dear frosh: here are the things we want you to know by Allan K. '17
a firehose of advice from upperclassmen: tips and tricks for freshman year
I asked people around me for advice, tips, tricks, and things to know. I added some of my own advice. Then I organized everything into the following categories. Some of it is excellent advice. Some of it will not make sense at the moment. A lot of items contradict each other. Here is the resulting mostly-unfiltered list of Things We Want You To Know When You Start Attending MIT.
MEETING PEOPLE AND DOING THINGS
When exchanging phone numbers: save people’s names with how you met them and how you relationally know them. Example: “Sherlock Holmes, John’s Roommate.” This will improve your chances of remembering them later.
Take selfies with people as a way to get to know them. Make it a game: try to get a selfie with someone from every state.
Make friends with people outside of your living group. Sure, the ones you live with are probably all great, but there might be days when you want to switch it up and hang out with people you don’t see every single day. Not to mention it’s a pretty good incentive to actually leave your hall.
Of course it’s also super important to make friends with people you do see every day too. So I guess just make friends indiscriminately?
Don’t be scared of people. Easier said than done, especially when people are often really scary, but important.
I kept a list of new experiences/fun things and every week first semester I tried to add to it, and I’d go through it and try to remember the people who did the things with me.
Say yes to things.
You will get asked to do many things. You should say yes to most of them.
Never say no, especially if it makes for a good story. Unless it’s a matter of health and safety – in that case, use your best judgment.
It’s okay to say no to things too.
Leave space in your schedule for spontaneous things. Don’t overcommit at the beginning.
It’s okay to quit activities, especially as a fall-term frosh—this includes UROPs. Don’t be stuck working for a lab you don’t want to work for or where the work environment is toxic.
Upperclassmen know things but we’re still figuring ourselves out. We’re not THAT cool. Take what we say with grain of salt.
Making friends with other frosh is easy because you can be froshy together, but also make an effort to make friends with the upperclassmen. There’s always someone who’s gone through the same thing you are (or something similar) and usually they’re happy to help you.
Your classmates are all incredibly interesting people. Everyone has a story and you can learn something new from talking to anyone. You won’t be able to talk to everyone, but that midsemester heart-to-heart with that acquaintance from orientation might teach you a whole new way to think about the world. This is true about all people everywhere, but talking to your classmates is a good place to start.
Staying in your comfort zone is easy, but you learn the most about yourself and grow as a person when you get out of your comfort zone, so take opportunities to try new things.
Finding an activity/club/whatever you love is the best feeling ever because you’ve found a group of people who love doing the same thing you love doing, and it’ll be a great break from the stress of school. But also don’t overcommit and let your health/sanity/grades slip. Doing too many fun activities is still doing too many activities. It takes trial and error to find that happy medium, but you’ll find it eventually!
Upperclassmen only seem cool because you’re only seeing us after we’ve gone through all of the mistakes, epiphanies, awkward encounters, failures, and showerless days that you’re going through.
That we’ve been through that stuff means two things: (1) most of us are happy (eager, even) to share our experiences, and (2) we’re susceptible to fucking up, too. Collect advice, but your choices should be your own.
Open up first. Whether that be your arms, your mind, or your mouth, make yourself just a bit more vulnerable that you’re used to—especially now, before you’ve settled into a more concrete path. All sorts of interesting people, ideas, adventures, and lessons will fill the space you create. Hug people. Tell them that they can talk to you. Ask detailed questions. Say what you think, even if that is “I’m not sure.” Smile and wave at everyone you know, even if they’re only acquaintances. Especially if they’re only acquaintances.
You will not agree with everyone you meet. You will not like everyone you meet. Not everyone will agree with or like you. This is a reality of life. Deal with it how you may, but it will always be true. The time you spend agonizing over every person who marginally offends you is time you could be spending doing nice things with people you actually do like.
Join a club. Dorms are nice, but clubs will give you more friends that may be a bit different from the people you always hang out with. Having club duties you enjoy can be a good way to force yourself out of bed to go do a thing because you have to, and then realize that you feel happier now that you’ve gone and done it.
Freshman fall, join all the clubs. Realize that this is unsustainable. Choose only your favorite clubs of the ones you join as the semesters pass. Try not to end up with many more than 1 or 2 if you have leadership roles and/or are actively involved in all of them, or they will start making your schedule require a time turner. Remember, academics still trump clubs, since in theory you’re in college primarily to learn things.
