I didn't get into a wide range of top schools (I only applied to MIT, Harvard, and Ohio State, and was waitlisted at Harvard), but in my post-MIT life, I'm a grad student at Harvard, and my best friend is a Yale alum.
For me, Harvard and Yale are great schools, but Harvard doesn't feel like home, and MIT does. And when I meet my best friend's buddies from college, they're nice, fun people, but I never feel as easy and comfortable around them as I do around MIT people. It goes both ways -- my best friend and I tell stories about college, and each of us thinks the other's stories sound weird. We're very similar in a lot of ways, and he could probably have been happy at MIT, and I could probably have been happy at Yale, but we both agree that the way it actually happened is almost certainly for the best.
I visited MIT for the first time after being accepted, and I decided to attend MIT on the basis of my visit. I was blown away by how friendly everyone was, and how willing they were to sit down and talk with a random prefrosh about MIT life. They told me about their classes, and gave me advice about what to take as a freshman. And I felt, very importantly for me, that everybody was like me, and that these were the kind of people I would be happy to go to school with, and to be friends with.
Everyone here is a mathematician, scientist or engineer. It gives you a common ground to instantly start a conversation. e.g. "Omg did you take that physics test? It was soooo hard."
At the Ivies, you have people that comes from all disciplines and got in through different methods (recruiting, legacy, donations, professor kids, etc). That kind of diversity isn't bad per say, but it becomes harder to form a bond with a random person from your school. At MIT, we all know that you got in because you are smart and are passionate about math/science/engineering. To me, that makes me feel more at home.
Back in the fall of 2007, as president Susan Hockfield prepared to give a talk before the entering freshman class, someone apparently looked out over the students who had come early to fill the auditorium and said to her, "They've been waiting for you." But when Hockfield spoke to the class, she said something like this in her opening remarks: "You haven't been waiting for me. You've been waiting for each other."
My daughter was admitted to several ivy-league schools, and in the end it came down to Yale and MIT. But after visiting each campus, the choice was really clear for her. If -- if you were born into a family where everyone else loves subjects like English and history -- if you've always longed to take more than the allowed number of math and science classes -- if you've been waiting to meet more than a small handful of others like you, then you'll feel home at MIT.
I think your interests will pretty much drive your choice.
Sure, you can be a history major at MIT or an engineering major at Yale, but in reality the differences are substantial. My D was interested in neuroscience had the choice between Yale and MIT and chose MIT after talking to science students at both colleges. At Yale, if you are a science/engineering major you are relegated up on science hill a mile away from old campus. Sometimes, you feel you are not even in the same college.
I think at Harvard, some of the differences are even more stark. Just visit the very depressing science building where most of the intro science classes are held to get a feel. The Crimson (the Harvard Student journal) reported a few years ago that over 80% of engineering students at Harvard dropped out and changed majors by senior year. It is just not where the core of the university is and you tend to feel like a second class student. Until the early 1900s the science and engineering school was not even part of Harvard College but rather part of the separate Lawrence Scientific School. You stil feel the difference today. The Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences was long considered a poor stepchild and was only recognized as a separate School in 2007.
Princeton has more of a science/engineering core than Harvard or Yale but lacks the intense collaborative research feel you sense wherever you go at MIT. The lack of interconnectedness between science and engineering departments still reminds you of traditional Ivory Tower structure of education where each department is its own island.
As far as Brown, you will be very, very lonely as a science/engineering student. My D still remembers visiting the campus and having the tour guide point out the new chemistry building and asking the students on the tour why the building had 14 floors. My D laughed and immediately suggested it was because of the 0-14 pH scale. Nobody else even understood the joke. That was enough for her!
If I was passionate about math/science/engineering, I would be very suspicious of any school that proudly promotes its new or advanced science building/center. That essentially means that it is where the school intends to park nerds like you while everybody else enjoys the rest of the campus! At MIT on the other hand, the nerds own the campus!
Last edited by cellardweller; 09-14-2012 at 02:05 PM.
Hm...not sure that my reasons were as good as everybody elses. I didn't feel like I really fit at any of my choices (several ivies and MIT/Caltech,) so I was really torn. I was a little concerned that the rigor of the science classes wouldn't be as good at the ivies, especially for physics, and for MIT/Caltech, I was concerned that my interests in humanities were too strong. It really went down to the wire. I think what might have pushed me over the edge toward MIT was the fact that I wanted to attend a historic place, "the place to be" kind of thing, and a place which admission required the qualifications that I had. Also, I had heard that Caltech was like my smaller high school experience (math/science magnet high school,) so I wanted something different, something in the city. Also, I was considering engineering, which wasn't really an option at the ivies I was considering. And finally, weirdly enough, I thought there were more opportunities for community/leadership activities at MIT than at the ivies, where the competition for such activities is fierce.
It's worth noting that in those days, the admissions staff didn't jump through hoops to try to woo you (at least for the guys.) They do a good job of recruitment these days.
MIT's definitely the place if you're passionate in a math/science/engineering field. One thing I like about MIT is its quirkiness (e.g. how all the buildings and courses are numbered, as in, "Meet us for 18.02 psetting in building W1") and the fact that everyone around you is also deeply interested in a "STEM" field. You can pretty much tell a nerdy calculus joke to the entire freshman class and everyone understands it.
Also, I like the size of MIT's campus...not too big, not too small, and I often run into people I know on the way to class and say hi.
As a HS Senior, I was worried about whether the humanities would be strong enough at MIT (Yes, I know, it seems truly stupid now). When I visited the campus, I sat in on several Humanities classes and was impressed as how strong the other students were, and so I chose MIT. One of my HS friends chose Harvard, and since they are just a mile down the road from each other, I spent a fair amount of time on the Harvard Campus visiting her, and she visited me at MIT. One evening I turned to her and observed "The atmosphere on the Harvard campus has always struck me as feeling vaguely ... pretentious, in a way that doesn't always feel comfortable to me." "Oh I am so glad you said that," she replied. "I have always felt exactly the same way about MIT." And of course I grinned, because MIT was pretentious in a way that was completely comfortable to me.
There is no "best" school. There may well be a best school for an individual candidate. I think that MollieB made it quite clear, find the place that feels like "home". That is the school you want to attend. For me that was MIT. Your mileage may vary.
I knew that I wanted to do some sort of engineering, so I only applied to MIT and Cornell. Ultimately I decided that Cornell was in the middle of nowhere (and also, I really liked MIT). I didn't apply to any other Ivy because I wanted to go somewhere with a strong engineering culture, and I didn't think that any of the Ivies would be a good fit.
Honestly, though, I never really considered attending anywhere other than MIT - I knew what I wanted to do (mostly) and I knew the sort of atmosphere that I was looking for in a college, and I was pretty sure that MIT was my best bet. If I hadn't gotten into MIT, I most likely would have gone to UIUC because I'm from Illinois, their engineering program is excellent, and in-state tuition is *cheap*.
I didn't apply to any of the ivies - I wanted to major in engineering and was a strong math and science student. I didn't think any of the ivies would be a good fit. I was thrilled when I figured out I could graduate from MIT without taking a single English class - I took 3 different foreign languages and linguistics courses. It may not seem like that big of a deal but I felt very comfortable with a school that numbers everything - you are not a mechanical engineering major, you are course 2. You don't take physics, you take 8.01 (spoken "8 - oh - 1"). The buildings and rooms are numbered - 8.01 was in 26-100; 3.091 was in 10-250 which overlooks Lobby 10. Personally, I just don't see how MIT and the ivies could be a fit for a single student. The environments and learning experiences are just so different.