Nearly three years ago, I published a post provocatively titled “CLAAASS,” now known as “Before you Register for Classes: Tools, Tips, and Resources." This post expands on CLAAASS to discuss MIT Academics in general. It is the first installment of the Guide to MIT (coming next: residential system), inspired by the recent comMITment of the Class of 2022—WELCOME PREFROSH!!!
The sections of this post are:
1. Degree Requirements
2. Support Resources
3. Semester Structure
4. Grading System
5. Scheduling and Registration
(for a formal overview, go to catalog.mit.edu)
- 6 GIRs (2 Calculus courses, 2 semesters of Physics, Chemistry, and Biology),
- 8 HASS subjects (including at least one in each category of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and 3-4 subjects in one department to attain a HASS Concentration),
- 2 REST subjects (introductory, though rarely easy, Restricted Electives in Science and Technology, which many STEM majors automatically get through their required coursework), and
- 8 PE points (usually 4 quarter-long PE classes).
- Your chosen major(s)/minor(s) requirements, which, depending on the department, can be quite flexible. Some majors require a senior thesis. Note: at MIT, you can have at most two majors and two minors.
- Beyond major requirements, you will need to take a certain number of electives. The units required depend on your department, and can be taken in any discipline.
Also included in the requirements are the following subject designations:
- Lab - everyone is required to complete a lab course within their major, including HASS majors. For example, in 17.803 Political Science Laboratory, we learned statistics and the R programming language, which we later applied in an original research project.
- CI-H/CI-HW - Communication Intensive HASS courses, you'll need to take two of these, recommended one per year in the first two years. CI-Hs are pretty regimented courses which have standardized requirements across all HASS departments: about 20 pages of writing, including one essay rewrite. CI-HWs are similar, but devote more time to teaching you how to write. Some pro-tips for CI-H/CI-HW courses: attend class and/or recitation because failing one component of the class, such as attendance, means failing the whole class. Also, the courses are often capped at 25 people so the good ones fill up quickly and you need to register for the wait list and attend the first class. Good news: you'll get priority as you get older, and also if you become affiliated with the department through a major, minor, or concentration. You should also check in with the professor in the second week of the semester to see if spots have opened up after the initial rush.
- CI-M - a communication intensive course within your department. You'll learn how to present and write stuff relevant to your major. Two of these are required.
An additional computational thinking requirement is being considered, along with other potential changes to the first year, so stay tuned.
(Note that this is a partial list of resources based on my experience at MIT. For a full catalog of Wellness & Support resources, visit studentlife.mit.edu, and talk to your friendly neighborhood upperclassmen on campus.)
S^3 (Student Support Services) is the office to go to if you are struggling due to illness, personal issues, or stress in general. Deans at S^3 will help you negotiate extensions and give you general tips on how to get back on track. Note that each S^3 Dean interacts with students differently, so there is no pressure to stick to the first person you see at the office—if you feel like your Dean is not advocating for you as well as you need, you are encouraged to talk to someone else! You can get connected with S^3 easily during their daily walk-in hours or by scheduling an appointment in advance. Some dorms, such as East Campus, also have additional after-hours S^3 walk-in hours right in the dorm!
SDS (Student Disability Services) will help with ongoing health issues, anything from a broken arm to a chronic medical condition such as generalized anxiety disorder. Once your doctor from MIT Medical or Mental Health, or an outside provider, provides documentation to SDS about your condition, professors are required by law to make reasonable accomodations for you. Your SDS Dean will work with you to determine what accommodations you might need (e.g. for anxiety, you might be allowed to take exams in a separate room, and/or be given more time to complete your exams). You will then work with your professors to figure out if those are feasible for the class you’re taking. Note that you are not required to disclose your condition, whether long- or short-term, to anyone outside SDS.
Dean on Call: a lesser-known and underutilized resource that can be quite helpful for when you have an emergency after hours, right before an important assignment is due. I didn't realize how invaluable an after-hours resource can be until I accidentally studied for the wrong final exam last year, and called the Dean at 6am in a panic. He helped me figure out what to do, and I didn't fail my exam! Deans on Call are volunteer staff that work in different MIT offices during the day, so you may get someone more or less knowledgeable when you call, but it's a helpful resource either way. It also shows professors that you are being responsible by reaching out to an advocate.
Office Hours: all professors will hold open office hours for students. If your syllabus indicates a set time for office hours, that means that your instructor’s door should be open for you to ask for help on anything from a pset problem to something you were wondering about the professor’s research. Personally, I wish I’d taken advantage of office hours more, as many of my friends have. Last semester, a professor told me that office hours is the perfect time to satisfy one’s curiosity about the subject matter, whether you’re struggling with the material or not.
TAs and Tutors: especially in your mostly-freshman GIR courses, you will get plenty of resources besides faculty to help you with your work. Larger GIRs will often have additional tutors that they can provide for you, if you just ask. When I came close to No Recording the Chemistry GIR, my TA reached out himself to arrange a meeting so I could get caught up, and it saved my grade! Though maybe I wouldn’t have needed the last-minute scramble to learn if I had taken advantage of the tutoring resources even earlier. Ask your TA, instructor, or class director, what resources are available. Some will be offered by the class, and others will be provided by outside offices, such as the Office of Minority Education (OME), which is open to everyone. If you're taking a class in Course 6 - Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, you can also take advantage of the student-run tutoring service at MIT HKN.
