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a recipe for making yourself extremely hosed by Alan Z. '23

or, what i'm doing this fall

Before we begin, a word of warning. This blog post is not representative of the schedule of a typical MIT student, nor should it be. It is, however, my current experience, which I guess is worth something. I’ll continue to remind you of this throughout the post, but I thought I’d be up-front about it as well. Without further ado, here is a recipe to make yourself extremely hosed.01 (adj.) bogged down in work. comes from the phrase <i><a href="https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/getting-an-education-from-mit/">getting an education from MIT is like drinking from a firehose.</a></i>

ingredients

  • 9 classes
  • 4 activities
  • a handful of other small things

prep time: a couple of emails with your academic advisor
cook time: around four weeks
feeds: one person for one semester

directions

Step 1: Pour nine classes into online registration, making sure to keep an even mix between the courses you’re interested in and major requirements.

At MIT, a unit is supposed to be approximately equivalent to one hour of work per week; three units are equivalent to one traditional credit-hour at other semester system universities. Most classes are 12 units; some are 3, 6, 9, or, if you’re really unlucky, 15, 18, 21, or 24. If you’re taking at least 36 units, tuition is the same no matter what; in general, most students take around 48 units each semester, or 4 full classes.

I’m currently taking 9 classes, 7 of which are 12 units, for a total of 93 units.

This is bad. Any reasonable human being would tell you that this is bad. Heck, almost all MIT students would tell you this is bad. I will tell you that this is bad. I have never been known to make good decisions, though, so here we are.

Well, what are the classes? I’m interested in computer science, math, and writing, so I’ve chosen the following mixture of classes for this semester:

  • 12 units of 6.006 (Introduction to Algorithms): This is a pretty standard Course 602 electrical engineering/computer science class. I don’t have much to say about it—it’s definitely one of my harder classes, but so far has been mostly unexceptional. I have enjoyed being able to see the translation between an algorithm’s mathematical description and its actual Python implementation, and we just had our first quiz, which was quite challenging and took me the whole two hours we were given.
  • 12 units of 6.009 (Fundamentals of Programming): Another standard Course 6 class! The labs in this class have been really fun, and I really enjoy just getting up on a Saturday morning and doing as much of the lab as I can in one sitting. Since I haven’t been in a coding class for a while, being able to write something and actually see its results has been really emotionally rewarding. One example of this is seam carving, which we did in lab 2. This is a method where you remove pixels from an image without disturbing the actual content, leading to much better resizing results:
    resized image of two cats where the cats look squished
    resized image of two cats where the cats look normal
    the left image is the naïve resize; the right image is the one we implemented in class!

    Lab 2 also involved a creative extension, for which I implemented seam insertion, allowing me to increase the size of the image. (This actually requires a slightly different methodology,03 to remove columns, you can remove the pixels with the least 'information' in it, but you can't just add those pixels multiple times or you'll blur the image. instead, you can to add a cost to traveling over the same pixels multiple times. which was very cool!) Results:

    resized image of two cats where both cats are stretched
    resized image of two cats where the cats look normal
    left side is naïve algorithm; right side was generated by my code!
  • 12 units of 18.03 (Differential Equations): This class is fine—I’m mostly taking it because it meets a lot of major requirements, but so far the content has also been pretty interesting. The format is a little strange—MITx videos which cover basically everything which occurs in lecture, small weekly quizzes—but the course staff have been really exceptional and I feel like the class itself is actually paced quite well. I didn’t know much of the content coming in, but the number of topics covered each week is relatively approachable, and hopefully I’ll retain that knowledge as the semester goes on.
  • 12 units of 18.701 (Algebra I): The first thing I like about this class is the name. Algebra I sounds like a class you were supposed to take in high school, but, in fact, it is also an introduction to abstract algebra class at MIT! The second thing I like about this class is that it’s being taught by Prof. Bjorn Poonen, who is best known for having a big mouth:04 okay he is also a very good prof and important for many other reasons but this is one of my favorite memes
    bjorn poonen in front of a blackboard with his hand all the way in his mouth as a proof of the theorem "i have a big mouth"This is by far the class I spend the most time on. The content is really quite hard for me, and we’re moving through it at a blistering pace, but at least part of me enjoys the challenge each week brings and the satisfaction of finally getting that ‘aha!’ moment when you’ve figured out how to solve a problem. (The other part of me is just along for the ride, I guess.) What makes it especially hard is that I haven’t really found a solid pset group for this class, but I’m still cruising along, and if push comes to shove I’ll probably put it on P/NR05 stands for pass/no record. traditionally, only freshmen get p/nr during their fall semester, but because of <i>extenuating circumstances</i> (read: the ongoing global pandemic) upperclassmen have the option of placing one class on p/nr instead of dropping it.
  • 12 units of 21G.704 (Spanish IV): I took Spanish for four years in high school because it was The Thing That Everyone Else Did and thought that I would never use it again. I felt kind of bad just leaving the language stagnant though (and a couple of my friends were also taking Spanish at that time), so I started at Spanish III last semester. So far this semester, we’ve watched some interesting movies and read some interesting short stories, and in general I’ve really enjoyed the feeling of being able to express myself and communicate with others in a different language, as well as some of the more interesting grammatical aspects.06 being able to speak Chinese and English and to think about these ideas in a comparative way is super interesting to me and if I had more time, which I clearly don't, I'd think about studying more linguistics, probably I’m also hoping to do MISTI07 MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives; they run a lot of different programs from Global Teaching Labs where you get to teach in other countries to summer internships abroad in the future when there are not global travel restrictions, so I’m also looking forwards to that somewhere out on the horizon.
  • 12 units of 21W.757 (Fiction Workshop): I’m really enjoying this class so far since it’s providing me some structure and incentive to actually write fiction, and we’re also reading lots of short stories that are really good. Now that we’re getting into the thick of it, we’re reading four stories from our classmates each week, two per class session, and giving feedback while working on our own stories. This is exciting, especially since I don’t really have experience with writing in more formal environments like these, so I’m having a good time. This does remind me, however, that I should probably go work on my own short story.
  • 12 units of 21W.765 (Interactive Narrative): This is a super interesting class and it’s being taught by my advisor, who is Very Cool. So far, we’ve talked about the concept of a narrative and the many ways a narrative can be varied, which has been interesting to think about as I’ve been reading and writing for 21W.757. We’ve also read some interesting and occasionally dubious interactive fiction/hypertext novels, which has been a good time. One of my favorites has been one from our first class, and we’re just now starting to get into some projects of our own. I’m particularly excited for what’s coming up soon, which is writing a fully fleshed out interactive narrative.
  • 6 units of 21M.401 (Concert Choir): I joined Concert Choir last spring because I wanted to sing in a larger, more formal group, and because the repertoire was musicals! This was very exciting…and then it ended abruptly, and we spent the last half of the class in a lot of different lectures, which was cool, but, sadly, not actually singing. This semester, however, we’re learning Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the hopes of singing it with the MIT Symphony Orchestra in the spring, and we’re doing very small chamber pieces (duets and trios). I’m learning Fauré’s “Maria, Mater gratiae” and “It Takes Two” from Into the Woods, which I’m very excited about.
  • 3 units of CC.012 (Continuing Conversations): CC is one of the rarer department numbers (and it’s less obvious what it is from the class title, then, say, “Differential Equations”). CC stands for Concourse, which is a first-year learning community that focuses on the humanities08 the humanities? at my institute of technology? it's more likely than you think and their intersection with the engineering focus of MIT. Concourse offers its own versions of the GIRs09 General Institute Requirements, which are classes everyone is required to take as well as a smattering of other humanities classes, including CC.012, which is sort of like a Concourse book club, led by our director (a history prof) and my advisor from last year (a poli sci prof)! This semester, we’re reading Herodotus’ The History. This is cool because it is widely accepted as the first piece of historical writing in Western society, and also because Herodotus just includes a lot of interesting and fun anecdotes that we’re really enjoying.

Cool, we’re done with classes! Now, on to the next step.

Step 2: Add in the activities one at a time, making sure to mix well between each one.
  • think: As Cami has mentioned, MIT THINK is a committee of techX which runs a high school research mentorship program.  I joined last year because the mission seemed really interesting and important to me: instead of judging completed research projects, we help provide funding and support for research proposals which we select every year,10 incidentally, this year's application opens in a few weeks! with a special focus on providing resources to students who might not already have them. Usually, around this time of year, we’re just preparing for judging in a few months, but right now we’re working on virtualizing our program, which is taking a lot of thought, as always.
  • quizbowl: I actually had never done any quizbowl11 a small bit of context for those who want it: quizbowl is a team <strike>sport</strike> game where teams compete to answer academic questions of various forms before coming to MIT; instead, the closest thing I had done was a very different and somewhat cursed South Dakotan variant called Knowledge Bowl. Despite not being very good, I’ve really enjoyed spending time with the people in quizbowl, and also occasionally knowing like, one thing, usually about musicals.
  • nREXtcomm: Most of the work on nREXtcomm12 next REX committee; we're responsible for welcoming first-years to dorms and, this year, maintaining our dorm's virtual support communities throughout the semester is over, but we’re still managing a few small things, including twice-weekly office hours for the first-years assigned to Next. So far, it seems the subcommunities we’ve built are functioning well, so fingers crossed for the rest of the semester, I suppose.
  • asymptones: Asymptones is a low-time-commitment acapella group that performs fun and nerdy music! I’m a little behind on things here, but I’m trying to organize a small group cover of “history of the entire world, I guess” by Bill Wurtz which will be difficult but exciting, and our main project this semester is a cover of “Wait for It”, from Hamilton. A little smaller than our usual setlist, but this is to be expected.

We’ve gotten most of the ingredients out of the way now, but before we add our last ingredients, there’s one other thing we have to do.

Step 3: preheat the oven to 375° F.

