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Chris S. '11

Jul 7, 2011

MIT Academics

Posted in: Best of the Blogs, Academics & Research

After Graduation, I now have a lot of time to "reflect upon my MIT experience." :P

Technically, I'm not kicked out from the blogs until the end of the summer, so I hope to continue writing a few blogs discussing various aspects that I've come to gain a better understanding of after my four years here, which I hope would be of use to incoming freshmen, especially. I don't actually have a plan for this, haha, so I will just draft things as they come to me. :P

I graduated with a 4.7 GPA from MIT, or 3.7, if you are more familiar with the 4.0 scale. This GPA was good enough to get me into medical schools, but also means that I always get a smattering of B's along with A's every semester. I completed the requirements for two degrees, took five classes for five semesters, four for two, and six for one.

I think I am somewhat different from the "standard" MIT population because:

1) I've never learned to code* at MIT (requirement for all engineering degrees).
2) I've never built anything at MIT (most engineering degrees).
* To my credit, I was fluent in Python prior to entering MIT, so give me a break before you start berating me D: rawr!

A quick look at MIT Enrollment Statistics show that I represent only about a quarter of the MIT population, so be warned.

---

To all incoming MIT freshmen,

MIT is hard. It will be harder than anything you've seen.

But you'll be fine.

To those familiar with Wii MarioKart, I once drew this analogy*:
* If you are not familiar with Wii MarioKart, either youtube what these levels look like or go get the game! :)

Your first semester is Luigi Circuit, it's basically a loop for you to get the feel of your cart/bike and to size up your competitors. As long as you steer carefully, Pass/No Record is your friend, and you will be able to cruise through the semester without too much trouble.

Your first semester in your major is Moo Moo Meadows. It's still smooth cruising like Luigi Circuit, but there are some new random obstacles along the way, like the herd of wandering cows and the gophers that pop out under you out of nowhere. The first semester will be a time when you test the water and get a feel of how your major would be like for the following years.

One of your semesters will feel like Moonview Highway, where everything will feel like chaos. You're racing around in the dark (more all-nighters and late-nights you can remember), with obstacles, cars, and bombs coming at you from all angles. It will be the semester when you're handling a tough courseload, but also balancing a challenging load of extracurriculars. It won't be your most difficult semester though courseload-wise, that would be the Rainbow Road semester.

Finally, one of your semesters will feel like Rainbow Road, when you are constantly falling off the track, banging your head against the wall trying to figure out that really hard course that you're taking. The first lap may feel grueling due to the constant re-starts that you will have to endure, but gratification comes finally during the third lap, when you finally get a feel of the land and race through the dizzying loops on a highway of rainbows.

There is no way to uniformly describe how difficult MIT is, and your mileage will vary (mainly due to your high school training, but the bumps will even out after the first year as you adjust to MIT's challenges).

Here's a few things to keep in mind as you begin your college journey, however:

1. Figure out your study/organization habits.

You are not expected to know the answer now, and this almost certainly will change in college, but the sooner you figure this out, the better. For many, MIT will be the first time in your life when you really need to study (it was for me). I also don't believe in books that "teaches" you how to study, because techniques and tricks vary by person - you'll have to figure out what works for you.

(helpful hint: you no longer can study for exams at 10 PM the night before)

Also, figure out what works for you in terms of remembering events/due dates. I've never had a Google Calendar (and I still don't use any form of electronic scheduling), and I was fine. Find out what works for you!

2. Learn from your friends.

Who are the best TAs? Which semester should you take chemistry? Where can you get cheap textbooks*? Your classmates and upperclassmen in your dorm are your friends and will be more than willing to lend you a helping hand - hey, we've all been there before!
* Generally, you are doing something wrong if you buy all of your textbooks at the MIT Coop. One or two obscure books, okay - but no more than that.

