First, get into MIT. Most of our students come from MIT's Program in Media Arts and Sciences, while others have come from Health Sciences and Technology or Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. We are open to students from any department. We occasionally accept students from non-technical backgrounds (e.g., design/psychology/cognitive science) as long as you are willing to learn to create and build new things (software or hardware). You have to apply separately to each department at MIT in which you might want to work. MIT's Admissions information can guide you to the information for each department.
While there are no special advantages for any group, we especially encourage female and minority applicants to apply. We also encourage anyone who "doesn't fit" in the usual places. We are always looking for ways to expand the diverse viewpoints in our group, which gives us strength in thinking outside the box. If you have a tendency to underestimate your abilities, please set aside your doubt and take the risk to apply. If there is a hardship paying the application fee let us know and we will try to help. Note that students have traditionally received full funding once they are admitted (provided they remain in good academic standing and graduate in a reasonable amount of time), so cost of attending MIT should not be a concern.
What advice can we give to improve your chances to get in? The best thing to do is to first learn about our latest research projects before you write your statement of objectives. You can download publications, and contact the students working on the projects that interest you most. Because of so many talented applicants, often the admission decisions come down to choosing those whose passions are most closely aligned with current research goals. Learn what interests us and see if it is a good fit to your interests. Of course you can also feel free to suggest things you think we should be interested in. Great design and visualization skills demonstrated in a portfolio are always a plus.
Professor Picard rarely accepts more than 1-2 new students a year and some years accepts none. It is wise to target several areas of interest in your admissions application, to increase your chances of getting into MIT, and then once you are at MIT or in the Media Lab, you will find there are few walls. Thus, repeat the process above for 2 or 3 groups that interest you.
Picard personally goes through the applications to Media Arts and Sciences that mention Affective Computing or Autism, so list these if you want to consider working with this group. If you make the "short-list" of admits, then Picard will likely follow up with you by phone or by arranging a face-to-face meeting before admissions decisions are made.
We wish we had the resources to engage in email dialogue or otherwise interact with all applicants, their families, and others who email us on your behalf. Please do not expect personal responses to all your mails; Prof. Picard gets hundreds of mails a day and has time to respond to only a small handful.
Each year many outstanding applicants are turned away, despite that they have enormous talent and we would love to have them join the lab. A rejection does not imply anything negative about your talent or ability. Sometimes people are just not a fit for the current research focus. Some try repeatedly and get in on a 2nd or 3rd attempt. The staff in the office of the Program in Media Arts and Sciences can be of help if you have questions about the process or the status of your application. Faculty are not allowed to respond to individual queries about the status of an application, or why a student was or was not admitted. You will not help your application by mailing the faculty with such inquiries.
Note that sometimes Prof. Picard serves on student thesis committees outside of MIT as well as outside the USA, so it may be possible to collaborate even if you are at another school.