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Phoebe C. '18

Mar 5, 2016

5 stories about MIT

Posted in: Best of the Blogs, Life & Culture

In my (high-school) senior spring, when I was almost sure I planned to enroll at MIT, I read obsessively about student life at MIT--the research and academics are, of course, first-rate, but I wanted to know what it is really like to spend your days here. Linked below are a few stories that have stuck and relevant snippets of my own life. ([1][2][3][4][5] for quick access.)

Note that these are not stories in the mythical urban-legend sense; they are testimonials about the trajectories that your life may take after coming to this curious place.


1. What is it like to burn out as a student at MIT?

Here's a Quora answer about being asked to withdraw from MIT due to poor academic performance. The author describes attaching her sense of worth to academic performance, listening to her parents rather than herself, hiding all signs of struggle, and becoming less and less invested in classes during her time at MIT.

I'm not even sure why I took organic chemistry, since I was interested in math. My parents were pressuring me to be a premed and become a doctor (like them) so I guess I was trying to appease them.

This all makes me a little nervous because I share a lot of qualities with the author's young self--I tend to appease my parents, recently got my first B ever, and skip class a lot. But it's also comforting; it is possible to have a fulfilling life even if one does fail out of school (and your interests are academic rather than entrepreneurial, in which case I imagine it would be less of a big deal). Basically: academic failure is not the end of the world, even in the worst imaginable case.

Though it ended up taking me 5 years to graduate from college, I can say now that failing out of MIT was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I realized that a person is NOT their grades. I realized how much my parents love me (and I never could have recovered without their support), and I think we finally understand each other. I finally discovered my passion in life, and now I get to put together my intense curiosity for biology with my love for math!


2. What was it like to have Junot Diaz as your creative writing professor at MIT?

Read this. Just! read! it! If not the whole thing, at least this block quote:

Having my writing teacher be someone who's experienced things, who encouraged us to write about what messed us up, to know the person who really wrote the type of stuff I read, to connect with my crazy genius classmates, to realize everyone has a billion secret selves, shifting between various identities, to draw aside the curtain to reveal our secret worlds, was personality-altering for me.

In my math and CS classes, we talked about approximation algorithms, theory of mind, big O, BBN: the Problems of advancing science, problems we were solving, not the ugly worries of the lower realms, stuff with no reason, stuff that leads nowhere, base stuff you can't work on aside from letting it fade from the collective consciousness, subjective stuff that isn't truth the way other parts of understanding reality are Truth. Ignore that stuff, elevate beyond animal emotion, abhor politics, the path to the heavens through technology goes the complete opposite direction!

I have few comments because it is an experience I have yet to live (but hope to, despite never really having written fiction).


3. How has your college decision impacted the rest of your life?

This one's about the author changing major and becoming generally more comfortable with abandoning plans.

MIT affected my attitude in a pretty big way. Before college, I would make long-term plans and carry them out with my head down, probably stuck in a book. (Ironically, one of those long-term plans was getting into MIT.) Beginning with my career shift in freshman year, I started changing my mind a lot more, started looking for new opportunities out of pure necessity, because I was no longer sure what I wanted to do. And the whole time, I marveled at how much luck I had that such-and-such happened, at how common it was that important milestones seemed to be incited by stupid luck. Simply being at MIT, of course, increased the probability of serendipity, and I suppose that's how you should describe the value of an "MIT education" -- in serendipities, not dollars.

Last night, I visited pika with my friend Caroline M '18 and Michelle (the blogger (in other news, i just realized that i have no idea what is good form for referring  to other bloggers in a blog post)), getting dressed for a party. Caroline was talking about how she had never been interested in her high school economics classes, and Michelle mentioned that she also hadn't anticipated her interest in economics. I'm the same--I did not take a single econ class unti last spring, when I was surprised to find that I liked it. Yet Caroline is now contemplating switching to Course 14, Michelle is in Course 14, and I just filled out the application to pursue a secondary major in Course 14.

If you are a senior in high school, don't trust your beliefs about what you will do with your life. It is also okay to not know where you're going (and that's something everyone says, so it's not very comforting, i know. i certainly struggle with this a lot--read any other blog post i've ever written, lol), but even the people who think they know probably don't know!


