MIT is a national treasure

My friend and business partner Tom Pinckney started two companies with me and one company before. He invented many non-trivial patented inventions and raised many millions of dollars in venture capital, and returned capital to those investors many times over.

He got his Bachelors and Master degrees from MIT. He’s the nicest, smartest, and most decent guy you’ll ever meet.  

But my favorite thing about Tom is he never got he never got a high school degree.  High school students today optimize their grades and SATs and after school activities. They speak French and Chinese, play piano and paint abstract art.  They dance around and play hockey and act like they help homeless people.

Tom grew up in rural South Carolina and mostly stayed at home writing video games on his Apple II.  There was no place nearby to go to high school. He took a few community college classes but none of those places could give him a high school degree. It didn’t really matter – all he wanted to do was program computers.  So when it came time to apply to college, Tom just printed out a pile of code he wrote and sent it to colleges.  

Stanford, Berkeley and everyone else summarily dismissed his application on technical grounds – he didn’t have a high school diploma.  

MIT looked at his code and said, “we like it” – we accept you.

For his Masters the best four CS schools – Stanford, Berkeley, Carniegie Mellon, and MIT — all recruited Tom  He stayed at MIT, the school that gave him a chance without a high school degree.

MIT is a national treasure.  If you believe in meritocracy and the American dream, you believe in MIT.


60 thoughts on “MIT is a national treasure

  1. Benoit Fallenius says:

    It is not only a question of letting the guy in; you also need a culture that will make him stay. My guess is that the way MIT opened their door is a good proxy for their internal culture.

  2. Dipen Chaudhary says:
  3. Georges Duplessy says:
  4. Fred Almeida says:
  5. Benjamin Wong says:
  6. adrianmeli says:

    Well, if I had heard this story presented as “some friend of a friend got into MIT without taking any tests or high school, etc” I would have called BS on it. Speaks very well of MIT and is pretty fascinating, I wonder if anyone could get into college now without taking the SAT and graduating high school-ie are schools much less inflexible now. – Adrian Meli

  7. Adrian Scott says: is also great (Rensselaer). They let me in without high school degree or code samples at the age of 15, and even gave me credit for university-level work I’d completed through other means. I graduated at age 16 and stayed on through for my Math Ph.D. at age 20.

  8. Paula Henning says:
  9. Mike Garrity says:

    I don’t think that he said Tom didn’t take the SAT. I was in a similar situation. I did take the SAT, and that was part of the application process, but they didn’t care about details like whether I had a High School degree. It seemed like one of the most important things was the interview. We spent a long time talking about things like rebuilding old sports cars. MIT is definitely one of those places where they’re looking for “their kind of people” rather than a perfect resume.

  10. Damon Torgerson says:
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  15. Chris Hoffman says:
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  17. Mike Tindell says:

    I was clueless when I posted here earlier and am unable to delete it. cdixon, would you please eliminate my gaff?

  18. Frank Paolino says:

    I LOVE this story and have shared it with many people already. Certainly MIT deserves praise for accepting a talented student who does not have the “proper credentials”.I always laugh when someone asks me “what makes you qualified to do such and such”? I like to think that I am qualified for anything that I put my mind to. I am not always good at it, but I eventually figure it out. You get good at what you love (also referred to as “passionate about”) because you spend time at it. Tom loves to program, and became good at it.If you look at Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, they might not be hired by their respective companies today due to lack of a college degree, but they have skills, persevering being the main one, IMHO.More people should think like MIT, looking at the merits of someone to avoid overlooking the exact right person.

  19. Sachin Agarwal says:
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  21. Jessica M says:

    Great story. It’s too bad that Berkeley wouldn’t even consider his application at the time, because just a few years ago, they allowed me to attend without having a high school diploma. I guess they’ve changed their ways!

  22. chris dixon says:

    jessica – that’s great to hear re berkeley. incredible school.

  23. Rebecca Zhou says:
  24. Mark Essel says:

    Tom’s certainly a super productive guy, but he’s an anomaly (in a good way). Makes you wonder about the value of going to high school versus sitting kids in front of a computer. Are organized classes inhibiting young people’s enthusiasm for learning?

  25. Nikola Denić says:
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  27. Harold Ancell says:

    MIT has one non-negotiable for admissions: can they judge you can do the work. (This is non-trivial with a core curriculum that includes a semester of the calculus beyond the AP BC topics and two semesters of calculus based physics (mechanics and E&M); this also helps tame the legacy issue).After that, one of the things that really gets attention is strong evidence an applicant can do projects, which is where Tom won big (and to a lessor extent myself (given that I was doing a conventional high school degree). And they don’t care a wit if you actually get your high school degree, offers are not contingent on degree completion (among other things that eliminates blackmail by less scrupulous teachers and administrators).This is the first I’ve heard of an admission where someone wasn’t in a high school program but given the above it doesn’t surprise me at all: Tom proved to MIT he could do college level classwork at the local community colleges (I’m sure that was absolutely necessary), by definition he convinced MIT he could do the core course work, he got a diversity bonus for where he came from and the “projects” he submitted no doubt sealed the deal.

  28. GratuitousV says:

    Sorry for being skeptical but the part about high school makes me suspicious. (I’m wondering if there’s a firsthand account from Mr. Pinckney verifying this?) First, it’s hard to believe that this place was so rural there was no high school nearby. Was there an elementary or middle school? If so, then there should have been a place for all of those students to go on to high school. Where did all the other kids who didn’t want to stay home and program video games go to school? (Unless this place was so rural that there were no schools at all, which seems unlikely.)And his parents just let him not go to to school? Up until a certain age, isn’t that illegal? Even in South Carolina? I guess it’s possible that his parents raised him in an area so isolated that there were no signs of civilization or other kids within hundreds of miles and they simply never worried about how he would get an education (or maybe they homeschooled) but it just seems hard to believe. I mean, this isn’t Alaska we’re talking about. South Carolina isn’t that big. Plus, if this place was so rural that there was no high school nearby it seems strange that there would be enough people to support a community college. (I guess it’s possible he could have taken online classes but I’m not sure a community college in South Carolina would be set up or have resources for that.) If someone could point me to a primary source for this story, that would be great.Thanks.

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