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Academic Things I’ve Learned by Amber V. '24

no life lessons, promise

In high school I always wanted to know what you learned in college: not personal growth and the importance of self-care, or how long one can survive on ramen and coffee before getting scurvy, but the mundane details of college coursework. So that’s what I’m providing here: rough outlines and hand-wavy explanations of the topics I’ve covered, sort of as something to look forward to after high school, either at MIT or the college of your choice.

Also, I’m kinda trying to hype myself up over the successes of my freshman fall. When I stopped to breathe between psets, I often felt like I wasn’t understanding why the equations I kept applying actually worked, or why it mattered; or I felt that taking a certain class was pointless, since the material so closely paralleled AP content. But there are new topics I’ve learned, and I’m very grateful for that.

I took 5.112 (Intro to Chemistry), 8.012 (Intro to Mechanics), 21H.130 (History of Ancient Greece), and 21W.755 (Reading and Writing Short Stories).

Physicks01 The 'k' is a joke, albeit not a funny one. I was inspired by this book that spelled magic as 'magick.' Sometimes I forget to change my pset titles, and my professors probably think I cannot spell.

  1. How to actually use polar vectors! Basically this is the same thing as Cartesian vectors, except in polar coordinates, so there’s a vector pointing in the r direction and a vector pointing “in the 𝛉 direction,” which basically means perpendicular to r. Then you can describe velocity and acceleration in terms of 𝛉 and r, which is a lot simpler than x and y if an object is moving in a circle.
  2. I got a lot more confident with rotational motion. My junior year it felt kinda like magic. If you told me to do something, I’d probably do it, no questions asked.  This year, I went to office hours and asked a question about a spinning coin. My professor showed me how angular velocity could be split into vectors one way, but I thought it should split into vectors another way (ie, he was saying A + B = C, and I was saying A + C = B). I was wrong, but I had the confidence to argue until I understood why I was wrong, and I had enough of a grasp on the concepts to follow my professor’s explanation.
  3. Cosmology! We got a lecture or two on the shape of the universe, and the Higgs-Boson particle, and whether or not the universe will eventually cave in on itself.
  4. Relativity! I have the shakiest understanding, but I have seen the proofs and even proved02 With a *very* large number of hints from the TA; I can’t derive it from scratch right now. E = mc^2!
  5. Potential energy graphs! We graph potential energy on the Y axis and distance between two bodies (such as planets or atoms) on the X axis. Typically there is a “well” of potential energy, and a certain point at which potential energy is lowest. This can be used to predict how far apart atoms will be!
  6. We also covered everything from AP Physics C: Mechanics, that is: kinematics, springs, rotation, energy, gravitation, torque and angular momentum.

Sometimes, this class felt like AP Physics C all over again, only with harder problems. The derivations were far more in-depth than I’d encountered in high school, and I got much better at using definitions and equations to solve problems. I wish, though, that I understood where the definitions came from on a deeper level.

I know why we know this stuff is real: we test it, and it makes accurate predictions. But I don’t understand how we figured it out in the first place. If Newton or whoever stumbled upon torque and angular momentum by some stroke of luck, or genius; or if we have simply tweaked our definitions over time, via experimentation, and no one has any clue why they work. I’m hoping to find that out, eventually.

Ultimately, I took this class because I know quite well that 5s on the Physics C exams just means your score was upwards of ~70%. Some people may be confident that they got far higher than 70%, but I do not number among them. I spent a lot of high school trying to jump to the hardest class, skipping foundational stuff, and mostly it’s worked out — but I really wanted a strong physics foundation going into college. My knowledge is still shakier than I wish it was, but I feel more confident now than I did in August, so that’s something.


  1. We re-learned all the AP Chem stuff, and thank the gods almighty that I reviewed my AP Chem notes this summer, ’cause it went so fast that there were times I thought, “I am literally learning this content off of notes I wrote in sophomore year out of a textbook that was published before I was born.”
  2. The first half of the semester was structured along the history of chemistry, where we learned about the experiments which, bit by bit, shed light on the structure of the atom. We ended with Schrödinger’s wave function.03 I laugh because it sounds like I'm saying I understand this, which I don't. It's a very complicated function. We just learned some of its implications, and some equations you can get from it.
    1. I got invested in the personal lives of different scientists, as a lot of discoveries were made in 1930s Germany, and I wanted to keep straight which scientists were Jewish and which were Nazis. [Turns out most of the scientists we covered were gentiles who didn’t really support Hitler but didn’t do much to help the Allies, either. Except Heisenberg. He was head of Hitler’s atomic bomb team and I don’t believe a word of his story that he failed at figuring out the bomb on purpose.]
  3. Anywho, we also learned about rotational and vibrational spectroscopy, I think it’s called — which is calculating the energy of bonded atoms vibrating or stretching in different ways.
  4. We went way more in-depth with rate laws, which are taught in AP Chem as though some genius pulled them out of the ether,04 which definitely varies from class to class! There were only a few kids in my AP Chem class who knew calculus (and I wasn't one of them), so it made sense for my teacher to present it this way. but really are derived quite simply from integration.
  5. We learned molecular orbital theory in more depth (the s and p balloons, and sp balloons, sigma and pi bonds, etc). We also learned crystal field theory, which is a model for how the d-orbitals of a metal interact with molecules bonded to the metal, which are called ligands. We also learned ligand field theory, which is like crystal field theory, but takes into account the s and p orbitals of the ligands instead of modeling the ligands as point masses.
  6. Shoutout to Chantalle, our TA who ran an awesome recitation! (And I’m sure the other TAs ran awesome recs, too!)

