the whole class because they have fun learning the material and writing the tools to help them understand it better.

Something with bio innit | Stanford, Princeton, Caltech | Stanford
I do not think that anyone perusing this document will not be a very cerebral person. If your thinking does not dominate you, you will not have the difficulties we have and this will not be as helpful to you. Of course I am a cerebral person like you. I am a follower of Djiksterhuis’s thought on nonconventional and nonconscious thought as a factor in the making of decisions, meaning that I do not wish to make conscious decisions about the momentous choices of my life. Your consciousness can be easily shut up: most people have done so many times. Your unconscious cannot be so easily shut down. I believe it is the unconscious which will issue little whiny voices in the back of your head at the dark hours of your night and afflict you with doubt.

Here’s an anecdote I stole from Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert, which is a very accessible way to start on this tremendously interesting subject:

In one study, researchers offered volunteers a reproduction of an Impressionist painting or a humorous poster of a cartoon cat. Before making their choices, some volunteers were asked to think logically about why they thought they might like or dislike each poster (thinkers), whereas others were encouraged to make their choices quickly and “from the gut” (nonthinkers). Career counselors and financial advisers always tell us that we should think long and hard if we wish to make sound decisions, but when the researchers phoned the volunteers later and asked how much they liked their new objet d’art, the thinkers were the least satisfied. Rather than choosing the poster that had made them feel happy when they imagined hanging it in their homes, thinkers had ignored their prefeelings and had instead chosen posters that possessed the qualities of which a career counselor or financial advisers would approve.

The study: T.D. Wilson et al., “
Introspecting About Reasons Can Reduce Post-Choice Satisfaction”, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

If you have entered the ivory tower truly, I suspect that you will instantly reject the idea of not thinking about such a momentous decision. Do not worry: your unconscious has all the information your conscious has. Do not underestimate your ability to rationalize gut choices, because even the most cerebral person spends more than half their time doing so. What are you doing right now? Did you make a conscious decision to do it? Now, did you know about the conscious decision before you made it? Doesn’t look too conscious now, does it?

Now, how do you get a gut choice? You imagine how you will feel in that new college. Be very very sure that you do not have any other feelings or emotions sticking in your head while doing so. Your imagination will be profoundly inaccurate in all ways imaginable: your head will thankfully and nigh-instantly close up the gap in expectation with glorious rationalization. It will need to be a pretty far gap in order for your rationalization to not work.

Now if you want an accurate estimation of your experience in a college, take a bunch of sources and utterly cleave to the people’s experiences, in aggregate. An aggregate: you can’t really say that MIT isn’t a workaholic place if the 50 MIT student’s opinions you looked at all say so, eh? You will instantly ignore this estimation and replace it with your imagination and your gut decision, because you do not think you are average, that that experience would not apply to you. It might not. You already beat the odds: You might again.

Here’s a video which you might also want to see.

Computer Science | Princeton, MIT | MIT

For me, choosing colleges was not really a financial or academic concern; therefore I mostly focused on learning about the schools' cultures and deciding on which I wanted to be immersed in.

Granted, the schools' cultures are as different as you make them; wherever you go, you will be able to find your "people," your niche. So stereotypes aren't exactly reliable; the entire process of choosing a school is about stripping yourself of polarizing generalizations so that you can recklessly and thoroughly explore your options...all so that you can eventually delineate your own perceived “differences." In other words, as you've probably heard before, you can be happy wherever you end up going. But you might be happier, and will be better prepared to take advantage of the perceived benefits and opportunities, if you consciously know why you chose one school over the others. Indeed, I found my college decision experience (in addition to the entire college application process) to be a fulfilling assessment, search, and defining of personal values and goals.

Also I want to make a note here that while I was trying to make a decision, I found it really important to seek out people who had or were debating between the exact schools I was considering, who also preferably have the same interests. The specific comparisons made between two schools differ incredibly depending on which two schools you’re talking about, and you soon discover that the fact that people only bother to become an expert on their own college decision dilemma (and practically so) can either help you a lot or not at all.

The Princeton and MIT Class of 2016 Facebook groups served as my first impressions. I found that posts in the Princeton group tended to be more composed, considerate, intellectual, thoughtful—characteristics that I would consider also fairly central to my personality. Activity in the MIT group can be described as much more "fast and furious": posts were more frequent, more blunt and colloquial, and covered a wider range of topics from random to relevant. Though I was terribly undecided at the time, I was already captivated by this intense energy and excitement. Later during the Princeton Preview, I did meet a prospective student, also choosing between MIT and Princeton, who said that she thought the MIT group was "weird." Really shows that it's all up to personal perspective.

