Jan 15, 2012
Grades in Context
Posted in: Academics & Research
If you go to MIT, the odds are good that you'll get a B at some point. Is that one of this year's end-of-the-world scenarios? Not exactly.
Let me be frank: If you were to look at my external transcript, you'd see a B next to 8.02 (Electricity and Magnetism), and a B next to 5.13 (Organic Chemistry II). And you might conclude a few things about my capabilities.
If you're new to how MIT shows off your grades, then I should tell you that external transcripts drop any plus or minus modifiers, so an A+ looks exactly like an A-, which in turn looks like an A. That's great if you squeak by with an A- for a term in one class, but if you got, say, a B+, you might feel robbed.
But enough of the preemptive justifications. Let me tell you a story of two Bs.
8.02 was a second semester class for me, so my attention was divided between a sort of limerence for the days of yore - the good ol' pass/no record days, which are now a year old - a concern for my future prospects of going to med school, and the knowledge that if I horribly messed up, at least I'd be able to no record a class and do it over. After a frightening semester of flying washing machines and ridiculous gyroscopes in 8.01, I felt pretty certain that 8.02 was going to school me.
Yes, I had passed 8.01, but I imagined that this time around, the problems I'd have to solve would involve charged gyroscopes inside washing machines with changing magnetic fields. It also didn't help that bits of 18.02, a class whose nigh-inscrutable concepts racked my brains to no end, had a few guest appearances in the 8.02 curriculum. I mean, isn't that why the class numbers end in the same 3 digits?
In any case, I was pretty scared. Then the first week of classes came around. Surprisingly, I wasn't struggling. Like, at all. The first of the Maxwell equations, Gauss's law, involved calculations that were made much easier due to symmetry. I quickly caught on to signs of spherical and cylindrical symmetry and applied the proper equations. As we expanded to other concepts and other equations, the crucial hints stuck out like sore thumbs. I let the heaviness of my fears of having to do complicated calculations (a la 18.02) dissipate through sighs of relief. And gradually, I let my guard down.
I did so to the detriment of another seemingly small component of my 8.02 grade.
Due before every 8.02 lecture is a set of reading questions. They were seldom graded too harshly, but I thought they were redundant - even a bit of a waste - if we were just going to cover the material in class. To further put that in perspective, I typically wasn't the type to read material before class. That plan even worked out, to some extent, in the first semester. I balked at the idea of having one's grade hinge solely on one's ability to recapitulate concepts from the reading. So, midway through the semester, I would drop reading questions whenever I had too much else to do that night, or if I simply wasn't feeling in the mood to do them. After all, I reasoned, the exams were straightforward, so I might as well treat myself.
Fast forward to the final exam. I figured, correctly, that there would be no surprises. But as it turns out, I lost a few too many points on the final and wound up with a B+ for the term. Do you know what could've brought my grade up? Seriously, guess what could've given me enough of a buffer to bring my grade up. Doing all of the freakin' reading questions. Had I done that, I might've gained the extra three points I needed for an A!
Moral of the story? Don't throw away free points!
If 8.02 initially struck me as the class for which I thought I'd need my brown trousers, then 5.13 was the class for which I thought I'd need a defibrillator and a well-trained team of paramedics and EMTs on call. Really - that bad. My prognosis on the class got so bad that I switched it to sophomore exploratory, which is basically the sophomore version of pass/no record. More specifically, you get to choose one class per term as a sophomore; if you get a grade you're not satisfied with, you can switch it to listener status, salvaging your GPA for that term and allowing you to take it again with no penalty.
Why was I so scared? One of my premed friends (Ahmed, an ol' blogger alum who desperately hopes one of you readers will recognize him :p) warned me about his brief experience with 5.13. Since 100% of one's grade in 5.13 is determined by 4 midterms and the final, he simply referenced the first two exams that he took before he dropped the class. On the first, he was broadsided with something close to a 30/100. For the second exam, which he thought he was going to absolutely own as he walked into the exam room, he did about 10 points worse. He eventually did orgo 2 another time, but jeeeeeeeeeeez, if his horror stories didn't give me misgivings about taking 5.13, then I'd have to guess that I lacked an amygdala.
The first exam mirrored his experience, though my scores, after all those years, were most likely adjusted for inflation. I remember my first score was a 49/100, just a point or two shy of the C/B border. On the positive side, that was much better than I was expecting! On the negative side, I had the sinking feeling that it could only get worse from there...
...until it didn't. On the second exam, I jumped up 9 points, but I wouldn't know that until after I hurriedly made arrangements with my advisor to switch 5.13 to sophomore exploratory status. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised by my grade, but I learned a few things from 8.02 and kept my guard up throughout the semester.
Even for all of my hard work, though, 5.13 never really clicked in the way that other classes did. I sought advice from my TA during office hours once a week, doubled up on recitations on some weeks, and referred to two textbooks for practice problems. Admittedly, I felt like I was burning the candle at both ends as I continued my strenuous studies. Maybe that was why I wound up with a B in the class: because I never gave myself a break in that class, leading to numerous moments where I simply tapped out during study sessions and didn't feel like continuing. Maybe if I paced myself, I'd be taking in all of the material at a reasonable pace.
I mulled over this, endlessly, as I walked out of a very disappointing final exam session. But then I stopped myself when I remembered what one of my good friends at Wellesley College told me a year ago. Grades aren't always a measure of effort, but if you happen to get an A, a B, or even a C after busting your backside over the material, then you did what you could. And frankly, getting a B after all of that is something to be proud of.
I have until registration day for the spring semester to change 5.13 to listener status, a good two months or so after the last day of fall term. But you know what? As far as that B is concerned, I think I'll just let it be.