Second Time’s the Charm For Students Looking to Fulfill Their MIT Dream

2571 transfers
Most students apply for transfer in the fall, when the admit rate is around 6 percent. US citizens can also apply for spring admission.
Source: Undergraduate Admissions Office

You don’t always get into the college you want, but some students get a second chance.

Hundreds of students try to transfer to MIT every year. About 20 make it. Those lucky few have proven themselves at their own colleges, and have come to MIT looking for new challenges. For some, the Institute is everything they dreamed of. Others find the adjustment to MIT’s academic expectations and stressful lifestyle difficult. All of them give up schools which may have been easier, more social, or closer to home to come tool with the rest of the students at the Institute.

The Road to MIT

Many transfer applicants once tried to get in as freshmen, but were rejected. Associate admissions director McGreggor Crowley ’00, says that too many talented students apply for MIT to take them all. “Every year there are some amazing kids that we can’t admit as freshmen, and we hope that they apply as a transfer,” he says.

As hard as it is to get into MIT, it’s even harder to transfer in. Crowley says that there are very few spots for transfer students, who take the place of students who drop out, take a leave of absence or study abroad. This fall, only 6 percent of transfer applicants, or 24 students, were accepted. The regular admission rate was 10.2 percent. 21 of the 24 accepted transfer applicants chose to enroll at MIT.

Many students who were turned away the first time spend the next year at a backup college building their resumes. Shimeon Zerbib, a sophomore in courses 18 and 14, applied for the class of 2012 but was rejected. He was pretty sure he knew why he hadn’t gotten in: He had received his GED at 17 but never really graduated high school. Then he applied when he was 22, after spending 5 years out of school. After he was rejected, he started at New York University planning to transfer to MIT.

Crowley remembers Zerbib as a very strong applicant his first time around, but found a few things lacking in his application. Crowley was very happy to see Zerbib come back as a transfer. Zerbib had “been in the pipeline for a while,” Crowley says. The classes Zerbib took while at NYU were designed to fill whatever gaps there were in his application, and to serve as the prerequisites for a smooth transfer to MIT.

Crowley says that many students, like Zerbib, are in a much better position to apply after a year of college than after high school. Some students “really hit the ground running in college,” he says. “That’s the transformative element for them that makes them a very appealing transfer student.”

Sabine Schneider, now a sophomore in course 7, says her good grades at college and the close relationships she built with her professors at St. John’s University in New York helped her transfer to MIT. Though she had been rejected the first time, her professors at St. John’s recommended that she reapply.

It was a hard choice for Schneider to transfer. After she was denied at MIT, she immersed herself in college life at St. John’s. She didn’t want to obsess over what could have been. “Let’s buckle down, let’s do this,” she told herself. But Schneider was drawn by the allure of MIT’s biology program and cancer research labs, even though she’d built up a life and had friends at St. John’s. She was torn. It was difficult to motivate herself to fill out the transfer application.

But her doubts vanished as soon as she heard that she had been accepted. “I was like ‘Yeah, I’m going,’” she says.

Other students never even considered MIT when they started looking at colleges. Raghu Mahajan, a junior in Courses 8 and 18, was ranked first out of 200,000 on the standardized test which determines college placement in India. There’s a lot of pressure on you when you’re in the top ranks, Mahajan says. You’re expected to stay in India and major in the most prestigious subjects, which in India are computer science and electrical engineering. Mahajan chose to major in computer science at the India Institute of Technology in New Delhi.

But Mahajan soon realized he really wanted to study physics, and IIT would not let him change majors. His professors encouraged him to apply to MIT. They knew MIT was better for physics, he says.

Crowley says Mahajan, with his strong academic background, was an excellent candidate for a transfer student. He’ll have a Nobel Prize someday, Crowley says.

Some students realize they want to attend MIT only after seeing what life is like elsewhere. Christian Perez, a sophomore in Course 14, went to Northwestern University for a year but found that the curriculum was too easy for him. He knew he would have a much better chance at graduate school for economics if he went to a place like MIT with a more challenging curriculum and better research opportunities.

According to Crowley, students like Perez and Mahajan, who are driven to MIT after other schools have failed to give them what they need, stand out as transfer students because they will use the resources at MIT to their full advantage.

