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MIT student blogger Yan Z. '12

College by Yan Z. '12

The path to self-discovery is lined with my blog entries.

One year ago, in the mush of schoolless boredom known as Spring Break of junior year, I got into MIT. “Got into” is here used idiomatically in the superficial sense, bearing no deeper significance than that I could take a plane to 77 Massachusetts Avenue in August and call myself a student if I wanted to. (I am, of course, blatantly ignoring the huge mass of angst and pain known as Paying Tuition). My situation was thus: One year of high school stood between myself and a diploma. I wasn’t accepted to any other colleges, probably because I hadn’t applied to any other colleges. After about 5 picoseconds of staring at my acceptance letter from MIT, I became exceedingly convinced that graduating high school was just a formality, a trivial remnant of the antiquated American Dream that dominated social aspirations in the postwar decades of the previous century*. Plus, “high-school dropout” had a nice ring to it (and I would get loads of street cred too!).

*By the way, I copied and pasted part of this sentence out of a book report that I wrote about Death of a Salesman in 10th grade.

So I decided to cross “Finish high school” off my to-do list. Before taking a second look at the campus, before getting my financial aid package, before understanding the course requirements, before learning that the elevators in the Stata Center are only semi-functional, before hearing of Random Hall, even before talking to Donald Guy ’12 (who, in all likelihood, helped convinced about 15% of our class to matriculate by various means of the Internet), I accepted my offer of admission. You already know the rest of this story, and some of you who are reading this will live it for yourselves in the next six months. I can hardly wait.

The punchline is that to call myself gratuitously lucky would be understating the absurdity of my uninformed, mostly blind, yet tremendously unregrettable decision. Every day, I wake up. To be more specific, every day I wake up and marvel at the sheer impossibility that I picked the right college without seriously looking at more than one college. Then I go back to sleep, because I probably went to bed at 3 AM the night before and can’t believe that I just wasted 30 seconds thinking about how great my life was when I could have been sleeping.

The truth is that MIT isn’t right for everyone. Some people wish they had picked the state school that offered them a full ride, a free car, and the right to name a state park after themselves. Some people wish they had picked Harvard. The latter usually soon regain their ability to make reasonable judgments, however.

So, whether or not you’re considering MIT (if not, you might be on the wrong website), here’s my advice: Look both ways before you cross the street from high school into The Vast Unknown. Forget the brand-name universities and try to imagine where you’ll be happiest. Talk to actual students. Probe their insights of their learning environment. Ask them to share with you the aspects of college life that matter most to them (you might get a surprise). Ask them about their most shocking self-discoveries, their failures, their moments of unbearable misery and unforgettable joy. Ask yourself whether you want to live through the same experiences.

I’ll start:

This past semester, I’ve finally started to understand MIT as an institute built on cooperative, immersive learning. Meaning that the curriculum is structured around a level of difficulty that requires you to reach out and work with your classmates, to stay up until the early hours of the morning discussing problem sets, correcting each other, plowing yourselves into deeper, subtler levels of comprehension that you certainly didn’t see during lecture. The end effect is that the line between your classes and life beyond classes becomes progressively blurrier until you’re instinctively radiating and absorbing information from those around you during all waking hours. This is unbelievably uplifting to your ability to make interesting dinner conversation at family gatherings.

Snapshot: Last night, on the inaugural evening of Spring Break, I forgot to come home after lab. I walked upstairs to Lulu‘s office hours, arbitrarily, because I remembered That One Blog Post where she wrote about how nobody went to her office hours and how she sat around and ate a sandwich instead. We worked through half a problem, maybe, and spent a nebulously indefinite haze of time sitting there, in an empty office, in a deserted hallway, right above MIT’s famously (un)Infinite Corridor, chatting loosely about physics. Lately, I’ve been realizing that trying to grasp threads of understanding from the fabric of the universe is like pretending to be a salmon. You swim upstream, bluntly against the direction in which the water (the physical metaphor for your intuition) pushes you, but you struggle harder than the actual salmon because you have no instinctive knowledge of how to subvert the current. You are disoriented, weightless and uprooted, despite the fact that you have read books and articles by talented salmon like Stephen Hawking and Alan Guth.