Take a couple deep breaths and wait while the oven heats up. Look outside your window, and watch the Charles River flow past.

a picture of the boston skyline and charles river from my window

I had initially signed up for my course schedule ready to drop things at the first inconvenience. I made some plans at the beginning of the semester about the order I would drop my classes in, if things got hard. Within a week or two, I had promptly scrapped those plans and ended up with a tiered list of classes I was enjoying. I was still prepared to drop something, but thought I just needed a little more time to figure out what.

It’s now four weeks in, and I still don’t really have a clear sense of what I would drop first. That kind of terrifies me, but I guess I still have plenty of time to figure out, since MIT’s Drop Date is notoriously late; this year, it falls on November 18th, which is notably still a couple months out. Even if I have time, though, I also have to make sure that I don’t burn out and end up doing worse than I would have if I had dropped something earlier. It’s a careful balance, and I’m not sure I’ve found the right point.

Step 4: Add other small things to taste.

All of this is already overwhelming, but there are still a few small things that are missing. I’ve been trying to force myself to be a Real Human Person outside of all of this, and for me that’s meant setting aside time specifically to a) be social, b) go outside, and c) not be doing school work. These, I think, are hard for me in normal circumstances, but are probably more important and difficult now than they ever have been. A few key things that have kept me sane are:

  1. Doing the NYT Crossword daily with friends over Discord.
  2. Taking long walks on Sundays to the various parks around Boston.
  3. Attending my afternoon classes outside on Killian Court, occasionally.
  4. Calling my parents somewhat regularly.

All of these have provided me a brief reprieve from work when I’ve need it, and although sometimes I feel like I burn a little too much time on a crossword or a little too much time on a walk, I think there’s something valuable about this sort of unstructured activity that touches something different from the day-to-day of school and extracurriculars. It’s an easy thing to turn to when I’m feeling stressed.

Step 5: Pour mixture into pan and Bake until you are hosed.

You’ll be able to tell that you’re hosed when the work from two weeks starts to run together, and you move a todo list item from one day on your schedule to the next, and the next, and the next, until everything falls on the same day and you have to stay up later than you want or get up earlier in the morning or skip a class or two to have the time to be caught back up on everything.

For me, this hit me really hard this week—I played a quizbowl tournament last Saturday, and although I’d tried my best to push the work I was displacing earlier and not later, that effort was not entirely successful. It took me until Wednesday to be caught up to where I’d normally be on Monday, and now I’m trying to catch up on the work from Tuesday and Wednesday before all of my classes release new work on Friday.

It’s not horrible, but it’s also not great. I’m looking ahead, looking for a reset day where I’m caught up and can just sit on the side of the river and look out at the skyline and breathe. I’m coming to terms with the fact that that might not be for another two weeks, when we get a long weekend for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In the meantime, the small things will keep me going, I suppose.

Step 6: Wait to see how the rest of the semester goes.

I’m honestly kind of surprised it’s taken me four weeks to become this hosed. It seems to be a good sign, although I’m not sure of what. Resilience or discipline, perhaps. I’m not really sure what the future will hold, either. I think that the only way to know is to wait and see, and to do one’s best on the journey to the next problem set, the next quiz, the next midterm. The only constant, I guess, is being hosed. As John Mulaney might say, if he were an MIT student, “I am hosed all the time. I am hosed now and I will be hosed later.”

We choose to be hosed for some reason, however irrational. Maybe it’s the love of learning, or maybe it’s some cruel way of trying to prove to ourselves that we can do something. Likely, it is some combination of both. One way or another, every MIT student ends up hosed at some point in their experience. This is just one recipe for getting there.

  1. (adj.) bogged down in work. comes from the phrase getting an education from MIT is like drinking from a firehose. back to text
  2. electrical engineering/computer science back to text
  3. to remove columns, you can remove the pixels with the least 'information' in it, but you can't just add those pixels multiple times or you'll blur the image. instead, you can to add a cost to traveling over the same pixels multiple times. back to text
  4. okay he is also a very good prof and important for many other reasons but this is one of my favorite memes back to text
  5. stands for pass/no record. traditionally, only freshmen get p/nr during their fall semester, but because of extenuating circumstances (read: the ongoing global pandemic) upperclassmen have the option of placing one class on p/nr back to text
  6. being able to speak Chinese and English and to think about these ideas in a comparative way is super interesting to me and if I had more time, which I clearly don't, I'd think about studying more linguistics, probably back to text
  7. MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives; they run a lot of different programs from Global Teaching Labs where you get to teach in other countries to summer internships abroad back to text
  8. the humanities? at my institute of technology? it's more likely than you think back to text
  9. General Institute Requirements, which are classes everyone is required to take back to text
  10. incidentally, this year's application opens in a few weeks! back to text
  11. a small bit of context for those who want it: quizbowl is a team sport game where teams compete to answer academic questions of various forms back to text
  12. next REX committee; we're responsible for welcoming first-years to dorms and, this year, maintaining our dorm's virtual support communities throughout the semester back to text