College Questions (unprotected ver.)

This post, or most of it, was published password-protected once because… well, I explain that below. (To the one person who actually bothered asking me for the password, just so you know, I did add and rewrite parts. More than a few.) I forgot how distinctly powerful a disincentive a large 2300-word block of text is to the average person, especially when the subject of half of those 2300 words is teenage angst (I’ve already linked to xkcd 1370 in enough places so I’m not even going to embed it here) interweaved with an insufferable amount of rationalist jargon. This will probably filter my readership more than sufficiently already.

I have still decided to protect one detail of the thought process, though. But even after that, I guess I do care more about how many people read this than I do for most of my other posts, so here’s a primitive attempt to gauge interest; if you choose anything beyond the first choice, I would also appreciate if you leave a comment, even if you don’t think you have anything to add:

edit: This poll has been removed, it wasn’t very interesting anyway.

I haven’t posted for a long period again, but I don’t feel too bad about it.

Well, until I look carefully at my blog draft folder and remember that I have 90%-finished drafts about the two debate competitions I went to (November 2013 and March 2014), and winning the previous Mystery Hunt (January 2014), and my summer trip to Penghu (July 2013). Which will probably never get posted out of awkwardness.


But I’ve been busy, completely righteously busy, with college apps to write and algorithm classes to teach and speeches to write and a math club to sort-of lead and all the typical homework besides.

And then (for those of you who don’t have me as a friend on Facebook) I got accepted to MIT and Caltech early.

And for a few days after that, I checked Facebook about sixteen times a day for the Class of 2019 group discussion, except for one day when I really needed not to, thanks to the power of committing to my HabitRPG party to do something. I am increasingly learning that procrastination is something that has to be actively and strategically fought. But that’s not what this post is about.


I’m really conflicted about this. I’m happy, but it never turned into the euphoric reality-questioning sort of emotion that seems so common on the Facebook group. There’s a bittersweet sense of loss too — the crushing reality of leaving my home and school and family for the first extended period in more than a decade. I didn’t really express it verbally. I don’t know how to, and I would like to save the tears for the graduation ceremony.

I thought it would be amazing, though.

Now, okay, I was not really surprised per se. In fact, I’m still more surprised to find myself a senior at the school I’ve attended for twelve years. I thought I had maybe a 70% chance of making it to MIT, and didn’t think about it too much beyond that. For those of you who know me, that number may seem ridiculously low. For those of you who don’t, it probably seems ridiculously high. A true Bayesian should be as ashamed of an overly low probability as of an overly high one, and I stand by my estimate (correcting for base-rate neglect and hindsight bias, plus I don’t believe it would have been worth it to gather more data to update my probability anyway — why not just apply sideways in the meantime?) Of course, I can’t spawn universes in which to test how many times I get accepted out of 1000 trials, so there’s not much point in debating this probability further.

Still, it was a big piece of news.

At least, I thought it would be a big piece of news, and kind of made it out to be, walking the tightrope between sharing the joy and preserving a basic sense of tact for those of my classmates who have been deferred from MIT and other colleges. But I may have underestimated my rationality just this once.

The Facebook group was a bit overwhelming at first. But the dust has settled and I have picked out a few familiar faces that I am getting to know more deeply. I’ve already sent a pull request to somebody I knew nothing about the existence of a week ago. Meanwhile I wait as my ego gets deflated by the business-starters and book-writers and groundbreaking researchers increasingly revealing themselves all around. This might actually be the number one reason I wanted to get into a “good college”: to recalibrate my subconscious valuation of my own achievements, which I know from a rational perspective is totally borked from my experiences on this island, and thereby also recalibrate my personal aspirations so I can push myself to greater things. But it still doesn’t feel good when it happens, leaving me futilely going through the motions of polishing my websites and committing more code onto GitHub.

And yet, the question still has to be asked: where should I go?

I really like MIT. Part of it is just the people — I already know an alarming number of people there. Depending on how generously “know” is defined, the number is somewhere between 2 and 15 (I counted) from a surprising variety of sources… even if I completely ignore the current class. Which is kind of a crazy statistic, especially compared to the other colleges. Part of it is the culture — the celebrated nerdiness and the friendly, graceful handling of the admissions process. Without being too specific, I know the admissions crew pay even more attention to commenters/applicants than is visible on the blogs. And part of it is, of course, the Mystery Hunt (squeals).

But it’s not a done deal yet. There is a tiny part of me hoping that I get rejected from all my regular decision schools, but I don’t think that’s likely and my better judgment still says I should apply. Well, some part thereof… That’s the big struggle right now.

There are two big things preventing me from comMITting right now: the money and the climate.

One, money: MIT appears to have the largest expected student contribution of these colleges.

There are a variety of reasons why this is significantly Not Good. I might have to take out a student loan. I think student loans are a bad thing. Why do I think student loans are a bad thing? It is very troubling for myself that the first piece of evidence I reflexively come up with is “I read it in a reddit comment thread once.” There is probably good reason to suppose that reddit is a lot less representative of my particular college predicament than of other life issues I might face. Oh well. This requires further investigation. After asking some alumni I am more confident that I could probably get a college job or work-study plan or something, so that if financial aid is as good as naively predicted, it’s really foregone income instead of debt, which doesn’t feel so bad.