3. Use your resources wisely.

Here's something you should know - other than the GRE, LSAT, GMAT, MCAT, or another standardized test that you'll have to take to jump through the hoops of applying to graduate school, you will probably not take a real multiple choice test again (well, at MIT). MIT exams are thinking-focused, which means that you'll never be asked to regurgitate material - instead, most questions focus on designing experiments, or research- or industry-based questions (not unlike those that researchers are presented with in the lab during the course of their experiments). Although this sounds exciting and rewards students who can think analytically and critically, it also means that there is very little of a safety net. On a standard multiple choice exam, you can still expect to get ~20% by blindly guessing, but on a MIT exam, there is a very real possibility of getting 0% if you don't know anything at all. Truthfully, I've had nightmares at MIT where I dreamed that I walked into an exam not knowing ANYTHING, and getting a zero percent at the end. :'(

As such, it is almost impossible to cram for any exam. Studying usually involves doing problem sets (the equivalent to homework in college) carefully and studying old problem sets and exams. You will actually very rarely study from a textbook ever again...for most MIT classes, textbooks are almost like supplemental or background material - material that helps with understanding the professor's lectures, but is very rarely actually covered by the professor him/herself.

This means learning to acquire study material, either from the online course database (Stellar, which will become your very good friend in the next 4 years to come), upperclassmen, or your TA.

Figure out where you can get help, like where your TA's Office Hours are. Plan on working on assignments at least a few days in advance, so you can ask your TA if needed (not frantically 3 AM the night before). Same goes for studying for a test - TAs are known to host exam review office hours at least 2 days prior to the test, so they don't have to deal with the deluge of students seeking help at the final hour :P

4. It's not a race, really.

The final piece of advice is that MIT is not a race. Some of your friends will breeze through the GIRs and make you feel inadequate, but the reality is that the vast majority of us all finish at the end.

There is a culture of academic masochism at MIT, where students try to outcompete each other on the number of units they're taking and the hours of sleep that they're not getting every night. Regardless of what the people around you are doing, it is the most important to figure out what works for you.

There is no shame in dropping a class*.

There is no shame in not majoring in engineering**.

It is okay to fail a test.

You'll be fine.

(you'll learn the failing the test part ;) guaranteed.)

* We have the latest drop-date in major US colleges, at eleven weeks. This means usually you can drop a class like literally two weeks before the final exam without penalty. Use that to your advantage!

** NEWSFLASH: MIT is comprised of more than just Course 6 and Course 2 students.

---

That said, I dug up some classics of my MIT academic career that I want to share with ya'll. :D

I've gotten a perfect score on a MIT math/science exam only twice, once during 18.02 (Multivariable Calc) and once during 14.02 (Macroeconomics).

Here is my lowest numerical grade at MIT EVER. (not lowest by standard deviation, though). BEHOLD!

The class average was 37. In case you're wondering, I dropped the class promptly after this exam. Incidentally, the professor who wrote this exam was my academic adviser, hahaha.

I kept this exam since 2008 because I still can't get over how badly I did on this test. It's hilarious because I actually put down an answer to every question on the test, but I had almost all of them crossed out by the grader :'(

My first graded quiz/exam at MIT! The very first 8.01 quiz in September 2007! :*) I don't know if you can read the text, but the quiz was just this really long question about Ray Allen tossing a basketball. It was almost a prophecy, because the Boston Celtics won the immediate following NBA Final (2008) and there was much celebration in the streets when they did so :)

As I was cleaning up my room, I found my very first 18.02 pset! It was so neat and nicely written! :*) (although most of my psets look like this...I have a habit of doing my pset on scraps of paper but then rewriting it nicely before I turn it in for the benefit of the graders :P). In retrospect, HAHAHA I had such little idea of all the pain that was yet to come :P

So I'm a bio major, right? How did I do in 7.012 (my very first biology class at MIT)?

UHHHHH this was my first 7.012 exam:

Just FYI, the Bio GIR is often regarded as one of the hardest GIRs, so just letting you know that I really wasn't that n00bish. Also, this was one of my first exams at MIT, and it totally demonstrates what happens if you underestimate MIT's difficulty. Full disclosure: I started studying for this exam 10 PM the night before - four years later, I even think I got what I deserved at the time: it's sheer folly to study for a MIT exam like that.

Anyways, the 50% translated to a D+ (the C cutoff was a 52%). Since this was taken on Pass/No Record, I promptly got an email from the Dean of Undergraduate Programming about my performance in Pass/No Record classes (this email is known as a "fifth week flag" and is sent out to freshmen both semesters who are not passing their classes by the fifth week of class). In my defense, we only had one 7.012 exams in the first five weeks, so this exam was not an accurate indicator of my eventual performance (I passed, and let's say this exam taught me a lesson for the rest of the semester).

