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MIT student blogger Yan Z. '12

Examining exams by Yan Z. '12

Sometimes, grades matter less than photons are matter.

It’s October. Cambridge is cozily snuggled into the cusp of a cold front, the air is crisp like tempura in the cracks of a deep-fried broccoli flower, and the crunchiness of autumn tingles with the sound of freshmen beating themselves up on every sun-swept corner of campus.

Perhaps you were expecting something like “Freshmen baking apple pies” or “Freshmen cavorting in freshly-raked piles of leaves”. In this case, please allow me to redirect you up the river*.

(*I’m kidding! Please don’t take away my website!)

Here at MIT, the Infinite Corridor has been ringing with an unearthly chorus of low self-esteem for the past week. Take a moment’s breath to stop and listen in the 10 minutes between classes, and the MIT Class of 2012 will treat you to a rousing litany of Academic Failure’s Greatest Hits, including “Never Got to Finish Biology Test, Part 5”, “Stupid Computation Error”, “Got Ditched by the Born Exponent”, “Blues in F, Formerly a Key but Now My Math Grade”, “Solid State Chemistry of Fractures (in My Shattered Nerves)” and “8.012 Took My Soul (and Graded It and Gave It Back to Me on Tuesday)”.

You guessed it: MIT just dumped its first round of tests on the undumped-upon freshmen. It’s been a rough week all around. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you the frictional coefficient of this week. Imagine this: Friday night is zipping by like a shiny silver segway after you’ve just trudged through three or four exams . . . except that you’re segwaying yourself straight into a concrete slab of thick, stubborn Problem Sets. Segways don’t have airbags. But, for a few swift hours, you’re blissfully free to cruise along, guarded from the edge of abysmal anxiety by a fence named Pass/ No Record.

That’s right. Technically, none of us can fail a single class this semester. I distinctly remember hearing about Pass/No Record almost exactly one year ago at an MIT info session, and I believe my response was “Cool, I wonder if the students go bowling a lot.”

The answer is yes, but only a very specific version of bowling in which the balls are actually test papers and the scattered pins are our battered, deflated expectations.

So here’s the crux of the issue: If you’re a freshman here, you are most likely accustomed to nesting in the gleaming lofts of the Grading Hotel, in Room 99 or 100 or (dare I say) 105, each with a spectacular view of the bell curve, obscuring the misshapen C’s and F’s far off in the statistical distance. Your class ranking in high school was a one-digit prime number, and scarcely did you meet another student who matched your intellectual caliber (even so, you only saw them at the state math competitions once or twice or twelve times a year, depending on how much you liked math). Sometimes, you wondered if you could affect weather patterns in Singapore merely by thinking about it really hard, just because your astute brainpower is practically a physical force (you consider proving this experimentally next Saturday).

And then you come to MIT, where relativity is not just a theory but a devastating mode of reality. With heartstopping suddenness, you discover that your intelligence is no longer in an inertial frame of reference. Your calculations begin to break down; you try but cannot define a coordinate system in which to evaluate Amount of Work Input vs. Grade Output. There’s only one absolute: by inherent and terrifyingly immutable definition, half the students at MIT must be below average in their class. You start to wonder if you’ve slipped onto the other side of the bell curve.

This, in essence, is my theory of why pass/no record thinly obscures a subtle undercurrent of rampant paranoia. At some level, nearly everyone tries to cling on to the crumbling remnants of their high school success as they’re swept by unforgiving tides headlong into deep unfamiliarity and long integrals.

But hey, I guess that’s enough pedantry. I’ll freely admit to giving an impressive rendition of “(Almost) Never Got to Finish Biology Test, Part Five” last weekend, which segued tunefully into the melody of “Stupid Computation Errors” (it’s infectiously catchy). Here’s the story: I studied. I went to recitations. I took notes while Eric Lander was lecturing. I took notes while Eric Lander was most likely curing cancer. I read the textbook, including the diagram captions and including the imaginary captions that mysteriously appeared for some of the diagrams at 2 AM in the morning*. I went to the office hours of multiple TA’s for 29 hours per day and then lied about it on my blog.

(*I plan to amass a fortune someday by publishing a book of dinosaur comics, except with variously cryptic scientific diagrams instead of dinosaurs.)

