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MIT student blogger Lulu L. '09

Another take on pass/no-record by Lulu L. '09

and some other stuff. Hey look, I haven't pontificated about anything in a while.

This started off being a comment in snively’s entry. Then it branched off, sprouted leaves and thorns and eventually grew legs and started running around out of control, so I figured I’d put it in an entry by itself.

This is what got me going:

Taking “advantage” of pass/no-record.

“No. You didn’t get an A. You got a P. Just like _________ over there having fun. You got the same grade only he had more fun.”


I read that statement, it made me cringe, and I decided I don’t want that statement to go unchallenged. It’s not that it’s untrue, there are certainly upperclassmen who say that to freshmen. But to me, there’s really nothing more embarrassing than people telling other people that they are working too hard. More than not there’s some aspect of selfishness and self-validation to that advice. I do it myself sometimes, usually when I’m in a terrible mood, and I generally feel bad afterward. I don’t want freshmen to think that that kind of talk, that kind of pressure, is OK especially for upperclassmen to exert on freshmen, and that because they’ve been there longer they necessarily know better, and you can’t just tell them to shove it and mind their own sorry business because they’re older than you. Which, incidentally, is actually exactly what you should do.

This is because school is a different thing to different people. Don’t assume you know what it means to someone else. Just because those guys are working hard on pass/no-record doesn’t mean they’re humorless grade-grubbers, or that they don’t know how to “have fun”, or that 3 weeks into school they don’t already have super hot girlfriends. And just because these other guys are not working hard on pass/no-record doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wasting their time here, or that you should feel superior to them if you are. Yeah, some of what ends up being said is tongue-in-cheek, but the implications are very real. Truth is, we’re at MIT, and we’d all do better if we could rise above the tired old notion of coolness and likeability somehow being the inverse of how much work you do on weekends.

Frankly, some of the coolest people I know, never failed a test here. Never missed a lecture, never skipped a problem set. Failing here and there is ok, when you’re getting your footing, it’s not a requirement by any means. It’s not a requirement in order to have friends. It’s not a requirement in order to have the “college experience”. In order to be fun at parties.

I always hated that upperclassmen would give bad advice like that. And it’s ridiculous that it’s coming from MIT students.

What I would recommend?

Find out what pass/no-record will be for you. Personally, I’ve always believed in grades. Take that however you may. I believe grades aren’t there just to embarrass you or for you to wear around your head like a crown, grades are a personal measure of achievement when all other measures yield ambiguous results or fail in their objectivity. With some exception, of course, grades often reflect how well you’ve learned the material in the course. Whether that material is useful to you or stupid and irrelevant and who cares about that class anyway pfffff, well, that’s up to you to decide. That’s why it’s not a judge of character, it’s simply a measure of achievement.

Pass/no-record, in my opinion, isn’t an announcement that you shouldn’t worry about your grades, it’s an opportunity for you to figure out what it is that you want to worry about, what you want to get out of this place. Instead of just barrelling ahead blindly on the momentum of high school, whether it was a culture of competition or perfection or a place of familiar but unchallenged values, I think what it does is it gives you some time to think, to try some different approaches, and if you happen to decide that academics is what you will put first, it erases any damage that may have been done.

The biggest favor you can do for yourself is to treat pass/no-record as if it did not exist. Blow it off just because you can, and you’ll have wasted a rare opportunity in life at a trial run. Put your best foot forward and see how you measure up. Find out what works and what doesn’t, grow a pair and learn some valuable self-assurance for the years to come. Because, like it or not, confidence matters. Confidence allows your knowledge to find its way into application. Confidence earns you respect among peers. Confidence can be everything.

The GIR’s that you take on pass/no-record aren’t freebies. They’re classes upon which all other classes build. Juniors and seniors have the option to put a class on Pass-Fail, but oftentimes, they don’t, because they are trying to avoid incentives to slack off and avoid the regret of a semester bent on learning nothing. Doing this with your foundational classes in physics/math is really not a good idea, unless you’re sure you’re going into an unrelated field. I never learned 8.022 all that well and it’s come back to bite me more than once. In the quantum sequence, in astrophysics, in cosmology, in engineering, even, and that’s why I’m taking 8.07 now.