Also, I don’t have an intuitive grasp for the size of US dollars, or the utilitarian impact of finances on myself in general. Right now, I don’t have many physical desires and I would think I can get by without too much money; I don’t really know what I would do with, let’s say, an extra US$20,000 over four years from picking a school with more financial aid. But I’m worried that’s only because I still only know how to measure my consumption in boxed lunches versus nights eating out and the occasional iTunes purchase or the nanoblock Charizard sitting in front of my desk right now (but the marginal utility of an additional such figure is very low, so that is really not an effective unit of account.)

[nanoblock Charizard]
One nanoblock Charizard = NT$490 (his name is Pyrion, /paɪ-/, which is not namespace-collision-free but what the heck)
also, wow does my camera suck

(I also discovered rather recently the dead child unit, which makes US$20,000 out to be a big deal.) But the point is I do not understand on an intuitive level how money works in everyday adult life. Ergo, I don’t want to make the decision for my future self, to deprive him of those dollars before I have his informed opinion. I don’t think I have the authority.

Thus articulated, however, this objection is really dumb — I don’t want to deprive my future self of four extremely convenient Mystery Hunts, either. The decision I have to make is in the present. No way around it. Why am I not worried about overestimating my concern about that? A response might be that I can keep extra money after graduating, whereas hunts are one-time experiences. But one-time experiences make people much happier than material purchases; Dunn, Gilbert & Wilson (2011) devote their first section to this and cite Van Boven & Gilovich (2003) and Carter & Gilovich (2010).

I’m being loss averse.

(That was roughly the insufferable part I was talking about.)

Well, there’s one last concern that is definitely not driven by a cognitive bias, which is that most of the positive sides of MIT I see are selfish benefits. Money is something I can share with my parents, or at least something I can prevent them from having to pay, thereby lessening their burden. I think this needs no further explanation.

Two, the climate. It is cold in New England. Although I don’t think I will generally care about weather a lot either, because I’m very much an indoors person (and an unapologetic one), I wonder if, in the long run, it might just get to me on a subconscious level and impair basic psychological and mental functioning. This is obviously undesirable. I don’t know; I really hope the positive things outweigh this. Probably, I could get a taste for it during Campus Preview Weekend, but I don’t think a taste will properly reflect the long run; and chances are this issue will also be confounded to hell by the nocebo effect, so I shouldn’t worry about it, right?

Still, all in all, my reasons for hesitation are very narrow; it’s not a really bad choice to throw my hands up and comMIT. It’s also not a bad choice just to finish my standing apps, spending a healthily controlled amount of time polishing the essays, submit them, and wait to compare financial aid. I think the application fee is negligible, and I do see positives in each of the other colleges that make them stand out; I’m not applying purely to diversify my financial-package bets:

  • Harvard has money and a more well-rounded academic atmosphere. Plus, the concessions to Mystery Hunt accessibility and friend networks are quite small (it also looks like I’ll have a lot of friends in the Boston college area in general). And there’s a better chance of powerful political connections, which hopefully I will use for unselfishly changing the world, and may be my best shot at doing so in the short-to-medium run (because let’s face it, as awesome as it would be to prove the Riemann Hypothesis tomorrow, I don’t think lives are going to be saved through it or anything). This is something I am absolutely certain that I will value more in the future than I do now, although I have no idea how much more.
  • Caltech shares plenty of the prankster spirit and a prominent Honor Code, which really sounds like a honking great idea, no sarcasm, especially for me and my positively crippling sense of responsibility. It’s on the west coast, and it has a great research focus and a small community that I will probably adjust to faster from my high school background. (I’d like at some point to enter a big community where I can meet more people, but I don’t know if it’s the best use of my psychological resources to try to adjust to both that and the whole independent living gig at the same time.) And as a preliminary observation from Facebook, it seems to have more a cappella groups per capita than MIT.
  • Stanford also has money and its tech reputation matches everything else on this list, with probably just-as-strong well-roundedness and political influence. It is also on the west coast and situated in a better-connected neighborhood (cough Silicon Valley cough).

(I took Princeton off the list after getting my early acceptances. I’m unsure again after I went back to my spreadsheet and recalled that Princeton has John Conway, but I’m leaning towards thinking it’s not enough.)

Now that I think about it, the largest reason I felt secretive about this post was probably the concern that some admissions officer or potential classmate would read this and be disappointed at my lack of visceral enthusiasm about or overly materialistic analysis of these other universities. But after more reflection, like I said, this is unlikely because 2300 words. And I think I was fair enough that I’m willing to stand behind everything I wrote. There’s already enough self-packaging in the admissions process anyway.

So it still makes sense to consider other schools. But there’s one last thing holding me back in the other direction: would my application make it harder for friends in my class to get accepted to Harvard?

Colleges will all claim they don’t have geographical quotas, but I have to wonder whether some of the considerations in the holistic process amount to the same thing, or at least strongly correlate with it. There are several friends applying to Harvard and I hope that they get in. (As far as I’m aware, nobody else is even considering Stanford, so that’s one less problem to worry about.) Considering this, is it worth submitting applications to colleges I am not that likely to choose even if I get accepted and would probably be fine without?

That’s the last question, I guess. Two nebulous quantities of utility to weigh against each other, about two days to decide, and the possibly deluded fantasy that somebody I know well enough is going to give me advice that will let me make this choice without any regrets…

ETA: I should probably say I already gave up and submitted both apps to stop the torment of indecision. I hope I don’t regret this.

(If you made it this far, don’t forget the poll!)

(note: the commenting setup here is experimental and I may not check my comments often; if you want to tell me something instead of the world, email me!)