Assoc. Director of Admissions Discusses His MIT Experiences

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Associate Director of Admissions Matthew L. McGann ’00 spoke with The Tech about his time at MIT and his role in the admissions process.
Jessica Witchley—The Tech

This is the first interview in a seven-part series introducing incoming students to some of MIT’s faculty, staff, and student leaders. Today, The Tech interviews Associate Director of Admissions Matthew L. McGann ’00 who discusses his job, the evolution of MIT’s culture, and opportunities for first-year students.

The Tech: What is your role at MIT and what does it mean to be an admissions officer here?

Matt McGann: I am one of the associate directors of admissions, which is a senior level officer in the MIT Office of Admissions. My role has a number of different aspects to it. Like all of the admissions officers, I read applications and participate in the selection committee. I also do information sessions on campus, as well as information sessions in a variety of cities across the country. All the admissions officers perform those roles and also each of us have other parts of our job that are specific to us.

I oversee institutional research in our office — numbers and statistics and data. I also oversee the international admissions process and the international admissions committee. I oversee the graduate admissions staff in the Office of Admissions — you may know that there’s no centralized graduate admissions office, there’s no centralization to the decision-making — but the application is centralized through our office as well as some of the data processing, and I oversee some of those functions. I blog, and that’s an exciting part of things. And I’m also the liaison to significant high school academic programs, such as the American Mathematics Competitions or the Intel Science Talent Search and the International Science and Engineering Fair and other kinds of competitions and programs like those. …

To be an admissions officer is a big responsibility and everyone who is an admissions officer takes very seriously their role of selecting the next generation of MIT students and future MIT alumni and people who will carry on the MIT tradition and culture and mission and everything we stand for as an institution.

TT: As we know, you were a student here. What made you decide to stay with the Institute and become an admissions officer?

MM: When I graduated from MIT, it was a very exciting time. It was the height of the dot-com boom, and there were so many exciting opportunities. … I joined a project out of the Harvard Business School, which was doing some e-education kinds of things. That was one of many projects that had come up because of this dot-com boom. And it was only a year later that the bottom fell out of the market, and my job and the jobs of a lot of my classmates went away and we were all back on the streets looking for jobs again.

Because the Careers Office is open to alumni as well as to students, I came back and was looking for some career guidance. At the time, I was looking at jobs in finance. It seemed like a stable thing and something that would be an interesting use of an MIT degree, and certainly a lot of my classmates were looking at the same kinds of jobs. But as I got further and further in that process, I realized that that industry was not for me, that it didn’t fit my values, that what I really needed was something that was going to be good for my heart as well as good for my mind.

So I pulled out of the finance jobs that I was looking at and started looking for jobs in education. I had always really enjoyed education. I served on a number of Institute committees when I was a student here. I was Undergraduate Association president while I was here. In addition, I actually did my [Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences] concentration at MIT in education — took a number of the Teacher Education Program classes here, as well as cross-registration at Harvard Graduate School of Education. …

I applied for a variety of education jobs. One day, while I was walking to Career Services, I saw a poster in the Admissions Office door saying that they were hiring. I thought, oh, that sounds kind of interesting. I’ll throw my resume in there. When I came in to interview, I realized the role I would play. I liked that everyday is a new challenge and that it would be a great opportunity for me to learn. …

So I took that job and started in June of 2001. and it’s just been a fantastic opportunity, a fantastic experience.

TT: What is a typical day for you?

MM: There’s no real typical day, because each part of the year is different. Right now, a lot of the work that we’re doing is preparation for later on in the year. We’re beginning to roll out a new database system, so I’m involved in the testing for that. I did some of that today. …

Two months from today, I believe I’ll be in Toronto. While I’m in Toronto, I’ll do an evening meeting, so that evening I’ll get to meet with a number of students and parents from Southern Ontario. But during the day, I’ll probably visit a number of schools and I also look forward to meeting with folks from the Canadian Mathematical Olympiad. But then a month after that, I will be reading applications all day. …

A month after that, maybe we’ll be doing early action selection committee which is a whole different kind of day. Two months later, three months later, we’ll be planning for [Campus Preview Weekend] for a lot of the day. Different times of the year bring different challenges and different projects and I kind of like that about the job.

TT: What do you like best about your job?

MM: It’s got to be that I get to interact with future MIT students and that I’ll get to know people even before they come here as a freshman and get to see them through the entire MIT experience. …

TT: As a student, what were your first impressions of MIT?

MM: I, like a lot of visitors to campus, was doing it as part of a college tour of Boston. I did Harvard in the morning as so many of our guests do and came to MIT and had a heck of a time parking. I’m from Hampton Bays, my hometown; it’s relatively rural and there’s parking everywhere. The whole parking situation in Boston was very confusing to my father and I who came up together, so we missed the information session and missed the tour that went through west campus facilities. All we saw were things on main campus. Because I missed so much of the student life part of the tour and the entire information session, it did not help me to move beyond the stereotypes of MIT.