For the next four years, I kept the Fifth Week Flag email at the top of my Thunderbird Inbox (I use Thunderbird to manage my MIT mail) as a visual reminder to not slack off ever. It's there to the present day.

Dear Christopher,

I have just received notification of your 5th Week Flag in 7.012.

You still have time to turn your grade around and pass the subject, so responding to your flag is critical.

You need to advocate for yourself and access the resources that are available to you. As necessary, please consider the following:

• Tutoring: Science core tutors and other sources of tutoring are listed at
http://web.mit.edu/arc/learning/resources/tutoring.html

• Study review sessions prior to all 3.091, 5.111, 8.01, 18.01, 18.02, and 18.03 exams. For
information of dates, times, and locations of the sessions please see
http://web.mit.edu/arc/learning/news/calendar.html

• Meet with your advisor Mr. Matthew McGann. He/She can give you advice on resources,
identify the issues/problems that might be plaguing you and discuss your options with you. Your
advisor is also copied on the flag you received.

• Office of Undergraduate Advising & Academic Programming: My office, the UAAP, is your
freshman departmental office. UAAP staff can provide advice on your classes and help you
develop a recovery plan, room 7-104, 253-6771.

• Student Support Services, 5-104, 253-4861

• Medical Department, E23-189, 253-4481

• MIT Mental Health Service, E23-368, 253-2916

• Office of Minority Education, 4-113, 253-5010

I would welcome the opportunity to talk with you about your academic performance or any other issue
that may be impacting your studies or well-being. Please call (253-7411), email or stop by my office
(7-103). Should I not be available, Dean Donna Friedman (room 7-104) is also able
to assist you.

Julie

Julie B. Norman
Senior Associate Dean and Director
Office of Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming MIT

 

yeahhhh, I tell this story to almost everyone when they ask me why I chose to study Biology xP

that said, welcome to MIT! :)

----

ps. This is an email that one of the most successful MIT graduates that I've known, RJ '08, wrote to me my freshman fall semester on the subject of time management. There are only five emails that I've kept at the top of my email inbox all four years - this is another one of them. His advice is words of pure gold, both at MIT and beyond - check it out!

Academics:
1) Work on psets with friends, both weaker or stronger in the subject than you are. Either way, you'll benefit from further discussion and peer teaching
2) However, spend some time trying psets on your own before working with friends, going for office hours, etc. It'll force you to think through the questions yourself first
3) Always start on all your work early. That way, you make sure you do the pset well, and don't have to pull all-nighters.
4) MIT does not require you to pull all-nighters weekly.
5) If you always fall asleep reading the text (i.e. not a Math/physics major), then work on problems to internalize the concepts
6) Make all effort to stay awake and participate in class, and if you see yourself falling behind, have the discipline to catch up over the weekend before it's too late.
7) There are a lot of resources to prepare for exams (past year quizzes, ocw, stellar, office hours, review sessions). Make sure you use them!
8) Enjoy your classes. Seriously. If you don't like them and can help it, drop the class.

Balance:
1) Have something to take your mind off work. Ideally it should be a
sport, musical activity, etc. It takes your mind off work, and you
come back refreshed and energized.
2) Get your 7 hours of sleep. You're not going to get more done in
that extra 3 hours you stay up
3) Be focused in whatever you're doing. Pset time doesn't mean 50% facebook.
4) Think about what exactly you want to get out of MIT. 5.0 GPA?
Leadership skills? Friendships? Community Service experiences? Once
you make that clear to yourself, and have a priority list, you'll know
what you should be doing and what you should say no to.
5) Keep busy. MIT has so much to offer, and if you stay busy and
focused, you get into the habit of being efficient

Scheduling:
1) Have some form of written record of what needs to be done when.
google calendar, outlook, or pure simple paper. Having the written
record means you don't have to spend brain power thinking about it.
This includes a to-do list and a calendar of activities
2) Either when you wake up or go to bed each night, thinking about the
day ahead and have a clear idea of what needs to be done.
3) Compartmentalize your time into hour block chunks, and set
mini-targets of what needs to be done by when.
4) Again, start things early.