Freshmen. Ask yourselves this: how seriously do I want to take my academics for the next 4 years? How much do I want to learn? What would I give up in order to achieve that goal? Look, these aren’t rhetorical questions, these are really important questions that need need need answers. Especially that last one. Everywhere you look, at MIT, are people who’ve answered that question differently. There were kids in my quantum class that would spend 12 hours– extra hours– just figuring out all possible ways of solving a problem. You’ll meet people like that, and you’ll be amazed at just how much of a difference that kind of commitment makes. Being next to those people made me realize that when I made the initial choice of “this is what I am willing to give up”, that wasn’t a part of the picture. That was beyond what I was willing to sacrifice. And yeah, that meant that I will not be able to match their level of mastery of the subject until I’ve changed my priorities. And that’s something I have to live with.

Of course, more doesn’t always mean better. For some subjects, subjects that aren’t pure science, academics is really only just an obstacle. It’s a crappy way to learn a set of skills that will eventually go toward a trade and a career. Mostly, I hear this from engineers, consultants. If you are getting more out of work experience than academics, by all means recast your priorities. But don’t let peer pressure be a part of that change. These people will be your suitemates, roommates, for a few years, and then they’ll be gone; but what you pick up here, where you end up taking it… well, that’s entirely up to you.

40 responses to “Another take on pass/no-record”

  1. MIT Parent says:

    Great post. It’s good to know that a first-semester freshman who works hard to learn in GIR classes will not be ridiculed by every upperclassman at MIT. Some students come to MIT knowing that their families have had to make significant financial sacrifices to send them there — this year more than ever, as the financial climate worsens around the globe. Not everyone comes to MIT with massive amounts of financial aid and assistance. I would hope that students who are there on their family’s dime would take their education seriously and still be able to enjoy the many activities that MIT offers. The two are not incompatible, as I’ve learned from my daughter, now a sophomore at MIT.

  2. Oasis '11 says:

    “P/NR” becomes the new “dorm v. fraternities”…=p

  3. Cristen says:

    This post is *amazing*.

    “Truth is, we’re at MIT, and we’d all do better if we could rise above the tired old notion of coolness and likeability somehow being the inverse of how much work you do on weekends.”

    Hear, hear! >.This post is *amazing*.

    “Truth is, we’re at MIT, and we’d all do better if we could rise above the tired old notion of coolness and likeability somehow being the inverse of how much work you do on weekends.”

    Hear, hear! >.<

  4. Mollie says:

    I’d like to speak up, though, for the contingent of people who work really, really hard on P/NR and aren’t doing it for the work ethic or the moral high ground.

    I worked exceedingly hard my first semester because otherwise I would have failed all of my classes.

    And I think there are a good number of social groups at MIT where coolness is directly proportional to the amount of work you did on weekends. smile Otherwise I would still be a big dork.

  5. lulu says:

    Oh yeah, Mollie “definitely not still a big dork or anything” Woodworth.


    In all seriousness, though, me too. I was woefully underprepared coming in freshman year and I worked harder than I ever had my whole life.

  6. Marina says:

    It’s a great post lulu! I was really excited when I first saw that MIT has a P/NR in the first semester, but I was shocked when people started to complain. I mean everybody uses the chances they are given in life in a different way. The point you made about commitment is especially truth. Everyone works in a different way, and I think we just have to respect that without resentment.

  7. Anon says:

    Whoa, so many takes on pass/no record lately.
    I’m actually kind of wondering if your work ethic during P/NR sets a precedent for the rest of the year.

  8. lulu says:

    not necessarily, right? but what’s inevitable is that less work means you’ll find other things to fill your time, and it’s always real hard to give up those other things second semester.

  9. Sam says:

    On the other hand, junior-senior P/D/F is indisputably the most fantastic thing that ever existed. Oh man, do you know how easy it is to get a C in German IV? I had to start skipping classes just to lower my participation grade.

    In other news, I’m taking German IV again at Berkeley this year.

  10. Yan Z. says:

    I really appreciate that you wrote this. Were I an objective prefrosh, I think I would trust your judgment the most.

    (/hint to prefrosh)

  11. Andrew says:

    thanks, lulu

    I’ll admit I don’t believe in grades as a measure of anything meaningful. Maybe at MIT they aren’t so arbitrary. I does seem like at my high school at least there couldn’t be a less ambiguous measure of achievement. (just wondering… what kind of educational background did you come from before coming to MIT? did that shape your view on grades at all or is that a personal thing?)