Had I oxidized so many of my beloved energy molecules in preparing for a biology test in high school, I would have received a 120% and possibly a card on my birthday. I’m not in high school. I got a B.

It’s been one week since, and never have I cared less about grades. Mistakes or not, I internalized more biology-related data in three weeks than I did in one full year of high school, and I now understand textbook biology thoroughly enough to fool your three best friends into believing my 100%-fabricated explanations for why genetics works, unless your three best friends are named Watson, Crick, and Rosalind Franklin. Somehow, nothing else feels significant.

And the final pedantic message: MIT is hard. Life is hard. A crystal formed from carbon atoms arranged in a single isometric-hexoctahedral lattice is hard. In all three, there’s better properties to focus on.

57 responses to “Examining exams”

  1. Yan Z. says:

    Yeah, I should have known that 4 AM is the preferred hour of activity for jaded upperclassmen.

    @ Not Frosh:
    It wasn’t a hard test, but I think this is an irrelevant observation. For the most part, I lost points not because I didn’t understand the material but because of reading errors, lack of proofreading, etc. The fact is, I could have failed and still left the test room with a sense of accomplishment as long as I was satisfied with what I had gotten out of the class.

    My friend, with whom I studied, worked on problem sets, and attended office hours, took the same test and got a solid A. It’s safe to assume that she and I knew almost exactly the same amount of material. Ergo: I was glad for both of us.

    In brief, my point is that students (at least incoming freshmen) tend to put far too much emphasis on discrete letter grades rather than what grades are meant to represent.

  2. Snively says:

    lol, I’m with “not a frosh”

    Especially in 5.12 (organic chemistry). Passing is usually somewhere between a 10% and 15%. An A is around 50% to 55% and average is around 25%. Awesome, eh?

    It gets to the point where instead of saying “Aw man, look at those points I lost!” you start saying “Wow! Look at all those points I managed to get!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Heh, Snively, I can say with complete confidence that there are many, many classes that warrant such dismal descriptions way more than 5.12, Snively. :p Hmm, maybe among all the largest-sized classes, though, yeah, 5.12 takes the ball with that one.

    And “Rosamund Franklin”… is that unintentional (*coughRosalindcough*) or a jab at something I’m not seeing (perhaps “[your] 100%-fabricated explanations”)?

  4. Snively says:

    @Anonymous
    Yeah, just one example

  5. '11 says:

    Especially, Rosamund Franklin

  6. Oasis '11 says:

    I sound old already when I write this, so don’t attack me pls. haha

    Froshies are on P/NR, so it doesn’t matter. In fact, if my frosh first semester course grade was written in the minor keys, it would be a beautiful melange of sharp and flat minor key signatures, far from being unblemished. (kudos if you can decipher that – haha it’s such a poor analogy – I passed all 5 of my courses though)

    I worked a lot harder second semester (when grades really mattered) and started getting As – so it was all good at the end.

    I’ve always wanted to write about grading at MIT in an entry, but I don’t know how to do so in an unbiased/non-complaining/scientific fashion, so I never did.

    I think the difficulty at MIT varies a ton for different people. There are definitely people who breeze through MIT, though at least for me – if I want an A – I really, really have to work for it. And even so, it’s definitely not guaranteed in many cases. However, I believe that can’t be considered to be “struggling” either, so it just goes to show the broad spectrum of ability present even here (and we are all supposed to be the brightest from high school).

    Oh, btw, this year’s first exam box scores:

    7.03 (genetics): avg: 60, st.dev: 20
    5.12 (orgo): avg: 65?, st. dev: ~15? (approx)

    And this is only the first exam. I already know that this semester would be one heck of a ride.

  7. A HS senior says:

    uh-oh….should i be scared of MIT? esp that i’m applying to MIT EA. >_>

  8. Snively says:

    @A HS senior
    No, don’t be scared, just know that it’s hard. I mean, it’s MIT, you didn’t expect it to be easy, did you?

  9. deng says:

    “Passing is usually somewhere between a 10% and 15%. An A is around 50% to 55% and average is around 25%.”

    uhhhhh….. O_O

    and here I am, worrying about SATs

  10. Yan Z. says:

    @ Anonymous:
    Thanks, good catch! I was trying to give Rosalind Franklin some credit and ended up botching her name. Ironic.

