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Admissions' 'matchmaking' is no magic formula

Marilee Jones
Marilee Jones
Photo / Laura Wulf

If Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones could make one point to high school seniors and their parents across the country, it would be this: Stress less.

"So many kids are sick because of the way we are raising them," Jones said in her office Dec. 13, just days after MIT completed its most competitive early admissions period to date. The number of applications for early admissions increased 13 percent over 2005, Jones said.

It is hard to turn away so many qualified students, Jones said. She comforts herself and the rest of the admissions staff with the knowledge that "someplace in the world there is a place for each of these children."

In the past few years, Jones' mission has been to spread this idea to parents and teenagers alike. Her book, "Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond" (American Academy of Pediatrics), co-authored with pediatrician Kenneth R. Ginsburg, was published in September.

"It is not a book about how to get into college," Jones emphasized. Instead, the book was written to help students and parents relax a little and to encourage them to look for the school that is right for them.

Jones has been in admissions at MIT for more than 25 years, has served as dean for eight and has seen and heard a lot from parents who are desperate to get their children into MIT. Expectant parents have even asked her how they can best prepare their future offspring to get into MIT.

There is no magic formula, Jones asserts. Admission is a complex process and nothing one can force, said Jones, who likens herself and her fellow admissions officers to "matchmakers" rather than gatekeepers.

The admissions officers at MIT specifically are looking for a unique match both of academic excellence and something else--a spark, "the kind of student who builds a telescope just because they want to learn," Jones said. For those students for whom the Institute is the right match, "MIT is the mother ship calling the baby ships home," she said.

MIT certainly does demand greatness, she said, and students who can both do the work and do well here are a "self-selecting bunch." There is a good match for every student out there, Jones said.

Jones said she worries that parents and many institutions across the country are too focused on the "doing-ness" of the child--the test scores, the awards, the grades--at the expense of who they are as people. "We really want to focus on making a match between the institution and the spirit of the students, their 'being-ness,'" Jones said.

Not every student has to be the smartest or the most talented, Jones said. That pressure is producing children who are terrified to fail or who cannot handle it when they do, Jones said. "The culture is colluding to create a mono-culture comprised of all leaders," Jones said. "But why can't each child just be who they were born to be? There is a school for everyone and the college admissions process is designed to find that match."

Jones has been spreading this message across the country at conferences and college admissions sessions. She said parents come to her in tears, thanking her for releasing them.

Jones, who sent her own daughter to college this year, said that in many ways she relates to the parents who come to talk to her. "It is a great act of courage to become a parent," she said. Jones said she hopes her book or her talks might help them a little. "We can't protect them from rejection," she said. "This is how we have to let them grow up."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 10, 2007 (download PDF).

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