    You did make a strong point with this entry though. Those questions made me think for a while.

  12. milena '11 says:

    I have to say I agree with you, Lulu. P/NR should not be taken lightly; that’s not why it’s there. It’s basically time to figure out what works best for you in terms or studying and getting organized, not wasting time. I have never ever failed an exam here or neglected to hand in an assignment, and I feel like I’ve had a kickass time, even first term. So freshmen, don’t listen to Snively. Sure, someone might come along and put you down for working hard your first term here, but you’ll be the one laughing when you kick ass second term because you learned everything right the first time around.

    And might I add, having to repeat a class your second term because you failed it is not either fun or easy to admit to others. People won’t think “Oh, he had fun during P/NR”, they’ll just think you were stupid.

  13. lulu says:


    the grades thing is very specific to MIT. I went to a public high school in CT with 2600 students. I was never challenged there and I don’t assume any of you are at your high schools, though of course you may be, I personally don’t even remember much about my time in high school. MIT is worlds apart. How could grades in technical subjects at MIT curved to a mean be arbitrary? There are “unfair” tests and grades, but those are the exception.


    lol, that last sentence, I should have just written that instead of 10000 pages.

  14. fidel says:

    I enjoyed this advocacy of a work ethic until it was undercut by the “pure science” versus trade school comment:

    “Of course, more doesn’t always mean better. For some subjects, subjects that aren’t pure science, academics is really only just an obstacle.”

    Ask someone in Course 6, for example, whether the “pure” science types have more of a work ethic.

    And, some of this commentary confuses the notion of developing a strong work ethic for classwork (and getting good grades) with intellectual curiousity. They are not necessarily the same thing. Einstein comes to mind.

  15. Anonymous says:

    From an outsider’s perspective, the Pass/No Record thing just looks like a damper for your first semester there. Everyone gets their taste of culture shock; everything is much harder and everyone much smarter than usual and kids who are used to the slow teaching style at school would be swamped at MIT.

    The uni I’m studying it is only slightly less tough than MIT and it’s just really easy to get burned. Being an international transfer student, I know how it’s like not knowing anything at all and having to learn 2 semesters of math in 2 weeks. Trust me, you don’t want to be lagging 2 weeks behind in class. It’s hell.

    P/NR is a way for first sem students to catch up, not to lay down. It’s to tell straight A students who are doing bad, “It’s OK, it doesn’t count this time.”

    Of course, you should have fun. If you really want to look “cool” in the sense that you don’t study, just do it when nobody is watching and tell them that you don’t. I’m sure Snively does that. There’s a reason his lowest scores aren’t really that low wink

  16. Sasha says:

    Awesome entry :D

    grades might not be objective, but it should be pretty clear to you if you’re putting in effort or not and if you’ve really learned what you needed to or not, regardless of whether you earn P or a regular grade.

  17. Kevin says:

    Hi Lulu.

    I love your blog. So much thoughts and creativity, great posts. Out of all the bloggers here, you seem to be the one standing out.

    Very grool!

  18. Oasis '11 says:

    In defense of Snively, I do have to say that what Snively was saying wasn’t completely useless. Sure, he’s a bit harsh in some places, but he has been known to say not the most politically correct things.

    I think the point that we all are trying to get at is – yes, you should work hard first semester despite the fact that there’s P/NR, because it’s the transitional semester and your performance there lays the groundwork for your future classes…etc. etc. (I won’t repeat the many things that have been mentioned already).

    But at the same time, I personally think that there is a strong tendency in freshman to make studying too much of a priority, IMO, during the first semester (especially since these are students that are coming into MIT that we’re talking about), and I think that this shouldn’t be advocated either. Of course, I do not claim to know hundreds of freshman, and I do not feel like I am in a position to generalize my statement, but I do see that trend from happening, time to time.