Anyway, it was 9 pm after a while. Weird how that happens.

On a tangential note, I recently discovered with much confusion and psychological turmoil that I prefer college-ruled paper to wide-ruled. Walking into Walgreen’s on an innocent sunny afternoon and feeling compulsively drawn toward what I previously considered a waste of trees, I was overcome with self-denial and forced myself to pick up a stack of wide-ruled instead. Halfway to the cash register, I couldn’t bear it any longer and threw the wide-ruled paper into the candy aisle with much angst and internal dissonance. Mournfully, I lost the identity that I built for myself on the day in 4th grade when I decided that college ruled paper was for uncool kids who didn’t own any good Pokemon cards.

Perhaps it’s a good thing. Edward ’12 recently borrowed my E&M lecture notes, freshly scripted on college-ruled paper, and told me that they were neat. This has never happened to me before in real life. It may have happened once during a particularly boring dream, but I can’t remember.

Anyway, the Blog Police are telling me that I should quit trying to become a guest speaker on Oprah and post a picture already.

Lobby 10 at noon, bird’s-eye view from the 2nd floor. If you show up early to lecture in room 10-250, you can lean against the railing and think about how this is one of the few spots along the Infinite Corridor where your cell phone gets a signal. (T-Mobile users, I’m writing this for you.)
Spring09 5 004

There’s something distinctly fractal-like about the architecture of Lobby 10. Douglas Hofstadter, if you’re reading this blog, I give you full rights to use this picture in your next book.
Spring09 5 008

I call this one “Vertigo,” or “Experimental Byproducts of Camera Rotation.”
Spring09 5 006

I encourage you to go forth and reevaluate your life now.

64 responses to “College”

  1. Emily '13? says:

    Great post! :-D I love that all MIT blog posts have me giggling or at least amused the whole way through. Seriously, at no other college’s blog do I get so much amusement. :-D


  2. @ Yan,

    I love your metaphorical writing style; it is so nice to read and be able to picture immersing myself into what you are saying! I feel like I fit right in with the MIT folks grin ! The best part of your writing, though, is that you seem to be enjoying MIT and taking advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. Frankly, it is nice to hear someone talk about MIT without referring to the word “hosed!” It makes the aspect of MIT just a little bit better. I understand that you work your butt off 24/7, but the fact that you do it because you love it and want to without complaining is just commendable.

    p.s. I prefer college ruled paper, too! I agree with Sosh ’13; the slacker students use wide-ruled.

  3. I wouldn’t ever consider using wide-ruled! There are only around two lines per sheet (back included)!
    Thanks for the advice Yan. I’ve looked at other schools, but none seem right for me. MIT is perfect. I can’t wait to see you there at CPW and next year!
    Btw, do you get any 3G Tmobile service there?

  4. Wait, did you *actually* drop out of high school? You’re crazy! smile

  5. Janille '13 says:

    @Shosh and Next Year

    Haha, I’m a little offended guys – I assure you, I like wide-ruled, and I’m not a slacker student. =P But I’ll have a go at college-ruled next time and see how it goes!

  6. Kristina '13 says:

    @ Yan,

    Your story is one of the many reasons I am coming to MIT next year. There are so many paths to MIT.
    Oh, and how is AT&T service in the Infinite?

  7. jimmy says:

    Hey, Yan,

    Thanks for the “MIT’s not the right place for everyone ” thing. Is it ok if it makes me feel better at being not being accepted?lol

    Anyways, am I the only one whos getting nausea-ted because of the vertigo pictures?lol

  8. Anonymous says:

    First! Neat post.

  9. Yan says:

    Do they not teach you about ordinal numbers in preschool anymore?

  10. Janille '13 says:

    Hahah, wow – that one paragraph made me feel pretty darn guilty about preferring wide-ruled paper… Perhaps if I make my handwriting smaller, I can trick myself into thinking that college-ruled paper can work.