I love both schools. Princeton has an amazing campus: beautiful gothic architecture, green fields. It looks like Hogwarts. It is quiet, secluded, peaceful, cozy; the students here speak of an "orange bubble." It makes me happy just thinking about the place. Pretty much everyone eats in dining halls, which are a great place to wind down and join in on mind-opening and intellectually-stimulating conversations on practically anything. As I observed in the Facebook group, people at Princeton have a tendency to talk more charismatically and “artfully,” which shows a level of poise, maturity, and professionalism.

There is a lot of "traditional" school spirit and a great community feel. Many of the preview weekend events were organized by the administration. Princeton definitely felt like whatever people mean by the "traditional," "old-school," Ivy League, private college experience.

Princeton is a liberal arts school, which means that no single major will truly "dominate" the school. The engineering/entrepreneurship scene and innovative spirit is definitely present and growing—computer science is one of the most popular majors—but it will never dominate the school. I would not consider academic rigor or job opportunities to be a legitimate differentiating factor between Princeton and MIT computer science. Instead, it is more of the "supplementary" culture that you must consider. I talked to one Princeton computer science major interested in the startup culture who said that she found it somewhat frustrating that most of the students at Princeton wanted to eventually go into finance.

Princeton boasts an incredible collection of a cappella, dance, theatre, and other groups, many of which were showcased during the preview weekend; its appreciation for the arts and other fields outside of science is deep and undeniable. Many "Princeton" (aka liberal arts) people cite this diversity of majors, interests, and backgrounds to be something Princeton has over MIT. I myself love this kind of intellectual diversity and did have concerns about whether I would be missing out on this environment at MIT.

However "MIT" people will counter that MIT does have outstanding humanities offerings (and you could always take courses at Harvard.) While the MIT culture is one quick to joke about the humanities, I do not think that the humanities are ignored. There are many people at MIT who have diverse interests, and a non-science conversation is easy to find or start for yourself. That being said, pretty much all of the people at MIT are science/engineering majors (it is an institute of technology after all). The most popular major is definitely computer science. In general, MIT will take a person's interest and turn it into one that is more quantifiable or like a "hard science." For example, one neuroscience major I met said that if it weren't for MIT she would probably be studying psychology.

The MIT experience began even before I arrived at Campus Preview Weekend (CPW). Its hundreds of activities, many of which are student-organized and feature liquid nitrogen ice cream and other means of nourishment, fill a booklet about half a centimeter thick. In comparison to Princeton, students, as opposed to administration, seem to take more initiative in making things happen. Perhaps in relation to that, "traditional" school pride is less obvious; instead, the pride is of a geeky and rebellious kind. The students at MIT are more outwardly proud of being different; they want to stand out in some, often quirky, way. I love that.

The MIT dorm system also encourages the cultivation of "extremes" in personality. Princeton dorms randomly select students, but MIT stresses having students choose the dorm culture that bests fits one's personality. I was comforted to discover that I could I definitely find people I could socially and emotionally relate to at MIT. And contrary to stereotype, there are plenty of "normal," socially adept students at MIT (though the "strange" ones are often the most interesting). If you want to learn something, anything at all, there will be someone who knows it and will happily to teach you. However, there don't seem to be as many "central meeting" kind of places, such as dining halls (meal plans are only required by some dorms), available, so I do wonder how convenient it is for different kinds of people to interact. It may or may not be something to be missed.

MIT is in an urban area and is close to—literally neighbors with—a lot of other schools; Boston is a hubbub of young, nascent potential. Personally, I think MIT is not as aesthetically pleasing as Princeton. As is characteristic of an urban area, there is more concrete, more gray, more straight lines. I did not find it as immediately comfortable or homey; the food isn't as good.

Yet MIT bursts with unbridled energy. There is an eagerness, a recklessness, a fearlessness: this is what I’ve realized is what I am most attracted to and want to cultivate. Truly, I think anyone who chooses MIT is fearless, or at least wants to be. And to be frank, I am scared of the place—but at the core I want to be overwhelmed, I want to learn, I want to challenge my limits.
The momentary discomforts are nothing, any abrasive effects will only help me polish myself into a more resilient person.

Princeton is Hogwarts to the eye, but MIT is Hogwarts to the mind. Even Sal Khan '98, who delivered the Class of 2012 Commencement Address, compared MIT to Hogwarts. I finally decided that Princeton might be more of who I currently am, but MIT is who I want to be; Princeton would be the more like the kind of place I'd like to retire, but at my young age, MIT is just something I cannot miss out on or else I would regret it for life.
College Decision Pokémon Stats to a place where there are people you want to emulate