    Thus, I do strongly advocate that freshmen not study too much because this is virtually the best semester in your MIT life to go out and explore everything that MIT/Boston has to offer. My first semester “GPA,” if it counted, would be abysmal, but I discovered a lot of wonderful things that MIT contained. I ventured around Boston, biking to many beautiful places during the weekends. I visited many colleges around MIT, seeing how they differ from the Institute. I spent many nights hanging around at different dorms, experiencing another dorm culture. Now those are things that I find I have no more time for, come sophomore year. And so I was happy that I had done all of those things my frosh year.

    Yet, at the same time, I passed all of my classes my frosh year – just the same as someone that would have gotten all As. Did it affect my long term performance? I don’t know, since I’m just a sophomore – but I can tell you that I got nearly straight As last semester, so I don’t think first semester “mattered,” in the long run.

    Could I have gotten all As first semester? Probably. But would I have to sacrifice a lot of my time during the first semester? Definitely. Was I happy with the way that things turned out? Absolutely.

    I do agree, however, that Snively was going over the top with all of the “you’re not cool if you study” sentiment, and I do think that it is too harsh for freshmen, because it’s not true (and, Admission blogs is not the best place to express such partisan personal feelings).

    I think the sentiment that I agree with the most is precisely this –

    “Find out what pass/no-record will be for you. “

    P/NR is so different for different people that I don’t think there’s a “best way” to encapsulate it. It is my belief that each freshman will eventually find out the best balance for them when they get here, and perhaps it’s wrong of Snively to be so polarized in his entry, but I definitely don’t think it’s “ridiculous.” I just think that it’s another way of looking at things by pointing out that there are students that work unnecessarily hard. Was there truth to what he was saying? Maybe not for every frosh at MIT, but I do think so.

    I personally agree a lot with what you said about confidence, but I wouldn’t necessarily put your second bold statement (“the biggest favor”) into practice, if I was to do frosh year again. I personally found that having one semester when grades completely DIDN’T matter (having worked really hard since 9th grade pretty much getting good GPAs and taking standardized exams) to be wonderfully refreshing. In that regard, I actually consistently kept that fact in mind and loved my first semester.

    Anywhoo, I don’t want to write another entry on this, so I guess this will suffice.

    Mi dos centavos. Gracias por su tiempo.

  19. Hey Lulu…great post!
    Btw what is ur plan after this? Applying to grad school?

    Can you share something like application to grad school? Basically, everything about grad school…

  20. lulu says:


    You said: “Ask someone in Course 6, for example, whether the “pure” science types have more of a work ethic. “

    But I don’t think I mentioned work ethic at all. You’re reading into my statement things that aren’t there. Work ethic exists both inside and outside of academics, I made no comparison at all of work ethic between pure science majors and engineering majors. And I wouldn’t, it’s just a useless study.

    And to answer your rhetorical question, I have. I’ve talked to people in course 6, course 2, course 15, and I was relaying a general sentiment that academics oftentimes is less essential in those fields than hands-on creativity, work experience, networking, etc, and ought to be destressed. That’s not something that everyone feels to be the case, I just wanted to be inclusive and make clear that I was by no means advocating blindly putting academics above all else, rather, finding out the balance that’s right for you for your college years.

  21. lulu says:

    and chris-

    I see where you are coming from, but I don’t see the phenomenon that you are talking about, that freshmen come in inclined to work way too hard, and need dissuading from that. In my experience, with every year that passes students learn to work a lot harder than the last. As some of the commenters have pointed out, it’s not absolutely necessary to shirk academic responsibility in order to have a great time freshman year. If you feel like it is necessary, and that you really need to blow off some steam between a difficult high school experience and a more difficult college experience, you don’t have to use pass/no-record to do it, that’s what a gap year is for.

    I also don’t like the idea that your best opportunity for having fun at MIT comes freshman year. On pass/no-record. And then it’s all bleak and downhill from there. I’m doing more this year outside of class than I ever have. I think at the end of your sophomore year, you’ll find that you’ve had just as much fun as freshman year, maybe in a different way, or even in the same.

  22. Reena says:

    When I read Snively’s blog I saw another potential way of “taking advantage of” pass / no record – it means you don’t have to be as afraid of taking the harder classes. If you wanted to go to an extreme, you could say “I’m going to take _ _ . 8 _ _ . I’ll have to work my butt off in it and either way I’m still going to fail, but even though I’ll fail I’ll learn a lot. And I won’t have to worry about the grade.”