It wasn’t until I came back to visit campus a second time after I had been admitted that I really started to see not just that there were good classes and professors and research opportunities … but I saw everything else that MIT had to offer. I met the people, met students, and saw the Student Center and all of the activities that were there. I went into the dorms and saw how they all had their own personality, and I started to get the sense that this was a place with a unique spirit.

The students were different than a lot of the other schools, and the culture was different, and people didn’t mind being a little quirky and a little bit offbeat. People were much more interested in who you were than in who your family was or what your SAT score was. I liked that about MIT. It was maybe three days before May 1 that I made the decision to come to MIT. … It was after the end of a long search that I came to see that this was a place that would support me academically but also socially and that I could continue all the things that I loved in math and science but that I would still be able to get this great education in the humanities. I had as many amazing humanities classes as I did amazing math/science kinds of classes, and you know great professors all around. It wasn’t something that I had expected or thought that I would see at MIT, but to come and to realize that I could get that and also that it was this great cultural fit for me, it was like, all right, this is the place.

TT: What do you think are the major joys and challenges that new students will face?

MM: Certainly, learning to do the work in the MIT way. The way that problem sets are structured, the way that the exam questions are, and the ways that you have to think here are different than most high schools and was certainly different than my high school. So learning to work in this way and think in this way is a big initial challenge.

Roommates can be a big challenge. I think that an important part of the college experience is to meet lots of different kinds of people from all over with different kinds of backgrounds and attitudes and ideas. Those struggles that you face in learning to deal with people you live with in your room or your suite or your hall is a very important part of the American college experience and of MIT. …

And then there’s learning the numbers of the buildings and the courses and trying to figure out how Athena works and things like that. But I think people figure those things out pretty quickly. …

TT: Has admissions changed since you’ve been at MIT? If so, how?

MM: I think the biggest change is the ways in which we’re using the Web to communicate. For me, as a blogger, it has made my job more exciting and fulfilling. Even during the hardest parts of the year, the reading season, when we’re just reading application after application after application, through the blog and through the blog program we hear from students in a more casual kind of way about what they’re going through at the time, what’s on their mind about the application process, and about other kinds of things. It’s a way that we can stay connected to the applicants throughout this part of the process where we don’t tend to see very many people at all. … I like the ways in which the Web has facilitated the relationship between MIT and MIT Admissions and the applicants and future students.

TT: What about MIT? How has it changed since you’ve been here?

MM: It changes in small ways and it changes in big ways. The Z[esiger] Center, for example, wasn’t opened until after my time as a student and I’m incredibly jealous of that. I think that facility has changed student life in a pretty big way.

I think MIT is increasing its emphasis on international experiences. After my time, again, the MIT-Cambridge Exchange program began. MISTI has only grown. Now they even have an acronym for international UROPs; they call them IROPS. …

But I think at its core, MIT is still the same place. I really do believe that despite all the changes that we’ve been able to keep the right culture, the MIT culture. And I’m proud of that, that the culture evolves over the years, but that we’re not trying to change ourselves and be something that we’re not.

TT: What do you like doing for fun?

MM: … I had been doing intramural ice hockey here while I was a student with the Baker House IM team and as an alum as part of the MIT Club of Boston team. I wasn’t a part of that last year. I miss it and hope to be back with it again.

I love just being out in Boston and Cambridge and going to interesting and fun restaurants. I like going out to the movies; I try to see, not just the big movies, but also independent films. … I love to read. I subscribe to the New York Times. Reading the Times every day is a big part of my life.

TT: Are there any places in Boston and Cambridge you would recommend students go to visit while they’re here?

MM: I certainly recommend that people just hop on the T, see where it takes you, whether it’s the subway or the bus. There are a lot of random fun parts of town to explore, and the fact that everything really is connected by public transportation makes it almost imperative that you have to go out and explore. …

There are fun places to eat all around, fun places to walk. Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and Watertown is beautiful; it’s a great place to just go out and walk. Arnold Arboretum, at the end of the Orange Line, is a great place to walk and have a picnic.

I have lots of favorite restaurants. I’ve blogged about my favorite restaurants a number of times. …

Is there anything in particular I would recommend? Commuter rail trips, that’s always fun. Get up to Salem or Worcester or Providence.

TT: Do you have any advice for first-year students here?

MM: My advice would be keep an open mind. Explore. Try new things. It’s okay to come in with a plan but allow yourself to have that plan be modified as you discover new things and get involved in student groups. Do some intramural sports, do some UROPs, get involved in some of these big MIT programs. Go abroad, whether it’s the [Cambridge-MIT Exchange] or MISTI or another study abroad experience or an international internship or something. … It really changes the ways that people think about the world and think about themselves.

And, have fun. Absolutely. Because this is a great place. Enjoy your four years here, because they go by really quickly. Though for some people those four years turn into a much longer time at MIT.