Online Extra: What Do You Do For Fun? (Extended)

MIT's admissions dean talks about looking for students who daydream

Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks kids are overscheduled. Her proof? Before MIT overhauled its application form two years ago, the typical applicant listed 12 extracurricular activities. To find real people rather than activity automatons, MIT now asks kids to explain what they do for fun.

Thanks to the new format, Jones, 52, estimates that 50 of the 1,665 students (767 of whom are women) admitted to MIT for the fall of 2004 wouldn't have otherwise made the cut. It's not a huge number, she concedes, but it's a start.

At the end of May, MIT will be hosting a meeting of Ivy League admissions deans where Jones will encourage other elite universities to alter admissions criteria to put less emphasis on activities and more importance on personal characteristics. BusinessWeek Personal Finance Editor Lauren Young spoke to Jones about her crusade. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow. (Note: This is an extended, online-only version of the Q&A that appears in the May 24, 2004, issue of BusinessWeek)

Q: Why are kids today overscheduled?

A:

It comes down to the fact that the parents are so incredibly busy. This generation has the highest percentage of kids who have been in day care since they were tiny. When they outgrew day care, they had to go someplace, so you had a proliferation of enrichment activities, all designed to keep students engaged and learning when their parents weren't home.

Q: Why is this a problem?

A:

Baby boomers have such high expectations for themselves and for their kids. The parents think kids have to have music lessons. They're expected to play two or three sports. They're expected to belong to certain clubs. They're expected to do community service. Each one of those activities is headed up by an adult, who expects a lot from those kids.

We have a whole generation of kids who are being trained to be workaholics. They have no free time. They are being trained to please adults. And what started as a natural reaction to not wanting to have your kid home while you're working has been reinforced by the college admission process that expects kids to have lots of activities.

Q: What prompted you to change MIT's application process?

A:

About three years ago, I asked a group of students: "What do you daydream about?" And one kid said to me: "We don't daydream. There's no reward for it, so we don't do it." Boy, that hit me right between the eyes.

Q: You reduced the number of spaces for activities on MIT's application. Why?

A:

We had 10 spaces on our application form, and kids were still adding paper with extra activities! Two years ago, we shrunk it to six lines, and this year we're going to shrink it to five.

The reason the school asks for extracurricular activities is to see how the student is spending his or her life. We initially made the assumption that if they're state winner at anything, Lord knows they must have emotional resilience because they have to lose sometimes to get to the top.

But now, everybody is the state's best something. We changed the language, asking: "Tell us something you do for the pleasure of it." You can be in your basement grinding a lens for your telescope because you love the stars -- that's a great match for us. There's no way you can win a prize for that.

Q: What surprising responses did you get to that question?

A:

About one-third of [applicants] write [that] the thing they do for fun is the thing is that's No. 1 on their extracurricular list. That's fine.

The rest have some wonderful responses. One kid said he makes smoothies in a blender and tries different concoctions for friends. One kid watches classic movies with his mother and eats popcorn. Another reads and studies the pentameter of the ancient myths -- his favorite are the Welsh myths, and he lists them all and describes them.

These are the things you would never know about kids if you didn't ask. With this information, that person becomes a real person to you.

Q: What kind of impact did these changes to the application process have?

A:

It opened up a whole other aspect of kids. We're trying to signal that they don't have to be perfect to be admitted to MIT. We're giving ourselves internally the flexibility to take the kids we want to take. Some will be the state's best, and some will be intensely interested in their own thing.

Q: Are there any signs this is paying off?

A:

A record 66% of the students we accepted this fall have decided to enroll here, up from 59% last year. That's a big leap in one year. It's pretty unprecedented. But, luckily, it's not hundreds of students, so no one will have to sleep in hotels. We have enough space for all of them

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