Bad Grades and Big Screw-Ups by Powers '23
Pulling back the A's, B's, C's, and P's to see what's inside
Today, I have a great idea.
Recently I had a conversation with a friend where she admitted to me that she really screwed up academically this semester, and she seemed to be pretty embarrassed about this. BUT luckily I’d had my own disaster-semester in the spring, and we compared notes, laughed about it, and felt a lot better after mutually admitting that things did NOT go as planned. It was really good! It brought us closer as friends and also relieved a lot of the shame we both felt. Eventually we concluded that it’s really fine, life goes on, and hopefully things will be different in the future. What a lovely conclusion, right?
So I went to bed, and the next day I woke up, and I was like: “Gasp! That was such a positive conversation. I feel so much better! If only more people could have this experience.”
And then I was like: “Gasp! I’m blogging again! More people can have this experience!”
So I’m here, freshly caffeinated (can you tell?), ready to bare all. I’m going class by class, show you my grades, and tell you what went down behind the letter. It’s gonna be great. Come and be liberated!
My Spring 2020 semester was a shitshow of epic proportions. Just, ugh, you’ll see.
21M.600: Intro to Acting
Dropped before COVID
6.08: Introduction to EECS via Embedded Systems
Dropped immediately when COVID hit. I loved the class, too. I just couldn’t do it. It was too much work.
Ok. Now let’s get to the juicy stuff.
21W.755: Writing and Reading Short Stories
I didn’t write a single short story for this class. Instead, my professor let me submit the songs I was writing while in quarantine as a form of “creative writing”. I should have failed this class because, I don’t know, I didn’t write short stories?!? But luckily I had a professor who was extremely kind and still showed interest in my work (which I wasn’t doing for the class, so he really didn’t have to). My experiences with him were my best academic experiences of the semester, and I’m still extremely grateful for his leniency and open-mindedness. Thanks prof. Nathan :).
6.009: Fundamentals of Programming
Oh boy, this one was interesting. So if I recall correctly, I didn’t fully complete a single lab for this class, at least not after COVID. Half the time I had no motivation, and the other half I honest-to-god couldn’t figure it out. One of my biggest barriers towards success was that going to virtual office hours scared the shit out of me. I skipped checkoffs for no other reason than I was too anxious about zooming alone with a complete stranger. I did really well on the first quiz out of sheer luck, I didn’t study or anything, which completely saved my ass. I really liked this class, but I didn’t do the last lab and I didn’t take the final quiz, dropping my A to a C. The sad part is that I still cared, even though it was Pass/No-Record, the E stands for Exceptional, meaning there were some exceptional circumstances that put MIT on Pass/No-Record grading. Which there were. . I wanted to succeed, but I couldn’t make myself do the work.
8.02: Physics II
God, I was failing this class even before COVID happened, and it sure as hell didn’t get any better once we had a pandemic on our hands. I should have failed this class, like more than I should have failed the short stories class. I guessed on all of our little lecture review questions, I turned in none of my psets on time, I bombed all the quizzes. When the final came around, I was having a full-on mental breakdown. My TA (bless your heart of gold Ian) and my professor eventually agreed to let me turn in all of my psets months late for full credit, and granted me and OX is a grade that you can get at the end of the semester if you had some extraordinary circumstances preventing you from taking the final. It basically holds the place of a final grade until you take the final, which can happen at any time during your MIT undergrad. when I had no other choice but to ask for one. My OX is still not resolved, which I’m hoping to handle this IAP… but let’s be real I’m still a mess.
So yeah, that didn’t go super well, did it? I passed 2 out of 5 attempted classes, and honestly it should have been 1. So then summer happened, and we came into this semester, and Everything Was Great!
Lol jk no it wasn’t.
Fall was better, but not by much. I passed all four of my classes, which is a massive victory for me. But things were still a little, uh hit or miss.