Don’t fall into the East Campus/West Campus battle trap. I was a sorority girl who lived in West Campus all four years who was a member of a primarily East Campus a cappella group and spent lots of time both places. Yes, they’re different, but almost all MIT students are really cool and if you discount half of campus either way you’re going to miss out on some incredible friendships.
Do Dance Troupe at least once. It’s really fun and even if you look like a complete fool, you’ll have tons of fun and meet a bunch of people.
Understand that every single person you will meet at MIT (and for that matter in your life!) knows something that you don’t. We can all learn from each other.
Learn how to get lost. Make a semi-regular hobby of wandering around somewhere (not in a deeply sketchy way) and finding your way home (bring a phone or something but don’t cheat until you’re 105% sure you’re screwed). It’s weirdly empowering to see a landmark when you’re out with friends and say “hey! I got lost there!” and realize you know a way (possibly horribly convoluted) back home. Making sense of your environment and the context of MIT outside the bubble is very grounding.
Learn the shuttles/public transport. EZ ride is free and takes you places.
Get the MIT Mobile app.
Especially if you’re a fast walker: when walking to class, don’t take the ground floor of the Infinite. Take the tunnels or the upper floors.
Boston isn’t nearly as big as it seems the first time you come through. Try walking from T stops (especially the green line, and downtown Boston) since things are close together. It’s a great moment when you’re able to navigate the city.
Biking: biking in Cambridge/Somerville is great, and everything around is really bike accessible. Boston is sketchier, but still usually okay. Biking can often be faster than the T. That being said, driving and biking in the city can suck and be dangerous. Though it seems inconvenient, always wear a helmet and obey traffic laws. In sketchy intersections, don’t be afraid to use crosswalks and be a pedestrian. That can often be safer than taking that left turn in a busy intersection (just dismount or straddle-walk your bike to not hit people). Also, NEVER pass large vehicles on the right. Assume that cars don’t see you, and be an obnoxious biker about being seen. It can save your life.
Get out to the city! And the free stuff you have access to as a student (like the MFA).
Don’t wait for tourists to finish taking their pictures to walk down the hall. If you wait for every selfie in front of the admissions door, you’ll never get anywhere. Just accept that you’re going to be in many pictures and keep walking.
Listen to firehose chats on WMBR. They talk a lot about life hacks and general MIT experiences from the perspectives of undergrads and grads as well as non MIT college experiences.
Learn about MIT mailing lists. Make your own.
Make time to get off campus every once in a while.
Get a foam pad for your mattress. It makes a world of difference.
Do laundry in the afternoon on a weekday. You will have your pick of all of the washers and all of the dryers.
Depending on your dorm, focusing may be difficult. Find a good place, whether it’s your dorm’s study rooms, the student center, a library, a classroom. Just because it’s hard to focus in your room doesn’t mean you should move dorms.
Don’t buy textbooks before you know if you need them.
Having mailing lists for study groups for each class was pretty helpful.
Don’t worry about sounding stupid, or getting into an area you have no experience in. This is the time to do that sort of thing.
Ask questions when you don’t know something. Don’t just nod and smile. Ask everyone—GRTs, classmates, hallmates, upperclassmen, professors, TAs, and especially research advisors if you’re doing that kind of thing—to clarify anything you don’t understand (and can’t easily clarify for yourself with a quick google search).
Work with friends or classmates as often as possible.
If you do research, don’t be afraid to ask a ton of questions. Don’t feel like you have to figure everything out by yourself. Ask people if they’re willing to teach you things!
Get your HASS breadth done early so come senior spring you don’t have to take a class you dislike.
Learn, at least at a basic level, how to solder, code, and use basic tools. At some point you’ll be glad you did.
Try all your pset questions first before getting help – don’t use others as a crutch or you won’t learn to figure things out on your own, and then the exams will nuke you (personal experience). On the flip side, don’t spin your wheels for ten hours either.
Talk to your professors when you’re struggling. At the very least they can point you in the right direction. Many will be willing to work with you to get back on track.
You can just not go to things (like classes) and people won’t get mad. They just won’t care. Be very careful with this power.
Find a person-who-is-successful-in-a-direction-you-would-like-to-be. Endear yourself to them in some way. Then when you are having a midlife-crisis-but-not-really you can talk to them and they will help you refine or mitigate your existential dread.
