The Uninteresting Chronicles of a High School Student

January 10, 2010

How NOT to do your RSI application

UPDATE: I just noticed that I posted an early draft instead of the autosaved latest one… Sorry! Some of my incoherent rambling must have been hard on the reader’s eyes and mind. Should be fixed now.

I have noticed recently that a large portion of my blog hits came from Google searches like “rsi teacher recommendation”,  “rsi application 2010”, “mit rsi application”, “research science institute rsi acceptanc[sic]”, etc. Note that it is now January 10th. The application is due January 15th (not the postmarked date). The US Post Office typically takes 2-3 days to send Priority and First Class mail, so it means you have somewhere around 1-2 more days to actually do the application and get the recommendations if you haven’t already done so. That’s assuming that USPS actually gets your application to CEE on time. It’s not like USPS screws up on a regular basis or anything, right?

Just no. Procrastinating so much for an important application like this can be extremely bad for your chances, and when you send in the application at the same time as about over 9000 other applicants, chances are it’ll get lost in the frenzy, and you’re left to wonder why your self-addressed postcard hasn’t been returned yet. A lot of people applied early (some even started as early as August 2009).

Now, I’m assuming that we got past the programming fail in the application (mirror, .pdf) and finished the individually completed sections without much trouble. Let’s say your credentials look like this:

It’s really not that bad for a junior, right? 2390 SAT, four subject tests with very good scores, 220 on PSAT and high percentiles on the ACT, as well as a diverse assortment of skills and knowledge. You’re bound to get into RSI with these stats!

Ahem. RSI generally accepts only 50 people from the United States, with 30 reserved for overseas DoDEA and foreign applicants. Last time I counted we only had 50 states, and since MIT supports affirmative action they’ll probably take only one person from each state to diversify representation. That’s ONE person per ENTIRE STATE of applicants. The odds are not looking too good for you unless you’re ranked first in the state for everything and reported on the news everywhere.

Once again, let me reiterate this: RSI accepts 50 “fair” applicants from the US. MIT, Princeton, and Harvard combined accept over 5,500 students (see the 2009 College Handbook published by CollegeBoard). You are 110 times more likely to get into one of those colleges than you are to get into RSI. (Okay, fine, stop protesting my fail math used to illustrate a point with large numbers XD.) I cannot stress how ridiculous that is. Plus, when CEE looks at your application, they won’t see it the way it’s displayed up there. This is what they’ll see:

Wait a minute, LOLCODE? We can finally replace Charlie! Get a new terminal and shove this guy in the IE 9 coding room, pronto!

Yeah, not looking so good anymore now, are you? The problem with competitive and low-acceptance programs and institutions such as this is that applications essentially become giant numerical comparisons, no matter what they claim their selection criteria is. Just look at the sheer number of applicants: College Confidential has gathered about 20,000 views on its RSI thread. Even assuming that only a quarter of the people who look there applied, that’s still approximately 5000 applicants. From one website.

People at CEE who are forced to read through so many applications are bound to bore themselves to death, and whether consciously or not, the process is bound to be reduced to a simple bucket sort, with all but one pile shredded in all likelihood. You can’t even be sure if they’ll even read all of your details. They aren’t there to look for merits; they are there to look for flaws, simply because it’s easier to compare shortcomings than it is to compare merits. Notice that nowhere in the application does it actually guarantee that they’ll read your application; applicants might be chosen in a game of drunken darts for all we know.

To the people who got to this blog with the Google terms I listed:

-If you can’t spell “acceptance” correctly, I don’t think you should worry about RSI anymore. (Then again, MIT did misspell “principal” on the teacher recommendation form…)

-Googling the application for a summer program 5 days before the receipt deadline probably means you’re screwed. But try anyways. There’s also TASP whose deadline is January 25, so get to work on that too!

-It is generally considered a bad idea to not give 1-2 weeks advance notice for recommendation letters. See, you aren’t actually supposed to always say good things about your student. If you invade your teacher’s office and say “yo I kinda need this by tomorrow plz kthxbai”, chances are he or she is not going to be writing good things about you in the recommendation. Heck, the application form even asks the teachers to answer this:

“What do you consider this student’s principle[sic] intellectual and personal…weaknesses which should be considered in evaluating his/her candidacy for RSI?”