    (It’s been fixed now).

    It looks like the comments have spiraled into a contest for the distinction of Most Disillusioned Upperclassman, so I should probably keep my distance for now. Everything that Snively and Chris have pointed out is valid, and it’s safe to say that they represent the mentality of most of MIT far better than I could.

    (However, the bottom line seems to be the same: It’s more than acceptable not to get perfect scores at MIT. The upperclassmen are just pointing out that most of the current freshmen haven’t yet realized the full extent to which this is true.)

  11. anonymous says:

    don’t worry kids, none of this applies to course 6… we’ve dumbed down the curriculum and play with robots in order to try and boost ourselves back to having a third of the school like we did in the good ol’ days.

  12. Yan Z. says:

    Oh yeah, and I can add to the exam breakdowns that Chris posted above:

    For introductory bio, the class average for the first test was 68.5 with a SD of 14. That’s for a GIR class with at least 50% freshmen (I’m estimating) and a fair number of jaded juniors and seniors who need to pass bio before graduation.

  13. not a frosh says:

    you think a test is hard and you got a B?
    haha. wait ’til you start taking real classes.

  14. Reena says:

    @ Snively
    Those are the best kinds of tests, the ones that make you go “look at the points I managed to get!”
    :D
    They always make you feel proud of yourself no matter how low your grade is (unless it’s a 0) because you know every question was ridiculously hard. As in, the questions you didn’t get make you feel better about the ones you did.
    The later rounds of National Science Bowl are kind of like that. Which is one reason why it’s so awesome.
    On one hand I wish tests in high school were like that. On the other hand, I’d never get into college with all those report card grades of 25%.
    I’m afraid if I were to get in to MIT, everyone would hate me after tough tests when they ask “how was it?” and I ecstatically exclaim “I totally bombed that!”

  15. rigsby '12 says:

    cute
    don’t listen to the jaded not frosh
    i love responding to questions about test scores with “i passed”

  16. Reena says:

    In other words, your description of 5.12 makes me jealous.

  17. Reena says:

    …Or maybe, you wouldn’t hate me, because you’re secretly glad that your tests are excruciatingly hard, too raspberry

  18. Vaibhav says:

    I agree with Deng…..omg- passing is between 10-15 percent??
    that makes it sound hopelessly difficult (insane?) – and I’m nervous about the SATs too!

    @Yan.Z
    So am I right if I understand that your message is:
    “Its a tough start at MIT”??

  19. June says:

    wow.

    I’m left to infer that professors take pride and somewhat of a sadistic pleasure in giving students such tests (?)

    I love this part smile :

    “I internalized more biology-related data in three weeks than I did in one full year of high school, and I now understand textbook biology thoroughly enough to fool your three best friends into believing my 100%-fabricated explanations for why genetics works, unless your three best friends are named Watson, Crick, and Rosalind Franklin.”

  20. Paul says:

    @June: Sometimes exams are sadistic, but professors do it to ensure that the best students really get a chance to shine, not because they want everyone to fail.

    I remember after my first 8.012 exam, where the average was a 47.7% (SD 17.7), the professor told all of us: “For those of you who might have thought that this test was unfairly hard…remember that you go to MIT now.”

    I think that sums it up pretty well.

  21. anonymous says:

    “Sometimes, you wondered if you could affect weather patterns in Singapore merely by thinking about it really hard..”

    If you can, please do. I’ll be delighted if you send some of that infamous Boston winter weather down here come December/January/February. :D

  22. Yan Z. says:

    @Vaibhav:
    You’re right, but I’m assuming most pre-frosh already know that MIT is difficult. I’m just stressing that the “tough” part is not only the coursework but also the struggle to accept the fact that you can no longer afford to be a perfectionist or judge yourself by the grades you get. Especially after a year of shooting for astronomical SAT scores and whatnot.

    I myself never cared as much about grades as the average high schooler (I eventually ended up dropping out of high school partly because I was disturbed by how much teachers/administrators emphasized largely meaningless numbers and statistics). But, the fact is that MIT is full of people who care about their grades as if they were small children or new iPhones. It’s mostly these people who are having the worst time adjusting.

