November 27, 2010

More on those RSI essays

Now, unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to post my essays or those of anybody else here, because all of us liberally copied from them for our college applications. Now, all advice here is the opinion of one former participant--I make no promises as to its veracity

In each Research Field selected in Question 2, please state what you perceive as the one or two most interesting questions/problems in this field. Explain why they interest you.
I'm happy to email my answers to this question to anyone who will tell me what fields they're applying with (I don't want anyone to feel like they can't use a response because I already wrote about it). My answers to these questions took up almost the entirety of my first page. These answers have three purposes:

  1. The are used to match accepted students to prospective mentors.
  2. They provide you with a vehicle with which to illustrate your critical thinking.
  3. They provide you with a vehicle with which to demonstrate your knowledge.

I realize that the last two points are relatively similar, but they're significant in separate ways. As far as the knowledge goes--you should know what you're talking about. Don't just pick some random topic because it sounds cool, go into what interests you, what you already know about. Do some research. My secondary field was the part of my application I put the most time into, because I hadn't done research on it in well over a year, and I had very little information on the topic I decided to write about. I did some research, talked to a teacher in the subject to double-check that my proposal hadn't already been answered, then wrote about it. For me, the first question was answered to show knowledge, because it was one that I'd studied. The second one included many more questions and suggestions, pointing out a number of avenues for research. In both cases, I focused on the complexity of the issues at hand, and why I found that interesting. My two very, very different fields were tied together by a more unified interest in systems/networks, but this tying together (which wasn't done explicitly, and which I've only just noticed) is unnecessary.

Even though the research for the questions may take time, these should be the easiest to write because, for once, it's a chance to write about something more interesting than yourself.

What are your long-range goals?

This answer, for me, was about 2/3rds of a page. First, I discussed a desire to continue some research I'd already done, mentioning how I really need more experience to do what I've tried to do (and RSI would be super helpful, wink wink nudge nudge). Then I said that, as I'm rather young, I'm still flexible about what I want to be studying. I talked about my major interests in the past, going back to the first scientific paper I ever read, the summer before my sophomore year, and how that really threw into light the fact that no matter where I end up, I want science to be a major part of my existence.

The big thing with this is that it's okay to say that you don't have everything all planned out--I don't think that anyone expects you to, but if you do have a fascinating future mapped out, that's cool too. This question is both wide open and very specific, so you have a lot of leeway. I'm inclined to advise that you talk about science here (or, if you don't, keep it brief. You only have a limited number of pages, and you want to focus on your passion for math/science/research/life). If you're really into your research questions, this would be a place to reiterate your interest in pursuing them over the long-term. If you want to use engineering to save the world, put it here. If you want to grow up and be an oddball professor who make Rube Goldberg machines in her backyard, again, that goes here. When you go to sleep at night, what do you dream about?

Because me? I'm going to continue dreaming about electricity.

What extracurricular activities and/or hobbies demonstrate your interest and ability to undertake scientific or mathematical research? (Give some measure to the extent of your participation and/or accomplishments in math or science competitions, research internships, and awards received.)

Remember: it's not a list. You have three pages to indicate promise as a scientist. If you've won enough awards and done enough super-legit stuff that your promise as scientist is super duper evident, then you can make a list. However, if you've won that many awards, then you've probably got your application under control, and you're probably not going to bother reading this.

For the rest of us, this is a chance to further reiterate whatever point we're trying to make--and that is, more or less "Why You Should Accept Me." I talked about only two organized extracurriculars and two hobbies (if you count summer-research-in-my-room as a hobby), but I went into depth about each and how they demonstrated by ability and interest. This is mostly because I didn't have a lot of experience--I had to go into depth, because I didn't have the laundry list that other people do.

My best advice for this question is to be yourself. Talk about what you've done that has mattered to you, and don't be afraid of mentioning something just because it isn't a traditional extracurricular. It's about what you do, outside of class, to improve scientific understanding. This is a chance to take whatever it is you've done and use it to shine. Even if what you've done is super lame sounding (sometimes, I like to stargaze, for example), you can make it into something bigger (the feeling that the universe is bigger than me had really inspired me to go out and try to learn more about it, as I did in y internship or by reading z textbook (no, I didn't use that one, I'm just making up an example)). Accomplishments in science competitions, etc., should be mentioned if they exist, but don't flip out if you don't have them.