Academics at the Institute

Crowley is extremely proud of MIT’s transfer students, speaking of them in glowing terms and calling them “future CEOs.” “They’re great kids,” he says.

The students themselves are not always so confident. Lekha Kuhananthan, a second-semester freshman, is grateful to be at MIT, but calls her acceptance “a happy fluke.” She doesn’t see what changed after she was denied the first time around. Zerbib feels like he’s still playing catch up at MIT. “I’m just a regular student,” he says, “there’s nowhere I can say — ‘oh, this is where I’m amazing.’” Since Zerbib hadn’t been in school for a long time before attending NYU, he felt had to relearn all of his study habits.

Schneider also feels that she started off behind in her classes. She says she feels a little inferior, especially compared to the freshmen who have placed ahead into her sophomore level classes, that she’s so far behind and can’t change it.

Schneider compares being a new transfer student to being an older freshman. “You’re new to this whole thing,” she says. Transfer students have to deal with many of the same adjustment issues that freshmen do, but they don’t get the same advantages.

All transfers, regardless of how many years they’ve spent at their previous college, start as sophomores at MIT. Transfer students can petition, like Kuhananthan did, to start as a second semester freshman, which means they don’t have to declare a major, and they get an extra semester of financial aid. Many transfer students start their first semester in GIR classes like 3.091 and 18.02, which are full of newly minted freshmen, but, unlike those freshmen, transfer students don’t get pass/no record grading. This can be frustrating for people like Zerbib who try to work in study groups only to find the freshmen have different goals. “People are studying for a 50, and you’re studying for a 100,” says Zerbib.

Most transfer students find that the academic bar at MIT is set much higher than at their previous college. Schneider says the professors at St. John’s broke their material down into bite size pieces and fed it to them in lecture, a method she hasn’t seen at MIT. Schneider often finds her classes here much more satisfying. “For the first time in my life I have the feeling that my exam grades really count for something,” she says. At other times, it’s extremely frustrating. I know exactly how much easier this would be somewhere else, she says. When she showed her old friends at St. John’s one of her Organic Chemistry tests, they responded “Oh, this is hard.”

Kuhananthan also both enjoys and struggles with the academics at MIT. “At UT I was always at the top, and here I finally know what it’s like to struggle and earn a grade,” she says. “It’s a challenge, and I think that’s what I love about it.”

The transfer students say that students are more serious here, but also tighter-knit. “People here are very focused on doing very well in what they do,” says Zerbib. He feels that MIT and NYU are both excellent schools, but describes the atmosphere at MIT as “more my style.” Schneider likes that students bond over difficult courses. At St. John’s she describes the atmosphere as students versus students, while at MIT she sees it more as students against the institution. “It’s just wonderful, the feeling of community,” she says of MIT.

Other Quirks Around Campus

Many MIT students are involved in sports and extracurriculars, taking advantage of the broad offerings available in both categories. When Kuhananthan transferred in she noticed that “everybody seems to have some type of passion or something they’re interested in.” Kuhananthan has been trying her hand at various student activities: Most recently, she has been involved in the Musical Theatre Guild.

A lot of transfer students come from schools where sports played a much bigger role than at MIT. Kuhananthan’s previous school in Texas was obsessed with football, and she likes that she doesn’t feel the same pressure at MIT. “Here’s it’s OK if you don’t notice sports,” she says.

Schneider and Perez both came from schools where they played very competitive sports. Perez misses having more people to play tennis with. Schneider was on a Division I track and cross country team at St. John’s, a sport she has continued here, but MIT’s team is in a lower division. Schneider does note how impressed she was that MIT sports were so inclusive and almost all teams take novices. That’s a “really special thing about MIT,” she says.

There are often many more resources available at MIT than at a transfer student’s previous college. Mahajan likes how much technology is available to students, and admits the Internet connection in his IIT dormitory was painfully slow. In general, Perez observes that “everything seems to be upgraded — besides the dining.”

The move to Boston also introduces some stark differences for some transfer students. Zerbib calls Boston a “little cute village” compared to New York City and doesn’t like the fact that everything, even the T, closes at night. “MIT’s not in the center of the Village,” he says, referring to NYU’s placement in the middle of Greenwich Village, a lively neighborhood of New York. Kuhananthan complains that even in November the weather is already freezing. Although, she says, laughingly, “I did buy a coat.”