  11. @ Janille ’13 –

    My appologies wink
    (I guess you are not a slacker if you got into MIT… congrats! I cannot wait – hopefully I get in, too…)

  12. Chris Praley says:

    Yan, your writing is superb. Sure, random, but I love your style. I wouldn’t be surprised if you wrote a brilliant book someday.

    Anyway, as a high school sophomore, I still have plenty of time to seek out colleges, but MIT is definitely numba’ 1 on my list, but, as you mentioned above, I really know nothing about it. And it’s terribly expensive. Who knows where I’ll be graduation from in 2015.

  13. Lin² '13 says:

    Thanks for the insight! As always, your metaphors are the icing of a great, informative blog post.

  14. Mom out west says:

    @ Yan
    1. Nice snap at Harvard-it’s like the proverbial “insert a sharp needle into a banana” metaphor we use in my native land.
    2. Please tell Blog Police to back off- and no way could Oprah, smart as she is, keep up with your mind. Her style is more Polarfleece blankie.
    Jon Stewart would be more your style. Only plus with Oprah- request a layover in St Louis on the way to Chicago- free trip home!

    No, you are not the only one who gets nauseated. I just stare really hard till my vision blurs and i can’t tell what i’m seeing- tadah! vertigo all better.

  15. Ruth '13 says:

    Better even than college ruled = completely blank back sides of high school handouts, debate evidence, and the stuff I printed out about other colleges back when I was actually considering them.

  16. Anonymous says:

    your writing is always so essentially truthful and relatable

  17. prospie says:

    i liked your salmon metaphor to describe yourself and all of us in general. we’re all salmon in one way or another.

    another thing: i thought people at MIT didn’t know how to write well… you have proven me wrong.

  18. Jamo says:

    *is dizzy* lol

  19. Julio ('14?) says:

    Yan I love those pictures you took smile.

    ~ Julio (’14?)

  20. @ Chris Praley
    The math you’re learning in high school, no matter how “advanced” it is, probably does not emphasize the true fundamentals. The application problems will probably require some experimentation and basic, yet sturdy, reasoning from the ground up.
    @ Yan
    I was recently convinced that my preschool must have skimped on the ordinal numbers when I got three “1-off” answers on the AIME. (

  21. Narce says:

    I’ve preferred college rule paper for about three years… but it doesn’t have anything to do with saving trees, because I can do an average assignment in high school on a single sheet of paper whether it’s wide- or college-rule. I just write very small letters, and prefer how those small letters don’t look ABNORMALLY small in college-rule.

    In fact, in high school, I think it would be saving more trees if I were to use wide-rule paper, because that would be wide-rule paper I was using 1 sheet per assignment on that some person with GIGANTIC handwriting couldn’t be wasting on whatever assignment they had to take up 5 sheets of wide-rule (hopefully less of college-rule) paper to write a single essay on.

    ^luckily that shouldn’t apply in college (me only using 1 sheet per assignment), so I won’t have to worry as much about assisting people with gigantic handwriting killing trees. Though that logic is clearly flawed, that’s what I’m telling myself.

    Oh, and I also officially replied to MIT’s admission offer before I got my fin. aid~

  22. Narce says:

    Also, many of your blogs have been lacking food recently ;.;

  23. Bridger '13 says:

    What really made me reevaluate my life was the fact this blog post did not have even a single picture of food.

  24. Alex '13 says:

    Yan, I look forward to meeting you in ’13!
    I can totally relate with your feelings about wide ruled paper. My writing is painfully small cursive and I use college ruled too. All of my writing assignments end up being considerably longer than my peers because of that.
    I guess that idiosyncrasy endowed my intellect with a little extra push.
    But anyone who is willing to take the challenge of MIT knows that any of the things that made us stand out in high school aren’t good enough anymore. High school is relatively farcical. There’s a whole new echelon of expectations at this institute.