    @ June:
    Ditto what Paul said. Professors and TAs generally try to do all they can to help you pass. Office hours are a big help.

  23. Yan Z. says:

    Clarification: By “MIT is full of people who care about their grades”, I mean the newly registered freshmen, not the people who’ve been here for a while.

  24. Haha, very enjoyable read.

    And in a weird, masochistic way- it sounds like fun.

  25. lin² says:

    Haha this is great! I love that MIT uses outrageously hard tests to correct students’ perception of perfectionism. It’s ingenious and sadistic at the same time.

    @yan z. By reading your post, I’m left to believe that students have virtually zero free time because they’re constantly studying to keep up. True or not quite?

  26. Yan Z. says:

    @ Lin^2:

    I severely hope that my post didn’t give you that impression. Maybe I was trying to compensate for the fact that all my other blog entries so far have been about myself not working.

    At least for first semester of freshmen, free time abounds like free electrons in a metallic solid. Check out this link and the blogs on the left side menu:

    http://www.mitadmissions.org/topics/life/workplay_balance_at_mit/index.shtml

    Or, for anecdotal evidence, this has been my day so far:

    -Wake up, do laundry, work for 2 or 3 hours until 11:00
    -Meet with awesome group for dim sum in Chinatown, followed by shopping and boba in Chinatown until 2:30.
    -Take subway back to dorm, go outside for a run.
    -Begin working again. Work until 6 PM.
    -Meet with friend for dinner and visit to one of MIT’s living group.
    -Walk back to dorm at 7:30-ish.
    -Work. Nap. Make tea. More work.

    And now I’m going to work some more and go to bed.

  27. Anxious says:

    Have ALL the My MIT accounts of the last admissions cycle been deleted yet? I want to reapply but am having trouble doing so.

  28. Hmmm, this makes sense, i think this is Yan getting a feel of how MIT is distinguished from high school. You’re doing great so far though =]. I’m expecting a change when i get to college too, harder, more work, longer hours, etc. We all just need to find a balance and establish some sort of an oasis so we wont go crazy with just work and end up hating our time in college.
    Good luck Yan! =]

  29. Oasis '11 says:

    “By “MIT is full of people who care about their grades”, I mean the newly registered freshmen, not the people who’ve been here for a while.”

    HAHA because now we’re numb and apathetic? =p tehehe

  30. Vaibhav says:

    @Yan Z.
    It’s SO ironic that you mentioned an iPhone in the last message,since I wrote the previous message through my mom’s iPhone! – lol…
    But ofcourse – everyone (I assume) knows that MIT’s tough – not just getting there but doing well there too!

  31. Paul says:

    @Oasis: Being a jaded and slightly bitter not-frosh is kind of fun, in my opinion. wink

  32. “And the final pedantic message: MIT is hard. Life is hard. A crystal formed from carbon atoms arranged in a single isometric-hexoctahedral lattice is hard. In all three, there’s better properties to focus on.”

    lol that was so funny that I made it my facebook status, I hope that’s okay.

    and +3 internet points to you if you can figure out my name based on the above clue.

  33. Headache says:

    oy…Yan, your entries make my head hurt. It’s like i’m in Literature class all over again. please, in the future, use less words.

    …now where’s my asprin..

  34. I don’t think it’s possible for someone to be best friends with Crick and Watson, and with Rosalind Franklin simultaneously… If someone were, I’m sure it would make for some awkward dinner parties. I can see it now…
    “You stole my x-ray crystallography and my nobel prize!” Franklin cries with disgust.
    Watson and Crick would defensively reply, “Well, you were dead and we were members of a sexist academia. What were we supposed to do?”
    One would need some superior mediation skills to deal with that one.

  35. Anonymous says:

    “even so, you only saw them at the state math competitions once or twice or twelve times a year, depending on how much you liked math”

    Every saturday for 3 months… looks like I’m the twelve times =]

    So, what’s MIT on the Mohs scale? 15.3+-0.5?