4. How do some people manage to take 6 classes at MIT?

This person took 8 classes--7 math classes and Chinese 3--during his sophomore fall. I do not personally know anyone who has pulled this off successfully, and I am in awe at his diligence. He does not recommend it:

  1. I did psets on time but without understanding all the material in class, and just extracted the parts I needed for the psets ("selective negligence").
  2. Having said this, I wouldn't recommend taking so many classes under any circumstances. While I survived the semester fine, it was a process of gradual burnout. I got A's because I worked towards the requirements of the classes, and hell I learned a lot of material that term, but I didn't reach the kind of complete, conceptual understanding that forms a stable foundation for future classes.
  3. I think the effects of a 8-class semester are subtle and for me they came after rather than during the semester. Firstly, it got me into the mindset that classes, academics, grades were the most important, which has taken me two years to get out of. Second, there's a feeling that I'd somehow fallen from a star, that that semester was the tip of my career and I'd never be able to match up to myself back then---which is totally incorrect, because whatever career you choose, your success isn't measured by how much you can do psets handed to you on a plate, but rather on how well you apply your creativity, how well you make connections between subjects, and so forth. You tend to rely on academics as a sort-of pride because you haven't done much else, and you hate yourself for doing it. You know you should place more value on more independent work, and on the experiences in college that aren't at all related to academics, and you know that trying to be a "tool" is just a way to avoid trying to find out who you are as a person, but you've gone so far with just being stellar at academics that it's hard to leave that path.

I have a few friends and also a brother who often find themselves with six to seven classes a semester, get straight As, and do little besides. I always thought I'd come to MIT and do exactly what my brother did, and it worked during my freshman year--I took three ASEs, finished my science GIRs during freshman fall, ended up five classes and an ASE on my transcript for freshman spring--and then I realized I didn't like computer science, I wanted a richer social life, I missed writing, I was focusing on speed rather than depth. So I changed the formula a little. I did not attempt six classes; I spent more time on extracurriculars and my social life.

This semester, I tried again to center my life on coursework, but I have since backed out a little. I think I'm no longer even capable of caring as much about grades as I did last year and in high school. Last week, I dropped a class for the first time--so I'm now down from six to five--and my life feels much more manageable. I mean, I'm not sure I'm placing enough value on independent work or that I have found out who I am as a person, but it's a start. It's particularly confusing because I'm almost certain I want to go to grad school, but I'm pretty sure that still doesn't mean I should close all other avenues and focus singlemindedly on academics, even though I genuinely find my coursework enjoyable. Either way, I think things will be okay.


5. My MIT: What it’s like being a student in this strange place

This is an essay by a grad student who found MIT intimidating prior to undergrad but fell in love with it during grad school applications.

High school friends took me around the East Campus dorm (motto: “the weak shall be eaten”). People dyed their hair blue and walked around barefoot. The bathrooms were coed. People painted murals on the walls, built loft structures for their rooms, and engineered homemade fingerprint readers for their locks. “The undergrads here are intense,” a grad student whispered to me as I wandered the halls of the Infinite Corridor. “Come back for grad school.”

Sage advice. Just seventeen and coming straight from a tiny all-girls prep school, I was not ready to commit to this nonconformity. I needed to see more of the rest of the world before I could choose who I wanted to intensely be. And so I spent the next four years at Harvard.

I laughed when I read this--I found East Campus pretty terrifying as a prefrosh. So did a few of my friends who now live there or have lived there. Now it is home. I think it can be intimidating because there are few opportunities to encounter that kind of intensity outside of MIT, but most of us grow into it.

What I love most about MIT is how much fun people have doing what they want, as hard as they want to. I once had an art teacher who said, “You know the kind of person who's just kind of there, not really going for it? You don't want your art to be that person. Go for it.” This applies not just to work, but also to lifestyle.

...and, because college admissions decision season is nearing, here's a bonus link to a page on the Harvard admissions site (blasphemous, I know):

Professionals in their thirties and forties - physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others - sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp. Some say they ended up in their profession because of someone else’s expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work. Often they say they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined future goal.


The general theme is that we don't really know what we're doing, and maintaining a too-narrow focus on schoolwork or college admissions or future career often leads to unhappiness and burnout. On college admissions specifically: of course it's easy to say this now that I've already gotten into college, but I can still relate, because there is an ever-lengthening stream of applications and admissions processes ahead of me. Now it's internship applications, and then after that grad school applications, job applications, grant applications, fellowship applications. You (and by "you" i mean "i" because i'm exceptionally bad at practicing what i preach on this front) cannot infinitely delay living your life for the sake of your resume or your transcript.

With that said, I am pretty hosed right now and need to get to work on the four psets and short story I have due this week! Ha. ✌

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