21W.757: Fiction Workshop
I wrote short stories this time. Two to be specific, and they’re, like, okay? One I’m actually pretty proud of, but it could have been soooooo much more than it was, which made me really sad. The other one I wrote in like three days with very little revision and boy, does it show. But I wrote short stories! Taking a workshop-style class was really difficult for me because I had to be on camera for an hour and a half twice a week. My anxiety about video chatting had decreased a lot from the spring but was still very real. I loved talking to people about their stories, but I missed more than my fair share of classes and didn’t complete a lot of the little things we were supposed to do because communicating with other people over digital mediums is super difficult for me. I heard this described as “digital anxiety”? Let me know if you know anything about that.
(Note: I am genuinely very grateful but also feel very guilty about receiving an A in this class. I understand that my writing was good, but there were so many other things I completely dropped the ball on. I don’t know why yet, but I’m having a hard time with it)
6.042: Math for Computer Science
This class was my great victory of the semester! First of all, I loved 6.042. I would wake up every Saturday morning, make myself coffee, and sit on the couch for hourrrsssss doing the psets. I never disliked them; it always felt like I was solving some amazing puzzle, like I stopped existing and I was just ~~made of math~~. It wasn’t always easy, but this class was probably the only one that didn’t make me feel like a complete dingus all the time. But of course I still messed up a little bit. I missed the first quiz because my brain was just *not* *having* *it*, and I didn’t reschedule it until FINALS WEEK. So I spent a whole lot of time reviewing material from SEPTEMBER that I barely recognized, when I could have just gotten it over with much sooner. To be fair, both me and the assistant professor dropped the ball on that one, but we talked it out and we’re chill now :).
Grade: B- (look at that B! LOOK AT IT!!!!)
6.02: Introduction to EECS via Communication Networks
This class was my hardest class by far. I put so much effort in, but for some of the units I couldn’t do well no matter how hard I tried. I’ve never felt like that before, and it was scary! Your first experience working on a pset for 10+ hours only to get a 50% is just, like, super rough. By the final of 3 units, the professor had told me that I needed to get around 80% on the remaining three psets to pass. For context, I had only gotten above an 80% on ONE out of SEVEN psets thus far, so I was almost convinced that I was totally screwed. But I pulled through! I got an 85%, 95%, and 88% on the last three psets… Only to fail the final midterm and miss the class’s passing mark.
I was super devastated for a few days. Luckily there was an optional final that you could take to replace your grade in one of the three units, but I was so demoralized and had so little faith in my testing abilities that I’d almost given up completely. However, it so happened that through my ridiculous amount of struggle in this class, I’d actually managed to bond with the professor over Zoom and made a habit of showing up to her virtual office hours on Fridays. When I showed up that last Friday, pretty devastated that I’d bombed the exam, This wasn’t a favoritism move. She did this for many of the students who’d been struggling with extenuating circumstances but still demonstrated a willingness to succeed. It's not a super uncommon move, and that's why you should tell Student Support Services and/or your professors when you're having a hard time :) . I managed to do well enough on the nanoquizzes to barely scrape out a passing grade, which is now a P on my transcript! If I didn’t form a relationship with the professor for this class, I would have failed. There’s really no getting around it: She helped me when I struggled, gave me time to learn, and supported me even when I must’ve looked like a total dunce on paper. If I hadn’t reached out, it would’ve ended poorly.
6.004: Computation Structures
I was a terrible student in 6.004. I know, I know, I was also “going through stuff”, and I forgive myself where forgiveness is due, but I made a lot of choices about 6.004 because I just didn’t care. I didn’t watch the lectures, I rarely did the nanoquizzes, and I paid zero attention during recitation. One of my problems in 6.004 is that I got really behind in September and never caught up. This is bad! Don’t do this! I didn’t watch the lectures on time so I couldn’t do the nanoquizzes or understand anything being said in recitation. I didn’t pay attention in recitation so I struggled on labs. I was too busy catching up on the labs to have any time for the massive amount of cramming I’d have to do to just to pass the exams, which I was already woefully unprepared for. Do you see why this is a terrible strategy? I scored around 30% on two out of three midterms. By the end, I’d pulled of a miracle and gotten myself to a point where I only needed to get a 33% on the last miterm to pass, AND GUESS WHO DIDN’T GET A 33%!?! MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! There’s a very difficult (but optional) final design project where you design and optimize a processor and software stack, and THANK GOD I had planned for the *unlikely* event that I bomb the test and did a few parts of it. I was scrambling so fast in the 24 hours before it was due just to scrape out the two measly points I needed to pass. After around 10-ish hours of debugging, I got my pipelined processor to work. I submitted, I shut my laptop, and I never looked at the class website ever again.