Comments (Closed after 30 days to reduce spam)

wait, so how do blue shells fit into this metaphor?

Posted by: Sam '07 on July 7, 2011

Did they really misspell 7.012 on that first quiz? 7.102? REALLY!?

Posted by: Snively on July 7, 2011

(that said, it's not bad to be Course 6 or Course 2! D: )

Posted by: anon '14 on July 7, 2011

Thanks, Chris, for this blog post.
I feel enlightened. Truly. smile

Posted by: P. Vergilius Maro on July 8, 2011

Wow, thank you! I really feel like I'm more aware of what's coming, and thanks for the great advice.

Posted by: Priya '15 on July 8, 2011

Love the analogy! Brings back old memories, ahhh the nostalgia.

Posted by: Hakker on July 8, 2011

thanx chriss.....
till now this is the best blog (ie. the most helpful one to me,) i have read on this portal..
its really amazing to read of which i was completely unaware............
thanx again.....

Posted by: yash on July 8, 2011

Lol. I love your Mario Kart analogy. I am glad our gang of mario kart racers have inspired you (I assume). But wow, 7.06. I still feel such relief about dropping that class...

Posted by: ztsquare on July 8, 2011

Hi Chris!!
Thanks for the advice. I expect to come to MIT in the year 2013. Hope I get here :D ;D

Posted by: Karan on July 9, 2011

Hi Chris!!
Thanks for the advice. I expect to come to MIT in the year 2013. Hope I get here :D ;D

Posted by: Karan on July 9, 2011

hey help me out for getting in masters program........iam an international student......things i should take care.....i am currently pursuing btech (1st year)..........please anyone.........

Posted by: sudeep chhaukar on July 9, 2011

Okay, I think I figured out an answer to my previous question. Coming to MIT you were probably #1 in your high school class (exaggeration!). Then you get knocked out by your first test/pset/report card, and you feel like everybody else is way ahead of you. So it's like everyone gets hit by a blue shell during their first semester at MIT!

Posted by: Sam '07 on July 10, 2011

嘿,伙计说实话我想去

Posted by: 刘刚 on July 11, 2011

Thank you for the article. It's a nice break from all the psets.

Posted by: Aris on July 12, 2011

You finally wrote the mariokart-academics post!
haha the last email was very inspiring :D I keep a list like that too - albeit not in the form of emails, but in the form of quotes of advice given by Aditi and Helen in colorful notes on my wall smile

Posted by: Coyin on July 12, 2011

I agree, this has been one of the best blog posts I have read on here. It was informative and honest. thanks!

Posted by: nikita on July 13, 2011

Thanks Chris for this post. I've been reading your blog for over a year now, and your posts have helped me with every aspect of MIT, from college essay advice (that froyo discussion was super helpful) to surviving freshman year (and beyond!) at MIT. I'll miss your blog!

Posted by: Incoming '15! on July 20, 2011

but Chris! you always studied for exams at 10 pm the night before....5.60 cough cough

Posted by: Helen on July 25, 2011

do u really need to kno coding to do engineering (before u got to MIT)...or can u just learn it there?

Posted by: Tiffany on July 25, 2011

and does every MIT student go to MIT knowing how to code, and build cool stuff? :S

Posted by: Tiffany on July 25, 2011

This is one of the best blog posts on this site. Thank you so much for this. I'm super excited on starting my own journey.

Posted by: Faalon on July 25, 2011

Thanks for sharing!

Posted by: Rituparno Ghosh on July 30, 2011

Some what concerned about all the TAs... Most other schools I am considering talk all about their professors, on how accessible they are and that we should see them before talking with TAs. At MIT it seems that you have no contact with faculty and interaction with them is not encouraged. Isn't the point of going to a school like MIT so you can pick the brains of the world class faculty they have there? Also wondering why is MIT so reliant ofnTAs, I could understand a state school with limited funds who needs to do corner cutting, but an elite school with massive financials resources like MIT being so reliant of amateur instructors is shocking. Am I missing something here?

Posted by: Jake on July 30, 2011

yeah it would be tough for the students ..

Posted by: stephen on August 5, 2011

Comments have been closed.

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