Describe your involvement and participation in extracurricular and community activities that do not relate directly to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.

Hi, my name is Tea, and I have a life. I play a musical instrument. I sing in church choir and help out with outreach stuff there. I am a person beyond my research.

I grant you, I wrote a bit more than that, with a lot more depth (i.e. specific piano pieces, that time I played for a show, how I sing at church because school choir got ditched for science research) but it was only a quarter of a page. Athletes probably went into sports, people who do major charity stuff probably went into that, but this is mostly a "are you well rounded? Are you spread too thin? Have you done something really cool that you couldn't mention anywhere else but would like to say here?" opportunity.

Briefly describe any past experience with computer programming, modeling, and data analysis.

My response:

I excel at data analysis with Excel. I did a project in my science research course this fall analyzing sunspot data over the last hundred years. I had enough data points that I ended up having to dig into Excels slightly technical series names and split them in half, because it was overrunning the graphing limit. I did boxcar smoothing, modified standard deviations, and used a few other methods to examine relative peaks. My modeling abilities max out at what I can do on paper using concepts learned in algebra and calculus. For programming, I’ve just begun learning perl, teaching myself with a book appropriately titled Learning Perl. If I keep working my way through the text at my current rate, I’ll be through the book by February. My hope is that perl will give me enough grounding to work my way further through the puzzles on All of my manipulations in Excel are proving insufficient in getting through the fourth problem, since, although I managed to trick it into identifying primes, I still haven’t figured out a way to get it to recognize a palindromic number.

So, to answer that question, no, you don't need to know much in the way of programming to answer this. (Though it should be noted that, unfortunately, I stopped progressing at that current rate once holiday vacation ended). This response was, again, about a quarter of a page.

How did you hear about RSI?

Person at my school went last year, says it's amazing, I'm applying.
Friend went some year, says it's amazing, I'm applying.
Teacher knows students who went...
Teacher is obsessed with MIT...
Looking for summer programs on the internet...
Stalking MIT on the internet...
I did USABO, and it's run by the same organization...
I accidentally entered an RSI game of Mafia on efnet...
This random chick in my astronomy class told me to apply...
The guy in the white van told me to apply before I stole his candy...
I won my position in a national science fair, so this response is unnecessary...
My parents went to RSI...
My sibling went to RSI...
My cousin went to RSI...

That's probably a sufficiently long list of options. This can be a sentence, so as to limit its effect on your ability to write a ton of stuff for everything else.


Anonymous said...

Tea! For some strange reason, no one's commented on this post yet. So this is just to say that this is the most helpful RSI/other science program essay writing guide I could find anywhere. THANKS. -LW

Nikhil said...

Thank you Tea! As an prospective applicant for teh 2012 program, I have a quick question for you.

I have already chosen two fields/subfields and written out 2 questions for the first choice, but only 1 question for my 2nd. Do you think that I should write up another question for my second choice field, or is what I have sufficient (making the assumption that my content is adequate)

Tea said...

@Anon: Thanks for the thanks! (can't believe I didn't notice that comment until now >.>).

@Nikhil: I would say that it's the content that matters more than the specific number of questions, but do what you think is best. You're the one who can look at your application and decide if what you're including is enough.

Azaria Zornberg said...

This is amazing. You went to RSI right? Exactly how important is all of the programming stuff? I noticed an entire section dedicated to the programming languages known. I have extremely in depth knowledge of a wide variety of languages simply because computer science is my passion, and that's the topic in which I had wanted to perform research. So I was wondering if it could give me and advantage.

Anonymous said...

Hey! Just a quick question - my psat scores are low, but I have a strong background in the field i'm applying in. do my scores ruin my chances of possibly getting in at all?

Tea said...

@Anon: scores are only a part of the picture. Most participants in RSI had relatively high scores, but that's more because academically motivated students tend to have high scores than anything else. If you have research experience and are interested in the program, there's no reason not to apply.

Anonymous said...

I had a quick question if you can please answer, Tea.
How specific must the questions for the fields/subfields question be? I mean, do we identify a specific (like super specific) question, or do we keep it broad enough that there are people still working on the area at MIT? This was really a point of struggle for me. Also, if we dont know computer programming stuff but are interested in applying in bio, will that hurt our chances? Please let me know!!!

