Most of my conversations back home seem to begin with this question: "How was your first year at MIT?" After a billion failed attempts (most unsuccessful one: "It was great!"), I finally converged on this: I laugh, then smile, then say: "I learned a lot."
I remember how I felt when I first arrived here: like I had no limit to what I could take on. That if I just "tried hard enough", I could perform the most superhuman balancing acts.
I found my limits - pushed them, broke them, flailed about, and realized that learning where one's limits are can be a very good thing. I bombed a couple of tests, watched a beautiful sunrise on nights when I would have preferred to sleep, and had a mini emotional breakdown in my orgo TA's office.
I don't regret it. I needed to find those limits, I think: all the advice in the world couldn't persuade stubborn me to take on less, and if it had, I would always wonder whether I could have done more.
A note to my future self, though: there will be reason to regret all this, if you fail to learn and change accordingly. So here I am, the freshman you, preserving five of those lessons in a blog post that the world can read (and maybe learn from, too). Enjoy, and wince when you remember how it felt for these to be hammered home.
5. If you don't succeed, the problem is not necessarily that you need to work "harder".
Organic Chemistry class nearly drove me to madness this semester: I kept telling myself that I needed to work harder, work harder, work harder – after all, nothing before this had ever suggested that I couldn’t get the results I wanted if I just put enough time into something. After a couple of exams, I was horrified to find that time was not the issue – I had no more time to give, and yet: I still wasn’t succeeding. Something was wrong. Had I simply hit the limit of my intelligence? Was this as good as it could get for me?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: No. Saying "I'm not smart enough" is easy. The challenge is to admit that the way you study doesn’t work, or is inefficient. Maybe you spend a lot of time doing problems you know how to do, instead of focusing on the ones you know you can’t do, because it makes you feel better (I know I’m guilty of this). Maybe there are sections of the textbook you don’t understand, that you skim over and forget to ask your TA about. Maybe you keep one eye on the answer key while doing practice tests.
Yes, a poor performance can sometimes be ascribed to not studying for long enough, but at some point “I just need to study harder!” no longer makes sense: you need to re-evaluate how you spend your time, or you won't do any better.
Trust me. I have the test scores to prove it.
4. Get off campus at least once a week.
It's all too easy for MIT to become a bubble: your entire college existence can revolve around a few buildings, and maybe a grassy area or two. Personally, this makes me feel claustrophobic, and a little sad. MIT is near BOSTON! People travel thousands of miles to visit what is literally across the river. There are museums, concert halls, famous historical monuments and landmarks and parks. Harvard Square is beautiful at night. You can afford to spend a couple of hours here and there doing something cultural and interesting that takes your mind off p-sets and your body out of its exhausting routine. At the very least, take a walk. Get to know the community you live in – because, surprise surprise, there’s one beyond that which you're immediately involved with.
3. It's okay to be part of a group without leading it. Sometimes it's better to do less, better, than to do more, worse.
I suffer from a (chronic) condition known as “need-to-lead”.
-Compulsively taking up an executive or management position every time you join a club or an organization
-Feeling the need to personally take care of every task that needs to be done
-Spreading yourself so thin that you can no longer contribute in a significant way to any group you're involved with
-Struggling to keep up academically
-Calendars that are more colorful than a Crayola crayon pack
-Becoming a rare sighting around the dorm
-Wanting to give as much time and energy as possible to groups and causes that you care about
-Control freak tendencies – liking to play a role in deciding how things progress, and are run
-Habit. The idea of being part of something as a regular, non-executive-board member is weird.
Treatment, and cure:
-Redefining leadership. Being a leader doesn’t mean having a fancy title or being on the [clubname]-firstname.lastname@example.org mailing list. It means speaking up when you think the group is wandering astray from its mission, and can be as simple as setting an example by consistent and energetic participation.
-Realizing that other people are just as competent as you. The club is not going to fall apart just because you aren’t the president. It could be the opposite – if you stretch yourself too thin, the club might fall apart because you are the president, even if you mean well. Let someone with the time focus their energy on the position, and do what you can to lead from behind.
-Learning to say ‘no’. Recognize when you’re hosed for the week, and don’t volunteer to run that event. Don’t.
-Bearing in mind that not officially being responsible for something doesn’t mean that you can’t help out, or give your input.
2. Sleep is underrated, and pulling all-nighters is overrated.
I think that this speaks for itself. Also: that AWESOME idea you had between 2am and 6am? Probably a bad one. Hold off on executing it until the next day.
1. The most important one.
Whatever the situation – you studied harder for a test than you ever have in your life, maybe, and performed horribly anyway, and suddenly you really miss all your friends and family at home and don’t know what you’re doing at this school and it’s been too long since your last break and you have four problem sets due tomorrow and haven’t started any of them because you spent so much time studying for that test and didn’t even do well on the test anyway so you don’t know why you even bothered – smile. Don't forget to smile.
To all the MIT readers out there - if you have anything to add, feel free to post it below, and I'll create a little addendum :)
Freshman Anna out. See you as a sophomore!*
*Edit, 3 June: it has been pointed out to me that due to the Law of Conservation of Freshmen, I'll still be a freshman the next time you all hear from me. My bad.