The story of how I got into MIT has always been questionable. Every year on March 14th (MIT admissions day), all of my friends in my dorm ask: “How many people from your high school got into MIT?”
Zero, because nobody applied. Or, if they did, they weren’t accepted.
MIT admitted 1,467 students from over 1,000 schools in 2014 to make up the Class of 2019, and Agawam High School was not one of them, as usual. When I got accepted to MIT, my teachers in that high school told me I was the first person in about twenty years to get accepted. Agawam High School was a small and mediocre public school out in the half of Massachusetts that nobody has ever heard of. Even my friends at MIT that are from Massachusetts have never heard of Agawam! When I decided to apply to MIT, my math teacher told me that “I had no chance in hell in getting accepted.” My guidance counselor even suggested that I was aiming too high and should apply to community college like the rest of my class. A lot of people at MIT praise their guidance counselors for their advice and support as a major contributor to getting into MIT. And then you had Mr. Meagher, a typical old man with the white/balding hair and the hearing aid. He has probably been there for a century, watching thousands of students like myself apply and get rejected to schools like Boston University (yes, I actually got rejected from there).
What made me different? Well, I carried a Rubik’s cube in my backpack every day throughout high school. The Rubik’s cube gave me a sense of confidence, self-motivation, and the ability to persevere through any problem.
Curiosity kills the cat, as the old proverb goes. There was me, a younger Andrew at about twelve years of age getting his first Rubik’s cube for Christmas. Six bold colors neatly arranged on a 3×3 cube, like the one shown below.
Like any child on Christmas morning, I had to play with my new toy as soon as I opened it. Twisting and turning the cube, I was constantly resetting it to its perfect configuration, careful not to mix it up. However, it only took a few overly ambitious turns and—boom!—I screwed up the cube. Trying to undo the turns was like digging myself a deeper hole. The colors became more and more mixed up.
I thought, “Well maybe my dad can fix it.” So I went up to him with a look of sadness embalmed on my face. He looked at the cube, turned it a few times, and said, “I had one of these when I was a kid. I could only solve one side since that part was easy. But only the smartest people could solve all six sides at once.” I took the cube back with its one side solved. With nothing more I could do for it, I left the cube sitting on my bedside table for the next two years, occasionally turning it every once in a while, but with no luck in solving it.
* * *
Two years later, I had completely forgotten about the old cube sitting by my bedside, by now covered in dust. This was the age of my awkward adolescent years. I spent most of my time after school on the Internet. This was also the time when YouTube started to become a viral sensation. From videos posted on it, I learned how to tie a tie, how to play piano again, and how to fold origami. You could find practically anything on YouTube! I remembered my Rubik’s cube and the words echoed by my dad, “only the smartest people could solve all six sides.” So like any smart person, I took to the Internet to find the solution for the damn Rubik’s cube. On YouTube, I typed in “how to solve a Rubik’s cube,” and to my surprise, there wasn’t just one but many videos!
The answers were called algorithms, a set of actions you performed to reach a solution. There were about ten steps in solving the Rubik’s cube and ten algorithms to learn. I copied every algorithm down on a little cheat sheet with the shorthand notation “cubers” used: left (L), right (R), top (T), bottom (B), left inverse (Li), right inverse (Ri), top inverse (Ti), and bottom inverse (Bi). The directions referred to the sides of the cube, and inverse meant that you would turn the side counterclockwise versus clockwise. My cheat sheet would say something like “U R Ui Ri Ui Fi U F,” and by the end of the video it would look like some cryptic language.
When I announced that I could solve all six sides of the Rubik’s cube my dad and I were driving to my grandma’s house. I sat in the car with the algorithm cheat sheet in my lap, and slowly but surely solved the cube while we were waiting in the drive thru at McDonald’s. My dad was so surprised that he almost hit the car in front of us in the drive thru line! After he redirected his focus back to the wheel he said “Wow Andrew, you really are a smart kid.”
I continued to practice, aiming to increase my speed at solving the Rubik’s cube. At my prime, I was able to solve the cube in under 90 seconds. I memorized the algorithms to the point that I cannot consciously remember the steps; my hands can only do it from muscle memory. I brought it with me to school to show my friends that I could solve the Rubik’s cube; it kind of became my party trick in a way. I would solve the Rubik’s cube everywhere: in science class, at the lunch table, and during band rehearsal. I was building a reputation in 8th grade as “the kid who could solve the Rubik’s cube.” Finally, in my opinion, I was becoming a cool kid.
Going from 8th grade into high school, the Rubik’s cube stayed in the side pocket of my backpack. The cube provided me with comfort and confidence throughout freshman year. The really smart and successful upperclassmen had Rubik’s cubes too. In a way, being one of the guys with a Rubik’s cube helped me find my identity. The cube also became a symbol of excellence for me; I would constantly try to set the standard higher by solving it faster. Solving the cube became nothing more than sheer focus, technique, and execution.
* * *
In high school, there were only two activities that I vividly remember being a part of: marching band and FIRST robotics. And for every moment of it, I kept a Rubik’s cube in my bag as a reminder to constantly push to set the bar higher.