Anonymous said...

hey tea!
how important is modeling/data analysis experience if i'm applying in math? i'm a usajmo qualifier (x2) and a siemens regional finalist but i know absolutely NOTHING about programming (beyond an advanced knowledge of LaTeX, if it counts). i'm planning on applying in graph theory...should i be trying to learn mathematica just to put it on my application?

thanks :)

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say thanks for this post. I've been really nervous about my app especially looking through what other people have accomplished (on collegeconfidential mainly) and being super intimidated. But you really calmed me down about it and your advice is great! Just wanted to let you know how much I appreciated your help!

Rickoid '12 said...

Hey Tea,
I owe you an overdue thank-you. Your explanations were a big comfort and guide when I crafted my essays, and now I find myself directing prospectives here as part of my own advice.

You're wonderful. Thanks ^ ^

Anonymous said...

I have found your post really helpful. I emailed you recently at with some questions, and I had one more that I was wondering if you could help me out with.

Do all six essays need to be confined to three pages, or just questions 3 and 8? The task here ( is not very clear.

Thanks so much for your helpful advice.

Anonymous said...

I emailed you recently at with some questions, and I had one more.

Do all six essays need to be confined to three pages, or is the limit just for questions 3 and 8? The instructions here ( are not very specific.

Also, my list of accomplishments is only 14 items long, and few are significant. Should I make it a resume-style thing, where the list is integrated in an "Awards" section?

Thank you so much for your helpful advice!

Anonymous said...

Hi Tea--

Just emailed you. Was wondering if you could send me your response to the essay questions or whatever you'd be willing to share.

I'm posting here in desperate hopes that you will see my message. And in the process probably annoying the heck out of you.

Thanks for all of your help, I truly appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

@Anon: All six have to be confined to three pages. The instructions do say to respond to questions 3 through 8 on "separate paper," which I assume to mean separate from the question sheet.

Good luck!

Spacelover17 said...

Hey Tea, so do we have to answer the 9th question (Include a 1-2 page listing of awards and accomplishments) separately, or is it just included within the previouis questions?

Annie Sunshine said...

@spacelover I'm not tea, but I'm just putting them together :)

@Tea, if you're still here, what is your opinion on the "Limit responses to 1-2 paragraphs"? I've been trying to keep my responses to two paragraphs, but they're very fat chunks of words and quite a strain on the eyes. What did you do?

Thanks! :)

Tea said...

Just wanted to say I'm here, but busy, and I'll deal with the email backlog in the next couple of days. The semantics of the application have changed since I applied, so I really can't tell you how to approach that. What I can tell you is that it won't make or break your application either way. The content is more important than the precise formatting, and the page limit is there to keep the required reading per application down, and because it means you have to pick and choose what you say. I think I've got my old app up here, and my paragraphs were pretty chunky as well--again, I wouldn't worry about that aspect of it too much.

Annie Sunshine said...

@Tea, one last question before I submit my app. Are there any guidelines about margins? I currently have mine set at .5in. Sorry if all of my questions seem so trivial! Just don't want to mess anything up :)


Squeak said...

Hi Tea,
I can't thank you enough for your incredibly helpful explanations and length guidelines.
Do you remember how long your answer to question 5 (scientific extracurriculars) was?

Violet said...

Annie Sunshine, that is a very good question. I'm curious about it too. Are there any guidelines about margins? My essays are currently over four pages long and any additional space would be great so I don't have to cut it down as much.

Anonymous said...

Hey, do you think it matters if you have two same fields but different subfields of research? ie chem- nuclear and chem- electro?

Anonymous said...

Hey Tea!

I emailed you recently! Can you send me your response to the essay that you are willing to share?

Thanks! I really appreciate this!

S J Belew said...

When writing the essay, should it be in a bulleted answer such as:
3. Answer here.
4. Answer here.
Or should it be in paragraph format?

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your extremely informative post. I'm applying to the 2017 RSI program. I started the application process, but I'm not sure how long the essays should be. The topics are almost exactly the same, but the word limit is about 6,000 words. Should I take advantage of that or should I answer the question in as much detail in as few words as possible?

Thank you in advance!