  36. Adilio says:

    Please help

    anyone telme what I have to do to enter in this college (MIT)
    my e-mail: [email protected]

    I’m foreign
    from Angola (Africa)

  37. Lyah says:

    “even so, you only saw them at the state math competitions once or twice or twelve times a year, depending on how much you liked math”

    I just loved that. Mainly because I can totally relate.

  38. a '12-er says:

    Wonderful writing. Read this out loud to my roommates while we were just working on physics. Well done.

  39. Anonymous says:

    “Your class ranking in high school was a one-digit prime number”

    what happened to the #1s?

    and i totally agree with headache.

  40. Chris says:

    “even so, you only saw them at the state math competitions once or twice or twelve times a year, depending on how much you liked math”

    This makes me feel like I wasted my highschool not doing smart people things. Hopefully it’s not acceptance criteria _>

  41. Edward says:

    Hmm…so this is the kind of profound blog that MIT students write huh?
    Haha, I’ll definitely have to rid myself of any traces of ego if I plan to go here.
    Kudos on the awesome blog though ;]

  42. @ Erin

    best comment yet.

  43. anonymous says:

    Yan, I love the way you write. It’s so beautiful. (Even if the image it conjures up makes my head hurt).

  44. emily says:

    I agree with above anonymous…so much fun to read. and so true! =P

  45. Reena says:

    I suppose the abundance of concrete buildings at MIT is a metaphorical testament to this?

    Yan, are you by any chance taking a mineralogy course? Or do you just happen to know the crystal system of diamond because you’re awesome like that?
    (Because if you are, I really, really want to hear about it :D)
    (…if you are taking a mineralogy course, I mean.
    …not to imply that i would mind that much just hearing about your awesomeness either)

    *likes EAPS*

  46. Reena says:

    Oooh, or you’re taking solid state chem! If so, how is that?

  47. Yan Z. says:

    @ Chris:
    Not to fear! I spent many orders of magnitude more time doing music competitions in HS than math/science ones. As long as you’re doing something you love, I’m sure it’s fine.

    @ Reena:
    Yes! Solid State Chem. is an amazing class, taught by Donald R. Sadoway like no other. I’m learning a lot, and practically all of it is fascinating.

  48. Clara '10 says:

    Hi Yan,
    I’m really enjoying your blogging so far. I’ve been reading the blogs off and on since I started at MIT (that’s right, I didn’t read them as a pre-frosh) and you’ve got such a unique and engaging style.
    And for the discussion: MIT is hard, but it is also as hard as you choose to make it. If you decide to watch an entire season of 24 the night before a test, and you get a C, you either decide that you need to study more for the next test, or you decide that fun time is really important to you, and you’re OK with a C. In some classes, you’ll have to study non-stop for a week just for a C, but that is certainly not true of every class.

  49. Word Doctor says:

    SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPEALIDOCIOUS, YAN!!!

  50. K.J.Son says:

    Ooh, Eric Lander, isnt he the guy who was totally against using AP Bio test credit for his class; aw man, and I got a 5 on that raspberry

    MIT definitely sounds like a college I would like to go to; the challenge obviously exists
    and you can actually “fail” without failing.

  51. Vivi '128.0 says:

    Yan, I am totally in love with your writing style.
    To add to all the reports of grades, the average for 8.012 this year was 68, with a 19.5 stdv. I will also mention that my grade was a good 1.5 stdv’s below average. 8.012 takes pride in beating you down and watching you struggle to get back up.
    And then beating you down again until you’re conditioned to withstand the pain.

  52. Reena says:

    Haha, Word Doctor, whenever I see that I’m reminded of Saturday Night Live now.

    ”It’s a liver disease.”

  53. Anonymous says:

    “Not-frosh” sounds like it would be a naughty word…

  54. :) says:

    Is MIT THIS EXTREMELY HARD??
    Sweet… I like it. Definitely applying.

  55. shy.tack says:

    Hmm…sounds like procrastinator hell.
    *crap*

    Wow. EVERYONE’S been to some Intergalactic Bowl.

    *[To do list: participate in Intergalactic Bowl]*

    Ah, where’s a good dim-sum joint up there?

  56. shy.tack says:

    Aww, epic failpost.

    It was supposed to be “Intergalactic *crazy esoteric math term here* Bowl”

    …never played hockey with aliens before…