  25. Narce says:

    You can meet Yan at CPW or in the fall. Why would you wait until our graduation year when she likely won’t even be there? ~_~”

  26. Alex '13 says:

    Haha A little confused with the dates. I meant next year of course. At least I’m not as bad as those guys at the top with ordinal numbers. smile

  27. comboy says:

    G9 accelerometer annoying for such rotating?

  28. Ngozi '13 says:

    Who is this Donald Guy ’12 Guy as I will need him come May. :/

  29. Shosh '13 says:

    Frankly, I don’t know what you’re talking about with wide-ruled paper. I have always thought that wide-ruled was for the silly kids who wanted to make it appear as if they wrote more during in-class essays and what not. College-ruled is what the cool kids have always used…

  30. KSL says:

    I like the salmon analogy. It seems as if we’ve been swimming upstream all our lives, struggling for every meter gained – fighting the rapids, the fishermen, the waterfalls, the illegally dumped chemical waste, and bears. It’s the journey of a thousand miles: one that ultimately ends in a giant fish trap meters before the destination – you can only watch helplessly as your limp body is dragged onboard a rusty old ship and dumped into an overcrowded holding tank with thousands of other fish. You cannot move, you cannot breathe, but you do overhear the fishermen talking about docking in “Japan” and something about “sushi.” Let’s also not forget that you’re an ectothermic organism and that the holding tank is kept at one degree Celsius at all times. But then you snap out of the dream and realize: you’re not some silly fish that is destined for extinction sometime in the next thirty years; you’re just a student who got rejected from MIT.

    Hmm… that turned out to be a bit more morose than I thought it would. But don’t mind me; I’m just trying to make peace with the past.

    And continuing on with that topic:

    @Yan (and the other bloggers): you guys seem like great people and it makes me sad that we might never meet. I loved all the entries and wish you all well in your future endeavors.

    @Everyone admitted: congrats. Admissions this year has been officially dubbed (and if not, then I just did) the “MIT Massacre” (I’m never sure if the period is supposed to go in the quote or after it so I apologize to all the English majors beforehand). A vast number of top notch candidates (…) got rejected this year and it’s your duty to do what they cannot and cherish your time at MIT. And once again: kudos.

    @MIT: With a 3% admissions rate as a Canadian citizen who was born in China, raised in Germany, and currently living in Arizona, the chances of me getting here were about equal to me being affected by the tiny warning labels on retainers specifying how one in a million people might be allergic to it (sadly, there turned out to be no correlation between receiving a gum infection from this transparent torture device and getting into the greatest college/university in the world). Maybe I’ll see you during grad school?

    There, I’ve made my peace and it only took 390 characters/ three text messages/ $0.15 on Virgin’s outrageous pay as you go plan.

    Chances are that I won’t be posting here anymore: the logic being that one shouldn’t place a starving infant next to the greatest candy store in the world while telling him that he can’t have any of it and that he must eat spinach for the rest of his life.


  31. Steph '13 says:

    College ruled all the way. I don’t know how the rest of you are writing but a fraction totally fits on one line without a slash. The only time I’ve seriously annoyed my teachers with college ruled is when I put a double fraction on one line. I still maintain it fits.

  32. Anderson says:

    Hey cool, I live in New York :D
    Food in Manhattan is superrr overpriced… Even McDonalds there are more expensive than the ones in other boroughs.

    I am currently a high school junior and although there is a 99% I won’t get accepted into MIT and end up in some random state college, I do enjoy coming to this site, mainly because to read your blog. You probably heard this a million times already, but I guess it bears repeating that your writing skills are amazing, which is an understatement, but I can’t think any better words at the moment. It is a great source of inspiration, not to mention probably the most interesting prose I ever lay my eyes upon. I have open just to keep up with your vocabulary (good for SATs raspberry). In retrospect, I think I visit this site at least once a day, eagerly hoping for more fascinating, compelling read. I believe I speak for all when I say I hope that you would continue blogging frequently to enlighten us all. I noticed some of the bloggers in this site have been inactive for quite some time.