Don’t get on your teacher’s bad side. But you probably will if you ask him/her to write your recommendation one day before the deadline. No amount of pouting or bribery can fix that.

On a more serious note, if you’re still adamant about finishing this application and sending it in despite the abysmal chance, here are some tips:

  1. Do not be modest. Being modest in an application screws you over. Just go on a brag-fest without exaggerating to levels that you can’t actually follow up on.
  2. Team achievements (unless qualifying for the team itself is selective, such as the USA IMO team), in-school/interschool recognition, participation in wallet size based programs, athletic awards, conciliatory awards, etc. DO NOT COUNT! The CEE is looking for individual achievement, not the ability to insert yourself into a school team.
  3. “Long-range goals” that are acceptable to CEE do not include: “get married”, “buy a house”, “get a six-figure salary job”, “become a writer/artist/game designer/pro athlete “, “meet Obama”, “become famous”, and so forth. They want to see your scientific ambition, not hear your economic or personal desires.
  4. “I was sick when I was taking it” is not an acceptable excuse for scoring poorly on tests/competitions. Attaching a post-it trying to explain your dilemma just makes you seem whiny. I have really bad seasonal allergies that act up around the time of HMMT/ARML/AIME/USAMO/AP exams/SAT IIs/et cetera. Guess what? I still went on to rank high and get 800s and 5s, just as a lot of other people who had much, much worse conditions did. Sure, you can complain about it (and I feel your pain), but it’s not something to turn to when someone asks you “why is your score so low?”.
  5. “Past experience with modeling” does not mean this.
  6. “Research internship” does not mean “petri dish washing internship” or “paper shredding internship”.
  7. “Past experience with programming” does not mean “hur hur I drew a circl3 w1th th1s appl3t”.
  8. “Community Service” does not mean charging $50 to shovel a driveway.
  9. StarCraft is not an acceptable extracurricular. Unless you’re Jaedong. Or Bisu. Which is pretty unlikely.
  10. “Award” does not mean “certificate of participation”, especially if it’s something like PUMaC where any unqualified person can register a team. (Contests like IMO or ICHO excluded)

And some very important bullets:

  • DO NOT say you take a more advanced course than you do. They have your transcript, after all, and lying just looks horrid.
  • DO NOT put down esoteric things just to fill up the “other” boxes on page 3, unless it’s something very notable.
  • DO NOT start a 2-paragraph explanation on the “deep philosophical ramifications” or whatever that follows your topic of interest. That just annoys the reader. Get to the point.
  • DO NOT mention redundant extracurriculars to make the list impressive! I cannot stress this enough. If your paper has 27 barely notable things and 1 impressive achievement, chances are the reader will be so bored halfway through that he’ll miss the one thing that may make or break the application for you.
  • DO NOT fill in standardized test scores if they are too out-of-date and below the recommended levels. You can choose not to send them.
  • DO NOT go to Wikipedia and just copy the Clay Mathematics Institute’s seven six millennium problems as the most interesting question in your research fields. I cannot stress this enough. I know at least 10 people who put “Riemann Hypothesis” as one of their questions without knowing how to evaluate the Riemann Zeta function for s=a+bi where a<1, or even what the practical consequences are (not that many, and not that practically significant). Shor’s algorithm already trumps pretty much everything else for factorization; Numb3rs has no idea what the hell they are talking about. If you don’t even comprehend the subject of what you’re writing, do the readers a favor and pick something that you actually understand.
  • This is probably late, but DO NOT ask teachers who barely know you (e.g. Your junior year math/science teachers) to write your recommendations! Unless they are very impressed by your performance and are willing to vouch for you, they’ll just write a “standardized” recommendation which might kill you.
  • Finally, DO NOT fail to include a self-addressed postcard. It may have no bearing on your application, but do you really want to spend weeks wondering if they received it or not?

That’ll be all for today. Most likely. I would wish the applicants good luck, but that would be a conflict of interest, wouldn’t it? :P

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12 Comments »

  1. Stork > Bisu and Jaedong

    Also, I don’t think that it’s necessary at all to understand the questions that you propose. These aren’t the topics that you will be researching if you make camp, after all. The important part is to explain why you think these problems are interesting and give them an insight into what type of problems you would enjoy doing.