Keep a list of mentors (professors, grad students, advisors, and faculty you like) and stay in touch with them by writing them a Christmas message every year.
For some reason a lot of your professors and their ilk are on Twitter. You can learn about their thought patterns and networks of minionry this way. One time my HASS professor tweeted about how something I brought up in class made him happy. It was nice and existence-affirming. Also they have cool thoughts and cool things they read that you can learn about in this way. Also you learn that they are human and sometimes take joy in life. You should strive to emulate this.
Be very careful about whipping out your phone/laptop in class to “check email” or “google something the professor mentioned in passing.” Probably snapchat is more interesting right this minute than whatever’s going on in class, but you will be very interested in what was going on in lecture when you are on your __th hour of the pset.
Drop date is when drop date is for a reason. The feeling you get when you have dropped a class you loathed and you realize it is not a slavering, shadowy, pustule-ridden, festering blight on your life anymore is wonderful. Don’t grow overfond of dropping classes too, I guess—realizing that you have this power to make a terrible source of misery gone from your life is a heady, heady feeling…but don’t be that person taking a required class for the 3rd time. If you think a class sucks and you don’t have to take it in a life-death-or-graduation way, drop it like it’s emitting alpha radiation and ebola.
For the summer especially, you don’t have to say yes to the first UROP or job offer you get. Interviews are not just for the professor/grad student to see if you are a good fit, but also for you to see if you might enjoy and get something out of the UROP. If it sounds like it won’t teach you skills or you’ll only be doing tedious tasks without much mentorship/potential for moving on to other things, keep looking for another one if you can. Certainly sometimes you might need to work up from the bottom but if it seems really dead-end/not a good work culture, it’s okay to say no and look for others.
Just because it’s MIT doesn’t mean all the teachers are good teachers, or that all the classes are good classes.
Look for good mentors! This can be upperclassmen, other students, professors, grad students, etc…
On the topic of interviews, note that most of them aren’t about “are you qualified” but rather “do we like each other.” Think of your interviews like a date. Is that UROP supervisor the person you want to spend the next ___ semesters with? Is that the organization I want to join? It’ll make you less nervous and more interesting.
Go to office hours. You will finish your psets faster, plus they let you get to know the professors and TAs better and not fear them.
Given the choice, go the fuck to class. Treat MIT like a job, because it is—and this is likely the last time in your life that your primary responsibility is to learn. You’re at one of the best universities on the planet. Get your money’s worth.
For every class you have, find someone that you genuinely enjoy learning the class material from. Hopefully, this is the professor, but sometimes that’s not the case. Be it a TA, a fellow classmate, an upperclassman, an online lecture series, a textbook—find it. Being excited to learn will do far more for you in the long run.
Be excited about the stuff you don’t know, but want to know. Tell people that you’re excited. There’s a 99.99% chance that there’s a class, a club, or a mind here that can teach you, but it’s often hard to find them if you’re not given direction.
You’re in college to learn things, but you will learn a lot of things outside of academics.
Care enough about your GPA that it doesn’t somehow prevent you from doing all of the other things you care about. Apart from that…well, you’re here to learn. How you learn is yours to decide.
Take your estimate of how much time you think you’ll need to do something, and double it. That’s how long it’ll actually take. This is not a joke; I’m dead serious.
Don’t let the career fair scare you.
Companies have to pay MIT to be at the career fair. Understandable, some (read: a lot of) companies don’t come to career fair. Ask upperclassmen where they’ve worked, and look online for companies that interest you.
Sometimes, people who have worked at a place you want to work can refer you to their team and increase your chances of getting an interview.
If you want access to the Edgerton student shop, sign up early, because it takes a few months from when you signed up to actually be offered a spot in a training session.
Empty classrooms are perfectly okay to work in, and are usually unlocked for this reason.
Plenty of freshmen at top-tier colleges will enter their first semesters having no idea how to study, thanks to barely needing to lift a finger in high school. It can be jarring to suddenly not be the smartest kid in the class, to be on a completely different playing field, and to suddenly need to completely revamp how you best learn. This is okay.
Go to class. Even if you’re not prepared for the day, showing up is often a much better choice than the alternative.
You can freeze chicken broth in ice cubes so that it lasts and you can partition them adequately.
Have emergency food that is healthy and you like consuming—so dumplings, certain energy bars, canned soups, etc.