I played mallet percussion in the marching band. There was a very steep learning curve because I started playing three years later than all of my peers. Freshman year, learning the music took me twice as long as the others in my section. However, playing percussion well required the same skillset as solving the cube: sheer focus, technique, and execution.
The fundamental exercises we played focused on playing the notes together acoustically and visually. Although there were twelve players in my section, you could only hear a single, clear, and unified sound. The key here was execution. If there was a microsecond of delay, you could hear the difference in sound. On the visual aspect, everybody’s playing had to look synchronized. The mallet always had to be at twelve inches above the keyboard. After you play a note, the mallet needs to be back at twelve inches. Like solving the Rubik’s cube, however, having my mallets at twelve inches quickly became muscle memory as well.
Focus was the third key trait. It wasn’t hard to play in sync if everybody closed their eyes and listened to each other (notice in Fig. 5, our eyes are closed). Only the best musicians exhibited perfect synchronization, but that was only a matter of potential. So that was my goal: set the example to be better than ever and help all of those around me to unlock their full potential.
Every year, our marching band would be evaluated by judges on a five star basis for many criteria (music, brass, percussion, marching, visual, and overall). And every year, we would only get three out of five stars in every single category. As percussion captain senior year, I pushed to get that fourth star in percussion. I constantly asked people to come to practice thirty minutes early. We would have team bonding activities like 7am breakfast picnics outside the band room on competition day. While some sections –brass, for example-hoped to have their music memorized by the end of the season, I demanded that everything was memorized by the first week. By the end of competition season my senior year, we did it (Fig. 6). When the rest of the band received the usual three stars, our percussion section got four stars!
* * *
Band practice was on Tuesdays and Thursdays; that was half of my life. For the other days of the week, I was in the robotics shop. The great thing was that the band room and robotics shop were right next to each other. So if I wasn’t at band practice, you could probably walk next door and find me in the robotics shop.
My claim to fame for the robotics team was never actually doing any of the engineering for the robot, which is ironic since I now go to MIT. Instead, I focused on the business end of things as CEO: award presentations, social events/fundraising, and business plans. I made it a point to know everything about the robot when it came to talking to judges or other teams about; “If I can name all the specs on our robot without ever designing it, everybody should be able to.”
As CEO, I was in charge of coordinating the subteams to ensure that the design and build process goes smoothly. For example, the drive team designed those plates above, the manufacturing team made it and the electrical team had to design a circuit for it. My usual night involved walking around to check in on all the members, usually solving the cube while walking around (it had started to become a sort of stress ball for me). I suspected that the CEO before me, Emily, also did that. Although I can’t find the picture anymore, our team was on the front page of the Agawam newspaper, and in the photo you could almost see that Emily was trying to hide the Rubik’s cube behind her back right as we spontaneously got together to take a picture.
At competition when we competed against sixty other teams and robots, I was usually the guy who sat in the stands and kept a watchful eye on our team and robot. At competition, it was all about consistency in match performance. Our team had a well-oiled machine, but the robot drivers getting nervous during a match was what usually led to mistakes.
In preparing for these matches and during other stressful times, the Rubik’s cube gave me confidence and provided comfort. It would always remind me of what my dad said in the beginning, “Only the smartest people could solve all six sides.” It was a reminder that I have the potential to overcome any problem before me. Match after match I would set up the robot on the field, work out a strategy to win the match, and do everything in my power to follow that plan: sheer focus on the match, beautiful technique for driving the robot, and rigorous execution of the goal-scoring strategy. By junior year, our team qualified for the world championships in St. Louis for the second time ever in the team’s fifteen years of existence (Fig. 9).
While I wouldn’t claim that the Rubik’s cube is what actually got me into MIT, it’s a symbol of self-motivation and the hard work. The cube, is a part of me and my life story. It became a part of my life during my early adolescent years. My awkwardness was reflected in how my cube was left unsolved for many years. The cube was something that followed me all throughout high school, and with each turn, it adds a little bit more to the experiences I’ve had. Today, I still keep one on my desk (Fig. 10) as a good luck charm and a reminder of what I am capable of when I put my mind to it.
Brown, Dan. How to solve a Rubik’s Cube (Part One). 2007. YouTube.com, https://youtu.be/HsQIoPyfQzM. 20 July, 2015. JPEG file.
final gather. rubik’s cube. 2013. Flickr.com, https://flic.kr/p/o82dAq. 3 August, 2015. JPEG file.
Huang, Juihui. Rubik’s Cube. 2008. Flickr.com, https://flic.kr/p/5LnWHg. 3 August, 2015. JPEG file.
Tang, Andrew. “4 Stahs.” 2012. JPEG file.
Tang, Andrew. “Algorithms.” 2015. Drawing. JPEG file.
Tang, Andrew. “Chairman’s Award Photo.” 2012. JPEG file.
Tang, Andrew. “My Rubik’s Cube.” 2015. JPEG file.
Tang, Andrew. “Practicing Marimba.” 2013. JPEG file.
Tang, Andrew. “Robot Drive Plates.” 2013. JPEG file.
Tang, Andrew. “Setting up at Competition.” 2013. JPEG file.