    Now I have to finish my physics lab report -_-

    P.S. In light of that 1% chance I might get accepted to MIT, I want to ask how much do extracurricular activities count for getting accepted? I fall extremely short in terms of extracurriculars, mainly because it takes me 2 hours to go to school, and another 2 to come back home, so I would be coming home at around 7 every day if I stay for teams/clubs. I do have a lot of hours of volunteering though in the summer and weekends though.

    P.S.S. I prefer graph paper for math :D

  33. whee says:

    Yeah, unlined paper is the only way to do maths. :D

    Also Yan, do you read Terry Pratchett?

  34. Piper '12 says:

    I’m with Anderson here. Graph paper is the only paper one should use for math. Even if one completely ignores the boxes anyway… *cough*

  35. Piper '12 says:

    @ShawnOfAwesome ’11 – You know, as I was typing that, I was thinking, “Why do they call it a laundry list anyway?”

  36. Yan says:

    @ Whee:

    Terry Pratchett has some quotes that I severely enjoy, but his novels are a bit too much. He’s like the literary equivalent of Jolly Ranchers- fun and zingy when taken in moderation, but not something that I’d want to make dinner out of.

    @ Anderson:

    Thanks for the compliments. I wouldn’t worry about extracurriculars if I were in your situation. A good question to ask yourself is: would I be getting more out of my high school experience if I joined this club? Would this activity help me grow into a better, wiser person? Or am I just doing it so that I have something to put on a college application?

    Ok, so that was technically three questions.

    Anyway, it’s important to remember that MIT considers you as a whole, not just as a sum of parts. Having less extracurriculars won’t necessarily hurt their impression of you in any way.

  37. Piper '12 says:

    @ Anderson –

    Continuing off what Yan said, if I recall correctly the application only allows for 5 activities maximum. MIT would rather see dedication to a few things than a laundry list. (Keep in mind, though, that you will probably not get in on scores alone. But it sounds like you’re active anyway :D.)

  38. Lyddie says:

    In elementary school I used wide ruled. Then I used college ruled. Now I use unlined printer paper. =)

    Awesome post!

  39. Javal says:

    Love the physics metaphor. Random quote “Science does violence to common sense”.

    Keep blogging!

  40. @Piper:
    Oh, you mean I shouldn’t have included “12 shirts, 10 pairs of shorts, 2 pairs of pants, and 24 socks” on my list of extracurriculars? Darnit, it is hard to differentiate between what I do for fun and what I put in the washing machine. raspberry

  41. Anonymous says:

    @ KSL
    I have a friend who wrote an allegorical story about sushi in his blog revealing his college acceptances. (I think the purpose was to only make sense to the people he wanted it to make sense to). What a coincidence.

  42. Chris B. '12 says:

    Respect for the infamous Donald Guy. You are so right. And for those still looking for that school, know that you can make happiness wherever you are, It’s just easier in some places.

    p.s. Yan, Lex ’12 says hi.

  43. Christine says:

    Wow, Yan.

    This is probably the most philosophical thing I have ever read on the internet. kudos.

    a kajillion kudos to you for being such an incredible person with amazing insight. I really hope I get to meet you at CPW, but I am actually somewhat scared that I will be so intimidated I won’t be able to muster up the nerve to talk to you. Plus, I probably wouldn’t have anything entertaining or intelligent to say compared to you. Well, here’s to hoping it’s all good.

  44. Anderson says:

    Thank you very much for your responses Yan and Piper.

  45. A Nony Mous says:

    Yan, could you write a blog about what it has been like being one of the youngest in the class? I got accepted young also and I was wondering how that might affect the experience.

  46. Liz says:

    Math looks pretty swanky on unlined paper (and on windows/mirrors in grease pencil!) so I put in one vote for unlined paper and another for college-ruled, because words look pretty swanky on college-ruled paper.

    I read this great Onion article once about Mead releasing graduate student paper. The lines were approx. 14 nanometers apart or something. Way better than the college-ruled paper all those slacker undergrads use!