Dominos delivers until 2AM.
Learn how to cook. Cooking isn’t scary, although if you’ve never cooked before it can definitely seem like it (I made it through the first few weeks off of free food because I was terrified of cooking). Learn some very basic things at first (for me, that was how to make rice and cook eggs) and, as you grow more comfortable, your cooking will get better and you’ll be able to expand your repertoire. Learn from watching your parents (or whoever cooks at home) and from your hallmates. You can also do your cooking by the book.
If you have to be on a meal plan, milk it for all it’s worth. Meal plans are ridiculously expensive and you can always use your swipes for something. They have fruit and caffeine even if you aren’t hungry for meals. And if you want to cook, you can get meat and veggies and make stir fry or something—that way you only have to buy supplementary ingredients.
Don’t neglect yourself when you get sick.
Scope out S3, mental health, and get a primary care provider (PCP) at the start of school, BEFORE you actually need any of these things.
Exercise regularly in some form—anything! It does wonders for general sanity.
Get a PCP. Also if you are really pathetic at medical urgent care, they will give you a blanket that is nice and toasty and the person who brings the blankets (inevitably if you are sick enough to merit a blanket you are too sick to remember this blessed individual) is the single kindest person in all of urgent care.
Eat fruit. Tasty and healthy. There is a farmer’s market in Stata on Tuesdays that is very nice and convenient.
Exercise. You may feel that it is optional, but it’ll do so much good for you that it’s worth considering it mandatory. View it as you view brushing your teeth or showering, because the regular mental cleansing that comes with it (along with the endorphin rush, the muscle tone, the weight control, the increased daily energy…) will be an invaluable source of sanity and stability.
Sleep. I promise you, as someone who has done everything she can to try and reduce hours spent sleeping, it’s worth it. Everything is better and works better after you’ve gotten sleep, because your body will not be aching to shut down at the soonest possible second. Sleep!
Even if you don’t have MIT insurance, over-the-counter medication is often really cheap at MIT medical.
The community wellness center has taxi vouchers if you need to go off campus for a medical reason (this saved me thousands of dollars when I had weekly physical therapy sessions an hour away).
Make sure to sleep. You probably won’t, but you really should.
MIND AND SPIRIT
Just because nobody seems like they’re struggling doesn’t mean they aren’t.
It’s okay to set up an appointment with mental health. It’s okay to have a standing weekly appointment with mental health. There’s no “right amount of time to wait” before making that appointment. If you need help, get it.
Never doubt yourself. You are here for a reason. If you recognize that you don’t know enough yet, that’s fine. But never doubt your capacity to learn and grow.
Don’t listen to upperclassmen stereotypes about each major. Do what makes you happy.
Find a time and a place every day where you can be alone. You don’t have to be doing anything in particular; just spend some time in the quiet company of your own mind. Look for new music. Read a weird book. Cook. Draw. Talk a walk. Make something pointless. Teach yourself a party trick.
Understand what you need to make you mentally happy (a hobby/activity, a pet, spending time with people or alone) and make it a priority.
Study off-campus now and then. Especially during exam time, campus can become a roiling stresspot with people feeding off of each others’ panic. Sometimes it’s nice to take a physical step back. Even studying on a different campus for a while can have this effect.
If it is the middle of the night and you’re having a meltdown, call 617-253-1212 and ask for the Dean on Call. Someone will talk to you and help you figure out what to do.
WOMEN AND UTERUS-OWNERS
For the women: there are several primary care providers at medical who specialize in women’s health. If you’re unsure about things like different types of birth control, menstruation aids, gynecological health + exams, etc. and would like to become less unsure, choose one of these people as your personal care provider. Meet with them early on and figure out what’s right for you.
For the women: most building 13 women’s bathrooms have free tampon/pad dispensers.
Women should get access to the Cheney Room. You will need a nap at some point during your time at MIT when you can’t make it home.
Drills go in forward and reverse.
You should mix wall paint before you paint with it.
2x4s are not in fact 2×4. (See Wikipedia.)
Own a cat.
Spend 100% of your free time climbing.
While “don’t fuck up, don’t ever fuck up” is good advice, supplement it with “it’s okay to fuck up” and “no fuck-up is impossible to fix.”
Remember, remember, the rule of November.
Play with fire.
Don’t talk to cops (unless you are just saying hi and catching up. They are friendly people.)