500 words too taxing? Does the 'T' in MIT stand for Tweet?

University axes 500-word "long" application essay in favor of shorter squibs

MIT seal
Et tu, MIT? Has the written word become so stripped of respect that even those seeking entrance into this most prestigious of universities are now being spared the burden of typing an admissions essay numbering a mere 500 words?

Apparently so, although MIT Dean of Admissions Stuart Schmill doesn't characterize the change that way in this interview with the Boston Globe. "We wanted to remove that larger-than-life quality to that one essay and take away a bit of the high-stakes nature of that one piece,'' says Schmill, unconvincingly. As for old-school types, such as yours truly, who find the bow to brevity shortsighted, Schmill replies, "We're not asking them to send us a text message.''

Not yet anyway. The 500-word "long" essay, which had been complemented by a shorter 250-word companion, has been dropped altogether in favor of three short replies of 200 to 250 words apiece. More variety? Sure. Less pressure? Beats me. Less depth? Absolutely. (By way of illustration: Had this been an MIT admissions essay instead of a blog post, I'd have but 87 words left to wrap things up.)

Reaction to the change has been mixed if not muted -- after all, reacting can in some instances require a bit of typing -- but there has been discussion at Inside Higher Ed ("When less is more") and within the pages of MIT's own The Tech ("Dropping the Long Essay: Change for the Better?")

My favorite take, by far, was authored by Clare Bayley, a member of the MIT Class of 2011 who on her blog lists software architecture and development among a variety of interests. She also wields a mean word processor, witness "In Defense of the Art of the Pen."

"In an age where e-mails are being replaced by texts, magazines are being replaced by blogs, and blogs are being replaced by Twitter, MIT seems to have hopped on the shortening bandwagon with their recent decision to eliminate the long admission essay - and the biography-loving, multisyllabic-word-using, still-writes-with-pen-and-paper writer in me screams in indignation."

Bayley wasn't looking for anyone to spare her this "larger-than-life" assignment, thank-you.

"Yes, I polished it. Yes, I got others to edit it. Yes, I worried about it to death before sending it in. I still feel that it's one of the most creative, introspective, and thoughtful pieces I have ever written, and I sure couldn't have done it in 250 words."

You can judge for yourself, as I e-mailed Bayley asking if she'd be willing to share her original admissions essay with Buzzblog readers. "I had to dig up my old computer to find my essay, but amazingly it still runs," she replied. "It's attached, completely unedited, just like it showed up in the MIT admissions office three years ago."

Here's the "prompt" from MIT admissions followed by Bayley's 447 words:

Prompt: An application to MIT is much more than a set of test scores, grades and activities. It's often a reflection of an applicant's dreams and aspirations, dreams shaped by the worlds we inhabit. We'd like to know a bit more about your world. 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?

Bayley: The world I come from is full of oak trees and rain, warm cats on cold nights, and raucous college parties across the street. The sky over my home matches the grey in my eyes; the barbed wire fence around Lake Sequoyah is commemorated eternally by the disfiguration of my left hip. I have my father's eyes, my mother's feet, my best friend's laugh, and my ninth grade English teacher's writing style. My world is eight friends in a bed meant for two, the hidden tunnels of the mall, and semi-weekly trips to ogle gadgets at Best Buy.

I am the person my world has shaped me to be, but I am also the person the world at large has made me. Widespread panic for Y2K made my father teach me more about system security than I ever wanted to know at the age of ten. I drooled the first time I saw a real G5, and put together my first circuit board when I was seven.

Barring world disaster or a dramatic cult revival, technology is my future. The world has made clear its need for IT, for international networks, for computers the size of human cells, and my generation has responded. As fuzzy logic becomes more and more obsolete (in humans, at least), boolean values have come to rule all. Precision, accuracy, the Styrofoam cup holding your coffee, and the microprocessor in your toaster oven are all a product of infinitely many zeros and ones, a concept I find both irresistibly ridiculous and intriguing.

My development may have been molded by cafeteria french-fries and high pollen counts, but I want my future to be carved by everything. I come from a somewhat limited part of the world, and I was constantly afraid as a child that as I grew older my ambition would be quenched by the dairy industry or I'd spend a lifetime putting wilted lettuce on bacteria-ridden patties of dead cow. Luckily, this was not the case, and instead of killing my curiosity, the lack of worldly knowledge gave me a burning desire to find out all of the things I'd been missing. The limitations of my earlier world gave birth in a way to the endless expanses of everything else.

The county fair gave me an addiction to funnel cake, the college nearby gave me my first look at a real milling machine, parties at my house gave me Dr. Pepper stains over a large percentage of my clothes, my neighbor's dog gave me a hatred of anything smaller than a mailbox that can bark, and my introduction to broadband began a love affair with the world that has yet to die.

Think what you will of Bayley's essay -- I believe it's excellent -- but know this much for certain: She's better for having taken on the challenge, proud years later to share her work with strangers ... and, well on her way to earning an MIT sheepskin.

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