After 5 years of challenging economic times I was more than ready for some positive news going into the holiday season. With the continuing chaos in Washington I knew that was unlikely to be a source of good tidings. Looking around the globe I was reminded of a favorite Tom Robbins quote, “The world situation is desperate, as usual”. This piece of wit seems truer today than on the day it was written. So where can you find good news? I actually have an answer, let me tell you.
This past spring I received an email from the admissions office at MIT asking if I would be willing to interview high school seniors in my area who had applied to become undergraduates there. It turns out that the only interview option that MIT (and many other colleges) now provide to prospective undergraduates is with alumni. After thinking it over for a couple of weeks I decided to try it and replied with my own positive email. I received a thank you email in return and not much else happened until August when bundles of training information began to arrive (also by email).
Unlike in my day, the whole admissions process now takes place almost entirely over the internet. Prospective students download applications and upload completed application sections; assignments are made for interviews and interview summaries are uploaded back to MIT all over the internet. So the only real opportunity to connect with prospective students one-on-one is during these interviews; they take place face to face with no electronic inter-mediation. Interviews are held in “neutral” locations to make the interviewees (and the interviewers) feel more comfortable.
Now for the good news: what I discovered is that these kids were uniformly very impressive. Well, not just impressive, they were amazing! They seem much better prepared than was my freshman class all those years ago. If the group that I met is typical of all the high school students now applying to MIT, then I wish the admissions office staff good luck, because I have no idea how they could choose among all the exceptional candidates that apply to the school. And from what I have heard, MIT can only accept 8% of applicants.
While this extreme selection is going to lead to some deep personal disappointments in the short run, the fact of the matter is that most or all of these brilliant young people will be going to fine universities somewhere. So the even better news is that despite everything we hear day in and day out about slipping academic standards, my impression is that there are probably a greater number of brilliant, superbly well prepared young students going on to engineering and science schools than at any time in the past.
What’s my advice to anyone who thinks that our young people are lazier than past generations and that this country is losing its intellectual edge? Don’t bet on it! There is no doubt in my mind that the young people I met will go on to make incredible new discoveries, start undreamed of enterprises and advance the overall state of human achievement. What compensation did I receive for my time and effort? A renewed sense of optimism from seeing the world through the eyes of talented young people who look to the future and see nothing but opportunity.