    I wouldn’t slack off in the classes I was interested in. The work for them would be enjoyable anyway, so I’d do it because I wanted to, and because it would be good for me.

    But if I had the choice whether to have some fun and get a B in a requirement I didn’t like, or tool and get an A, I’d take the B. Life needs some balance to it. It’s that balance that gives us our personalities.

    Even now I notice that when I’m a zombie after a night of working on subjects like AP English (that don’t particularly interest me, but that I’m taking AP in because honors or CP1 would be even more miserable, with its thinking-free busy work), other people find me much less fun to talk to or be around. When I spend a night staying up doing physics because a problem intrigued me so much that I couldn’t fall asleep without finishing it, I’m still tired the next day, but much more upbeat and sociable. And in tune with who I am, because I worked for something I cared about.

    Now, once GIR requirements are past, the courses you take are ones that interest you anyway, so you have plenty of reason to work aside from grades.

    Now, if the situation was pass/no record all four years and you didn’t strive for an A in any class, ever, even the ones you supposedly love, do you really belong at MIT?
    And then again, if you had to take requirements all four years and you strove for A’s in even the subjects you hate, do you belong at MIT, either?

    Again, it’s all about finding a balance.
    Though, I could have no clue what I’m talking about, because I haven’t even applied yet, let alone experienced a semester of pass/ no record myself :p

  23. Anon says:

    Is it weird that out of all the actual MIT bloggers, I think Reena made some of the best points?

    Pass/No record is different for everyone, but I’m using to find a balance between working really hard in more advanced classes and in classes I’m interested in, and then taking advantage of the time I can save while punting classes I’m not as interested in, and not worrying about getting Bs and Cs.

  24. Reena says:

    Fair enough, I have to agree with you on that. Not judging people, I mean. Thank you smile
    That did make the point of your entry a lot more clear.

    I think you took what I said about requirements the wrong way. I don’t mean that they’re not valuable, or that classes you don’t like don’t do you any good – I have learned a lot from even the classes I absolutely could not stand.
    What I was saying is that if working to get an A in a class you don’t care much for is going to stress you out and make you miserable when you’re a post-all-nighter zombie the next day, don’t worry about it. Take a little-to-moderate bit of time off to do something that you really enjoy.
    Of course, if following your heart is doing the
    work for that subject you don’t like, and that’s what makes you happy, that’s great too.

    (Those first few pieces of my post were about how I’d take pass / no record – doesn’t mean I think others are wrong for having a different view! The balance is in a different position for every person, so we really can’t ridicule the people who work for their grades *or* the people who slack off.)

    Also wasn’t “condemning a whole person” – there are plenty of wonderful, wonderful people out there who wouldn’t have gotten the most out of their lives by coming to MIT. Being a good match for the school doesn’t equate to worth as a person. It just seems that the people who are happiest there are those who enjoy both hard work and on-the-side fun.

  25. deng says:

    very nice entry
    (as you have probably tired of hearing by now)

    and because of this, I suppose I shall stop using these blogs as tools for procrastinationg and go do something productive now raspberry

  26. deng says:

    err.. I meant “procrastination”

  27. Reena says:

    To add on, there’s a lot to be said for being happy. It’s good for your mind, good for you physically, and good for everyone who talks to you. If there’s anything that I was speaking out against, it’s sacrificing your own happiness for grades that aren’t even going to show up. So of course that doesn’t apply to people whose success in classes makes them happy.

    (About the “belonging at MIT” part, maybe this is better wording) – if working at classes and trying to get the most out of them means so little to someone that they don’t put the effort in to a single one, why are they at a place like this?
    Again, that doesn’t say anything about how good or bad of a person someone is. It just seems like a strange decision to choose a school with intense academics if you don’t like that stuff, y’know?
    Doubt that extreme actually occurs at MIT anyway, though I wouldn’t be one to know.

  28. Reena says:

    (And, aaagh, “someone” and “they”. Forgive my bad grammar. It seems kind of awkward to type out he/she.)

  29. Reena says:

    heh, Anon, actually after re-reading lulu’s entry, I think I meant to say exactly what she was saying, with the exception that Snively’s quote

    “”No. You didn’t get an A. You got a P. Just like _________ over there having fun. You got the same grade only he had more fun.”

    was not ridiculing people who get A’s, it was ridiculing people who brag about getting A’s.