    Comment by Ubemaya — January 11, 2010 @ 6:02 pm

  2. “You are 110 times more likely to get into one of those colleges than you are to get into RSI.”
    Really? How do you know?

    Informative and entertaining post. I just sent in my app today!

    Comment by apicalmeristem — January 11, 2010 @ 6:42 pm

    • I divided 5500 by 50. Nothing special ;)

      (Of course that arithmetic is only valid if about 80,000 people apply to RSI, but eh… details, details. XD)

      Comment by Excel Excel — January 11, 2010 @ 6:44 pm

  3. Yeah…the 110 times more likely doesn’t really work….you have to work with how many people total APPLY to both situations. Probability works with proportions… consider the denom. as well. For instance, if I ask for 100 people to flip coins in a stadium, about 50 will get heads. If I ask 2 people to flip coins in like a park, chances are that one person will get heads. That does NOT mean that you are any more likely to get heads in a stadium than in a park. Same way with acceptance.

    Comment by Kara — January 11, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

  4. Point is, its a crapshoot. Good luck! :)

    Comment by apicalmeristem — January 11, 2010 @ 10:43 pm

  5. Flash has been tearin it up, while bisu has been shamed by guemchi and bogus. jaedong is not the tyrant he used to be, and stork had his ass handed to him by the same build twice.

    so Flash > Jaedong/Stork > Bisu > Shine

    Colleges are bullshit, btw. GL

    Comment by mkseRapH — January 11, 2010 @ 10:57 pm

  6. Btw, if you do not have your test scores in official form…that is OK. Email them and get your college counselor’s signature and email! Yay!

    Comment by Camilla — January 12, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

  7. i have 780’s in math and chemistry subject tests but a 610 for latin
    should i put down my math and chem scores and send in the score report that includes the bad latin score or what?
    i’m so nervous!

    Comment by frasirfir — January 19, 2011 @ 12:04 am

  8. Most of this seems like fairly solid advice.
    Clearing up a few things, though:
    -RSI has no hard quotas as far as accepting people by states goes. While they certainly won’t accept 10 people from one state, New York and California tend to 4 to 5 people each year, and there are other states that typically have more than one.
    -MIT has nothing to do with RSI admissions; therefore, while it is true that MIT has an affirmative action policy, RSI (or to be even more accurate, CEE) does not.

    Comment by Godot — January 26, 2011 @ 3:51 am

  9. Love your blog–it gave me the push to apply. Also, programming isn’t rly a must if you’re a bio kid (non-computational), and they will teach you anything you need to know either by sending materials beforehand or teaching you procedures once you get there. Also you don’t mention the essays. THey are formative in the application. Be completely honest–if you love science they can always tell.

    Comment by Anu — September 2, 2012 @ 1:33 am

  10. Hey, could you upload a copy of the application? None of the mirrors work and literally none of the first 10 pages of a google search yielded a full application. From any year. You must have a copy on your HD right?

    kthxbai

    Comment by cyanoacrylate applicator — July 31, 2014 @ 8:12 pm

  11. I am a school administrator of a highly selective math/science high school that has sent a number of students to RSI. One thing that is very important that has not been mentioned above are teacher recommendations. You can put together a great application with things that you have written and with your test scores; however, you need the additional piece of someone else speaking highly about you. Advice: Even if you think you are smarter than your teacher, treat him or her with respect. Don’t disparage him or her. I have gotten 3 page letters single spaced from teachers who have written to me to tell how unsuitable a candidate is for my school. Someone who writes a 3 page single spaced letter advocating denial of admissions is seriously peeved about something (and have “an axe to grind”. This letter writer cut-and-pasted snippets from emails from the candidate’s dad. The father had been a bit of a helicopter dad and really annoyed the teacher. Teachers are human. If they feel their ability and character has been attacked, it will be hard for them to be objective about your abilities, however impressive. Ingratiate yourself to teachers you want to write on your behalf. Be respectful. If a teacher offers to write you a recommendation (without any solicitation on your part), that is very good. It means s/he will write something fantastic. Take them up on their offer. If they have not offered to do so, you cannot assume anything. You may think a teacher thinks highly of you and may only get a lukewarm recommendation.

    Comment by FW — December 9, 2014 @ 1:41 am


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