Just because I like you guys, here are some other less-than-amazing stats.
I failed all but 2 tests this semester. That’s a 22% pass rate.
I dropped basically all my extracurriculars, including blogging. Some I said “sorry, can’t do it right now” and others I just ghosted.
50% of days, I couldn’t even look at my email. It made me way too anxious. Guess who missed some important emails and looked like an ass because of it? :/
So as you can see, it’s been a total circus! And not even a good circus, like a scary, poorly-rehearsed circus! I’m not posting it just for your entertainment, though (although it is definitely entertaining). I think there’s a lot to be learned from these stories. There are these things:
- It’s never too late to get back on track for a class
- Don’t let yourself fall behind
- If you’re having a hard time, reach out to Student Support Services
- Extensions actually make work harder because it just pushes it to future time where you’ll have more things going on, but it’s still important to use them when there’s something really interfering with your ability to work
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help
- Communicate and form relationships with your professors
- Blah blah blah…
But I’m going to take an educated guess and say that these are not uncommon nuggets of wisdom among MIT students and potential applicants. I think a much more valuable lesson to take away from this is, well, I’m okay. Here’s a list of the ways that I’m okay.
- I’m going to graduate on time and with enough flexibility to take all of the classes I want to take
- I’ll get a UROP or an internship. This isn’t a certainty, but I feel good enough about my prospects
- I’m going on to take more advanced course computer science classes AND writing classes next semester and beyond
- I’ve formed some amazing relationships with my professors, even virtually. I’m so extremely grateful that I know multiple faculty members I would feel comfortable emailing for just about any reason, even if it was just to Zoom and receive life advice from people older and smarter than me
- I underwent a ton of personal growth during the last two semesters, and having a less-than-stellar technical GPA is, without question, worth it
- I feel supported by an invaluable group of friends and a wider community based in my dorm/hall
- I was forced to let go of any part of me that thinks I’m better than other people because I get good grades, because I don’t anymore. Honestly, it’s been a relief. It’s difficult but ultimately rewarding to place your self-worth in more sustainable places. I feel good about myself
Despite my bad grades and big screw-ups, I’m feeling pretty chill about that list! And that’s the real reason I’m writing this blogpost, because I want you to know that if I’m okay, you’ll be okay too. We’re living through tough times, and the toughness of the times does not discriminate in its destruction. Existence is a monstrous, tangled ball of yarn: all the strings cross and wrap around each other in ways you can’t know by just looking at it. So forgive yourself. Forgive yourself even if you can’t understand why or when or how everything went so wrong, and share your story with the people that need to hear it. Trust me, it’ll make everyone -including yourself- feel a whole lot better.
(P. S. I’m thinking about posting a series of blogposts kind of like this, where I’m way too honest about the things that don’t look great on paper. I’m not doing much this IAP, I’m not in any clubs right now (although I’ve tried and failed), and I haven’t had a STEM UROP or internship yet, and my personal life is, at the very least, a mixed bag. Maybe I’ll do it for y’all, maybe I’ll do it for me and purge the shame-demons inside of me one-by-one until I don’t feel so guilty anymore. So if you want to read that sort of thing, stay tuned?)
- Pass/No-Record, the E stands for Exceptional, meaning there were some exceptional circumstances that put MIT on Pass/No-Record grading. Which there were. back to text ↑
- OX is a grade that you can get at the end of the semester if you had some extraordinary circumstances preventing you from taking the final. It basically holds the place of a final grade until you take the final, which can happen at any time during your MIT undergrad. back to text ↑
- This wasn’t a favoritism move. She did this for many of the students who’d been struggling with extenuating circumstances but still demonstrated a willingness to succeed. It's not a super uncommon move, and that's why you should tell Student Support Services and/or your professors when you're having a hard time :) back to text ↑