  47. ha, told you so. your borrowed sentence reminds me of my English class last year…

  48. Yan says:

    Hey guys, sorry for my lack of presence on the Internet lately (as in the last 9 hours, which is practically geological on the Internet time scale). My day thus far has consisted of waking up at 6, spontaneously hopping on a bus to New York, walking around Manhattan with 40 pounds of luggage, and hanging out with Ben ’10’s family in The Jersey. We’re heading back into Manhattan in an hour, hopefully to some sushi bars where I can actively atone for the lack of food photos lately.

    @ Next Year:

    Many thanks! MIT is best taken with a large dose of optimism. To be honest, I have to pry myself away from liberally tossing around the word “hosed,” which is probably the centerpiece of MIT colloquialism. We’ll see how that goes in the coming years.

    @ Kristina:

    I’m honored to hear that and sincerely hope that you find your place at MIT if you choose to come here. Not sure about AT&T service . . . hopefully someone else around MIT can answer that for you.

    @ Basically everyone:

    I was a staunch defendant of wide-ruled for years. It was nice for math homework in high school because I could fit fractions onto one line without using the slash notation (as in 3/4 instead of 3 over 4).

    The revelation came when I had to deal with 8.022 problem sets this semester that had a ridiculous number of variables nested inside space-consuming formulas nested inside double integrals. I reached the point where it was more efficient to just use two lines of college ruled than try to cram everything into one line of wide-ruled. Also, wide ruled is incredibly annoying for vector calculus operations.

    I have officially written too much about this topic.

  49. Alternatively you can use college ruled and still fit fractions in one line smile

    (…and then you can get docked points for having illegible psets…)

  50. Yan says:

    Upon further reflection, the most frugal option is to just stash printer paper from your Athena cluster of choice in your room. I’ve seen plenty of people do psets on unlined paper.

  51. Sheila '13 says:

    Lol. It’s so awesome that you’ve decided to skip the senior year and go straight to MIT. I would also do it if I can. Right now, it’s just a boring and lame duck period..waiting for CPW and graduation to come. Yeah, you’re right, HS graduation/diploma is nothing but just a formality.

  52. Yan says:

    @ A Nony Mous:

    I could write a blog entry about being younger than most people (but not the youngest by a long shot) in my class, but it’d be about two sentences long. Probably 90% of my friends/contacts/classmates at MIT have no idea that I dropped out of high school- mainly because it makes no difference. Everyone here learns together, regardless of what they did before coming to MIT.

    Half the time, I forget that I’m a year younger than the average 2012’er. It really isn’t a big deal at all.

    @ Liz:

    The Onion is a bastion of truth.

  53. Narce says:


    I’m totally with ya there, I always fit fractions on a single line of college-ruled. If ya don’t do that, you have to put parentheses around whatever’s on each side of the ‘/’, which just looks nasty.

  54. Anonymous says:

    @ Yeyson ’13

    “Do they not teach you about ordinal numbers in preschool anymore?”

    Ordinal, yes
    Correct number, no


  55. whee says:

    And LaTeX is just beautiful. smile

  56. Piper '12 says:

    “And then there’s LaTex.” wink

  57. Yeyson '13 says:

    59th smile

    Nice post Yan. Where did all the food go? I love when you put food pics, always inspires me to go eat something new. See you at CPW and again nice post. Excellent writer.

  58. Yeyson '13 says:

    60th sorry last anonymous. I need to practice counting again. Never went to preschool though. Thx for the correction.

  59. Yan says:

    @ Yeyson/Anonymous:

    I hate to break it to you, but I’ve been deleting spam comments all along and messing up the comment numbering . . .

  60. Narce says:

    And yet Yeyson’s last post and the last Anonymous are still correct about their current post numbers.

  61. JL says:

    I love comboy. Whenever I read a blog entry I always look for his comments. Someone give that man a prize or something.

  62. ptynan says:

    You could just be awesome and use unlined paper.