Ran across twofish's old post on why to go (or not to go) to MIT today. It's a compelling read, especially since I nearly went to MIT (but ended up at Olin instead). Some passages that particularly caught my attention - after the usual disclaimer that his post represents his individual experience at MIT, just as mine represents my individual experience at Olin, and your mileage may vary:
There are some great teachers at MIT. There are also some truly awful ones. Research is a higher priority at MIT than undergraduate classroom teaching. The quality of the classroom instruction is not a good reason to go to MIT... the main reasons that the undergraduate experience works, lies outside the classroom.
Coming from a teaching-oriented school at Olin, I'm always surprised by this, even if my professors (and my friends from other schools) have repeatedly described the low position teaching (particularly the teaching of undergraduates, and especially first-years) holds on the totem pole of academia. After being surrounded by Olin professors by four years, one of the main reasons I want to become a professor myself is so that I can teach like them - my (naive) mindset still wonders how can teaching not be your passion if you're a professor.
For me, this is a good thing. I was (and internally still am) a shy, reluctant person who needed that direct guidance and support a good teacher gives in order to jump into adventuring in the wider world. To put it another way: my professors at Olin gave me the courage to learn without them. In fact, they (after many years) gave me the courage to learn without a school at all. I believe that good teaching is good precisely because it gets you to see and interact with the world that lies outside the classroom. For some people, an MIT-style environment is great, because they're already putting more stock in things-that-aren't-their-coursework, but others (like me) won't think outside the classroom unless someone inside the classroom (where they've been trained to listen) leads them out of it.
MIT is a bad place to be if you don’t know who you are and what you want to do with your life.
This made me grin. I've lost track of how many times I've talked to someone at Olin - even in their senior year - and asked what they wanted to do afterwards, and their answer was laughter and a happy "you know, I have no idea!" So... yeah. Different.
If you are sure you want to do something technical, but not sure exactly what technical thing you want to do, MIT is a great place. On the other hand, if you think that you might want to be an artist, a high school teacher, or carpenter, or you aren’t sure that you want to do with your life, then MIT may not be such a good place.
Following off the above comment - while there are a decent number of "I'm going to graduate and be an Engineer with a capital E and I love high-carbon steel and CNC machines and silicon wafers and PSPICE forever!!!" students at Olin, there are an equal (or possibly even higher) number of people who enjoy engineering, are glad to learn it as a background, but want to do something else either in conjunction with or instead of engineering as it's traditionally thought of. (I don't think we have a carpenter yet, but high school teachers and artists, yes.)
The problem is that MIT is a very busy place, and busy places make it hard for you to sit down and think things through. At MIT, there will always be this deadline or that activities, and it is hard to find the time to meditate and think about what you want to do.
Yeah. Actually, I think this is true for life in general, if you're the kind of bright, fast-paced, ambitious, inventive kid that would go to Olin, MIT, or some other similar school in the first place. If you like life fast, it's going to come at you that way - and it's going to be up to you to remember to take time out to slow it down once in a while.
At some point when you are at MIT, you will likely feel totally miserable. There was one anonymous survey that indicated that most people at MIT had a mental health issue that interfered with their functioning sometime in the past year. The fact that the everyone at the Institute is trying to push themselves at thir limits is what makes MIT a great place, but there is a cost to this.
Ah, yes. The dark side. No matter how much you try to take care of everyone, it happens. Again, I think this tends to happen to bright young people who are ambitious and push themselves hard no matter where they end up. I think that these students tend to do a remarkable job of supporting each other through this. I can't speak for MIT, but at Olin I have also seen faculty and administration go through incredible lengths to help students who are going through a tough time (heck, I've had professors call my friends to check up on me).
Generally: No matter where you are, there are people who care. Ask for help. Don't push them away and don't ignore what's being offered to you, and please don't play up the dramatic "Woe is me! Nobody cares about me! So I must heroically push through, misunderstood, through a lonely tragic life" angle. Yes, life may be hard. It often is. And maybe some people who you may have immediate dealings with really don't care. But somewhere out there, somebody does. Go out and find them.
The final point is that, if you want, MIT or something like it will eventually come to you... Don’t be under the mistaken notion that accepting an admission to MIT is the one and only chance you will have to interact with it, it isn’t.
Amen. There will always be cool places and people and projects - don't feel like you have to grab onto all of them right now. As long as you're doing something you're happy doing, there will always be opportunities open to you in the future.
And if they don't yet exist, you can always make them. If there's anything I learned in college, it's that if a bunch of people (and they're all people - extraordinary ones, but also ordinary ones as well) can get together and "build their own damn school and have it ripple out to touch so many lives so deeply (and that's just as a warm-up!) then... well, who knows what I can help build?