Writing and Communication Center: the WCC experts are there for all MIT students to help with class writing and communication assignments. If you're struggling with a paper or want to run through a presentation, you can take advantage of this free service, which comes highly recommended to me by friends.
Other important people:
- Advisor: you’ll be assigned a faculty advisor in your freshman year, and another one in your department once you declare a major (some departments will allow you to choose your advisor based on interest). No faculty member is required to advise, and freshman advisors especially are excited to help students! I have personally heard a professor agonize over how to best help his advisees struggling in their freshman fall. Remember that when you meet your advisor: he might just be your best advocate and support person, both academic and emotional.
- GRT (Graduate Resident Tutor): there’s at least one on every floor of each residence hall (more than if the GRT has a partner, spouse, and/or child). Your GRT is a nearby resource for emotional support and conflict resolution. They are also often a great first stop when you’re not sure who can help.
Students generally take 4 classes a semester, and often supplement them with UROPs, jobs, and extracurriculars. Certain music activities, such as MIT Symphony Orchestra, also carry credit, as do freshman advising seminars.
Most classes are 12 units of credit each, which implies a 12-hour commitment per week, including lecture, lab, and/or recitation. Generally, classes won't actually take up 12 hours, at least most weeks, but some can take even longer than 12. For example, a weekly 6.00 problem set can run up to 20 hours, while some of my classes have taken 3-4 hours a week. For project- or essay-based courses, expect an influx of work midway through and at the end of the semester. These periods are known as Hell Weeks.
Some seminars or music activities are 6 units of credit. There are also classes that count for 9, 18, or more units.
The year consists of two semesters of 14 weeks each, plus an additional Independent Activities Period (IAP) in January, during which students can take classes on anything from bartending to becoming Bill Nye, do externships with alums, attend fun events or lecture series, or just bum around at home or on-campus.
(for full grading policies, visit web.mit.edu/registrar)
The max GPA is 5.0, so you get a bigger number for your work. Also nice: an A- = A+ = A on your transcript.
Freshman: in the fall and over IAP, you’re graded on P/NR, which means that, if you get a C- or above in a class, your transcript will show a P (note that this applies to ASEs as well). If you get below a C-, you will “no record” the class, which means the grade will not show up anywhere outside MIT’s internal system. In the spring, you’re graded on A/B/C/NR basis, which means exactly what you’d expect. Your GPA does not officially “start” until freshman spring. Note that, unlike in later years, you cannot opt out of P/NR and A/B/C/NR—all freshmen get graded this way.
Sophomore: although the blissful days of NR are over, you can still designate one subject per semester under Sophomore Exploratory grading status. This status allows you to essentially scrape the subject from your external transcript until the following semester. Sophomore Exploratory is usually used to try new things without worrying about a bad grade.
Junior/Senior: you can designate one elective subject per semester as Junior/Senior P/D/F. This option cannot be applied to GIRs or classes within your major and minor, and so is typically used for electives.
SCHEDULING AND REGISTRATION
(for more, visit web.mit.edu/registrar)
Registration Day: every semester begins with Reg Day, which is typically a time for advisors to meet with their advisees in person to discuss scheduling. An in-person meeting is not required, however, as the registration system is online. After freshman fall, you just need to finalize your schedule online by the end of the first week of the semester.
Add/Drop: although registration feels final, it’s quite easy to change your schedule. Add Date is usually five weeks into the semester, and I’ve added classes on Add Date with instructors’ permission (though you shouldn’t wait that long!). Add Date is also the deadline to change grading status for your classes, which is an option beyond freshman year. Drop Date is much later, which is unique to MIT. It’s May, and we just had our spring Drop Date last week, about a month before the end of the semester! Even after the Add/Drop deadlines have passed, you can negotiate with your professor, advisor, and Student Support Services (S^3), to submit a Late Add/Drop Petition, assuming you had extenuating circumstances, such as illness, for the request. All the forms are now online (which is exciting because they weren’t my freshman year).
Pre-Registration: essentially, pre-registration is a way for professors to estimate how many students will be taking their courses. After your freshman year, you will pre-register in the spring for your fall terms, and in the fall for IAP and spring. You can pre-register for as many classes as you want, and students often have 8 or more in their pre-reg form. Sometime around Reg Day, you will pare down those 8 to ~4. Pre-registration is also when you will enter the CI-H/CI-HW lottery, so you can know whether you get a spot in your chosen class, or an alternative, by the time you submit your official registration.
- If you enjoy planning your time at MIT, try courseroad.mit.edu, an amazing resources created by our very own blogger Danny B.D. ‘15. With CourseRoad, you can create multiple complete paths of your time at MIT, and easily track general and departmental requirements.
- If you want to plan your semester, try firehose.mit.edu, which is a new but already beloved resource for scheduling courses and extracurriculars. You can easily import your schedule into Google Calendar, pre-coded to exclude classes and activities on student holidays. Firehose also allows you to easily access course evaluations for the class (do this if you’re choosing an elective!) and, most importantly, see the average number of hours students actually spend on each class per week.