Greek History

  1. I wrote a different blogpost where I raved about this class (in a good way), so I’ll keep it short here.
  2. This was an overview class on Greek History, so we went from the earliest civilizations, Mycenaeans and Minoans, through the rise of city-states, the Persian War, the Peloponnesian War, and up to the death of Alexander the Great. I had had no idea what any of those wars or civilizations were before I took the class; I’d been a big Greek myths kid back in middle school, but I didn’t know much of the actual Greeks.
  3. There were sprinklings of art history and early philosophy, and a lot of historiography, which is basically looking at historians’ bias in describing events. For example, we looked at how ancient historians would make up dialogue, and how different historians would characterize Persians and other non-Greek peoples.
    1. This class was focused on primary sources — that is, accounts written in the Ancient Greek and Roman times. Honestly, though, there could be a class in of itself about how ancient Greece and Rome have been viewed through a colonial lens, since a lot of excavation and study took place in the 19th century.

Writing Short Stories

  1. Each class period was divided into lecture and workshop. The lectures were mostly different elements of writing — plot, character, concrete details, etc — and at the end we got a few lectures on the publishing industry, which were really interesting for me.
  2. The workshops were particularly valuable, for learning how to give feedback and how to take it. Each workshop went over one classmate’s short story
    1. One takeaway from workshop was that most of the readers’ critiques were things I sort of knew about. I knew it wasn’t entirely convincing when one character swore to kill her former friend; I knew which scenes needed a little clarification. But I didn’t bring myself to task to fix those things, and my classmates noticed. I’m trying to improve my revision skills, so this was a great lesson.
  3. I took this class to force myself to write short stories, since mostly I write novels, and short stories are their own craft. It was cool to focus on what makes stories different: to convey information quickly, and pare every paragraph down to only what is needed, and yet make the world feel full and whole.
  4. Also, I’d been working on some characters who don’t have enough story to carry a whole novel, and this was the perfect way to develop them.


So I did learn things!

At times I’ve felt frustrated that college isn’t the dreamland I’ve always made it out to be. All through in high school, when I taught myself out of textbooks, or scrambled to piece assignments together, I’d tell myself, “College will be different.”

And in some ways it is different. The psets are harder and don’t feel like busywork; there’s no repetition of concepts we already know. The tests are more about problem-solving than memorizing equations. It’s clear that every professor has a deep knowledge of their subject, which most of my high school teachers had, but not all. There’s a much wider community of people who will help. And yet–

It feels like I’m placing a giant bet on myself, that I will somehow manage to learn these things before test day. I get resources, of course, but sometimes the lectures don’t cut it, and the textbook doesn’t phrase it in a way that makes sense, and the internet only confuses me. The content is valuable but there are times I wish it were presented better.

On the other hand, though, I wouldn’t learn this content on my own; the deadlines I set for myself will never scare me the way that tests do. There is an amazing network of people who will help you learn: the profs and TAs give office hours, and I had a sophomore physics mentor, and there are clubs with study hours and grad students on hand. College — and zoomiversity — isn’t perfect, but real life never is, and I’m grateful to be able to focus full-time on just learning cool stuff.

I’m hoping that as I take more physics classes, I’ll be able to nail down the nebulous questions I have now. Another semester or so of chemistry, and maybe I’ll see why the stuff we learned this fall is important. And I am quite frickin’ excited for my next history class. (I’ve got my fingers crossed on this French Revolution one).

What are some classes you’ve enjoyed, or something you’re excited to take?

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  3. I laugh because it sounds like I'm saying I understand this, which I don't. It's a very complicated function. We just learned some of its implications, and some equations you can get from it. back to text
  4. which definitely varies from class to class! There were only a few kids in my AP Chem class who knew calculus (and I wasn't one of them), so it made sense for my teacher to present it this way. back to text