  30. What a wonderful and wise entry. This should be published in The Tech.

  31. Lucy '09 says:

    Wow. This is an amazing post. I totally agree. Also, there’s another aspect of P/NR that students tend to ignore: leveling the playing field. I came from a public high school that did not prepare me for college level work anywhere, nevermind MIT. So if those grades counted, it would be impossible to rescue my GPA. And I definitely know people whose high school background helped them tremendously during that first semester and therefore they got As. These people whine about how their grades don’t count. But I’m really glad that their grades didn’t count, because my grades would look really bad in comparison.

    So I’m really glad that MIT does P/NR for all freshman. I know a lot of my friends at other universities didn’t do so well their first semester and their GPAs are suffering because of those grades. This P/NR policy really helped me a lot.

  32. Reena says:

    Heh, ‘lots of high school coursework x 9000′ is only academics if it teaches you something, which unfortunately, a lot of the time it doesn’t.

  33. Aj says:

    wow…. your post was amazing and insightful. you’re right about how you need to find out what works for you; too many people try to impose their standards on others or use other peoples standards to judge themselves… again really really good post=)thanks for writing it

  34. Snively says:

    The jabs in my entry were for the people who brag about their “perfect GPA.” If you want to take first semester of freshman year as a practice run, go for it, but know that there are plenty of people who aren’t and you’ll only make them angry if you go around flaunting your “perfect GPA.”

    How to deal with P/NR is totally up to you.

  35. cristen says:

    “It just seems like a strange decision to choose a school with intense academics if you don’t like that stuff, y’know?
    Doubt that extreme actually occurs at MIT anyway, though I wouldn’t be one to know.” -Reena

    Interestingly, ‘academics’ is not the same as ‘lots of high school coursework x 9000’, like some newcomers might believe. And maybe I believed too. = Just throwing that out there. smile

    Academia is an interesting beast….

  36. '12 says:

    Lulu! I respect you so much.

  37. lulu says:


    Right, I would have never been a physics major if it weren’t for going out on a limb and taking the hardest version of the mechanics courses available to me, and that was made possible by pass/no-record. And I fully advocate the kind of academic exploration that will help you find your place here.

    I agree on a whole with what you are saying, but 2 things I disagree with:

    1- Every required class you’ll take here is valuable in some way, if you give it a wholehearted chance. I’ve just seen way too many upperclassmen blow off biology or chemistry or something until their last year, cause “whatever it’s just bio” or they’re “not interested”, and find out that that was the subject they should have been studying for 4 years. And if it’s not a requirement, and you’re not interested, why are you taking it?

    2- I don’t think you or me or anyone else here has the information necessary to make judgments about who does or does not belong at MIT. They have a whole committee on that and man they still have a hard time. To be fair, you do hear that kind of statement being made a lot, so I don’t fault you for quoting it, but I never agreed with the sentiment, I find it really shoddy to make such a deep judgment of someone’s character based on such shallow premises. Fact is, we have no clue what some students, and their families, have gone through just to be here, and we’re too quick to condemn a whole person for making a handful of choices we would not have made ourselves.

    I don’t know if I phrased it very well, but that was the essential point of this whole entry. To take away from it that “you should care about grades” is kind of to miss it entirely, you know? It really is about being yourself and not judging others for the personal decisions they make.

  38. Karen '13 says:

    Fascinating post, thank you.

  39. Anderson '12 says:

    Another tidbit to keep in mind – those of us with scholarships from non-MIT sources (in my case, Navy ROTC) will certainly have those organizations wanting to see our fall-term grades…and I would suspect that many of us whose parents are the…uhhh…”involved” type would not really appreciate the sentiment of “oh, it’s OK, the grades don’t count yet”. Essentially, unless you, the student, are paying your own way through MIT, or are on full financial aid, you can bet you’ll have the source of your monetary support wanting to know all about how you did in your first semester. MIT costs a lot of money, and, at least to me, it seems like it would be an embarrassment to waste someone else’s money just going to parties every weekend and blowing off work whenever you feel like it.

  40. moose '12 says:

    thank you so much, lulu! this blog and snively’s were both very informative, and it was great to see two different takes on P/NR. It has helped ease the transition to MIT so much these past few weeks…