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MIT blogger Sabrina M. '21

“Failing” at MIT by Sabrina M. '21

for the record, this isn't

For a lot of incoming MIT students, the story is the same. Four relatively easy years of high school seem to fly by; SAT’s, ACT’s, TGIF’s, BYOB’s, and a whole slew of other acronyms leave you with a warm, tingly feeling that makes you tear up a bit during graduation. Or maybe the story has some variations: you don’t cry, but instead, silently cheer because you’re finally starting something new. Regardless, the end (or is it the beginning?) is the same: you come to MIT, most likely as a freshman, bright-eyed, confident, and on top of the world. So, now, this may be the moment where you have to immerse yourself into this persona if this isn’t you, so I’ve tried my best, through one of my favorite mediums, short stories:

I go to M-I-expletive-T,
a girl thinks to herself on the first day of classes. She’s dreamt about this moment ever since she first saw the acronym MIT in half of the articles on Popular Science. She is on Cloud Nine, wispy streams of vapor following her shoes every step she takes, even as she walks into Walker Memorial, three weeks into the semester, for her first exam. She gets that familiar thrill like she did in high school, the feeling of acing exams without really trying. But unlike the past four years, there’s a little nerve in the very back of her head and at the tips of her fingers that shakes a bit when she thinks about how much she struggled to finish the very first PSET. Up, up, up the stairs she goes, and it’s go time.

Finally, a challenge,
a teenager thinks to themself after flipping through the five questions that make up the exam and realizing they can’t fully answer a single one. There are no formulas, numbers, or memorized solutions that can help them, because for the first time, they actually have to know what they’re doing. They look down to their shoes (please let the answer somehow appear in my head after the sight of these black, suede boots). They look around, trying to see if other people are sweating just as much as they are. As far as they can tell, no one is. Or maybe that’s just the nervousness blurring their vision. The metaphorical clouds are quickly becoming metaphorical rain.

Did everyone else think that was hard?
a boy thinks to himself after walking out after the full two hours. He meets up with his friends, and they talk about their answers excitedly on their way back to Baker House (i didn’t get any of those answers) and there are clouds everywhere and around everyone, but he’s walking on puddles by now. “Don’t worry about it,” upperclassmen tell him, “I didn’t even show up to class, but I passed.” But he does worry.

It’s just pass/no record,
another girl thinks to herself after getting her grade back, only a day later. It’s a D, which by MIT standards, is a failure. Because this girl is a bit soft-hearted like me, she cries alone in her room after the fact. But, she knows there’s no time to really cry, really get all of it out, because there’s a PSET she hasn’t started due in five hours that everyone else has already completed, and no one is going to lose sleep to help her. Again. Or, at least, that’s what she thinks. A couple of weeks later, she gets a fifth week flag in her inbox, and she cries again.

Am I not smart enough for MIT?
they all think to themselves after seeing a NR on their internal transcripts. There’s too much that they’re thinking that it’s hard to write down, but this thought stands up triumphantly among the rest.

MIT has Pass/No Record put in place to alleviate some of the pressure on first-semester freshmen. The way it works is pretty simple: for your first semester at MIT, you get grades in all your classes, but the only thing that shows up on your transcript at the end of the semester is either a P, or NR. You either pass your classes, a blank slate in the form of a P that equates a C to an A+, or you don’t, and the records of you even taking the class are wiped clean. Bam. Gone. At least, as far as external records go. To the world, to the companies that demand your transcript, to MIT programs that have a GPA requirement, it’s gone. Whoosh. Never existed. But to you, it’s there, underneath layers and layers of forced bravado.

One thing I’ve learned after a year at MIT is that the standards for failing are so, so, incredibly low. Or, at least, that’s what it feels like. We beat ourselves up over things that most people wouldn’t bat an eye to. A literal teenager failed Calculus 2? A freshman in college isn’t working at a Dow 30 company during the summer? A college student isn’t taking an absurd amount of classes? It’s hard to mark these things as failures when you think about it in this way. It feels so much more inconsequential, these things we cry and stress over.

Another thing I’ve learned is that saying things out loud (or to hundreds of people on the internet) actually does make you feel kind of better. The words come out and the fear of being judged and the feeling of being ashamed kind of dull down. So here it goes. A brief list (in condensed paragraph form) of some failures, by MIT’s standards, in reverse chronological order:

I recently dropped a class, and even though I’m taking 4 other classes, I still feel behind compared to my peers, who work through 6 classes. I’m not taking enough technical classes. The only classes I’ve gotten A’s in have been HASS classes. I didn’t get any leadership positions in the clubs I participated in. I didn’t have a fancy tech job over the summer. I didn’t get a UROP. I got a fifth week flag for 5.111 my freshman fall. I failed no-recorded 8.01.

I agonized over that last one the most. We always hear success stories about rising against all odds, and turning that first failed exam into an A in the class. I wouldn’t consider myself one of those cases. I was already in a slower version of the class that extended into IAP (8.01L, to be exact), and I constantly looked down on myself for that. Even though I went to lecture every day, I struggled on PSETs and failed my exams while my classmates breezed through with no issues. Come November, it became increasingly harder to motivate myself to go to class. I was so upset by my first exam grade that I convinced myself that my recitation was unhelpful, and I stopped going. I gradually worked less and less with my peers to finish PSETs, because I felt so guilty that I wasn’t contributing to solving any of the problems. All of this snowballed into a NR on my grade report.

To make matters worse, after crying my eyes out to a trusted friend, I lied to everyone else about it. I was too afraid and too ashamed and too full of self-pity to change anything.

However, like I said, this isn’t a typical success story, if one at all. But, life was continuing to move on. In the Spring, I took 8.011, a class designed mostly for people who No-Recorded 8.01/8.01L/8.012/the rest of the variations, and in my case, an Olympic medalist who had transferred to MIT that semester. I hated that class, not because of the material, or the professors or the TA’s (who were actually very helpful, and I’m grateful), but because it was a reminder of something I wanted to erase like my record on the transcript. I didn’t talk to anyone in my classes, and I did my work alone because I didn’t want to think about that class anywhere except when I was in class. I cried while doing PSETs and studying for weekly quizzes because I was afraid I’d fail again. I threw 90 percent of my energy into other classes, because a problem doesn’t really exist if I ignore it, right? I cried tears of joy in my room alone when I found out I passed the class, because I didn’t think I had earned it. I mean, how could I have? According to all previous experience, I was predisposed to fail Physics. That’s what it felt like.

So, if you’re reading this because you want to know what the secret to failing is, I’m sorry. I just don’t know, either. But, I can at least update you on my life now, through a list of successes, this time, by my own standards:

I’m writing and painting and doing things I love a lot more, now. I’m taking 8.02 now, and I’m doing well, I think. One of my group members, a nice 2020, constantly remarks that I’m “good at physics”. I impress myself every day the more things I understand in differential equations. People tell me that I’m still as excitable and happy as I was freshman year. I got to dance on stage with my favorite artists ever in front of around 2500 people, all while dressed as peanut butter toast. I don’t feel stressed, or overloaded, or helpless, anymore, even when I don’t do spectacularly.

It is hard, rejecting this notion that as MIT students, we are meant to be stressed, meant to be doing, meant to be perfect. It’s easy to fall into a trap of self-loathing when all we see are people constantly doing. Of course, we don’t notice the other people struggling, because we’re constantly surrounded by people that shine so bright that it’s blinding. But, they’re there. I’m here.

Long story short, it’s going to be all right. But, it will suck, whether you’re failing or “failing”. It’s not all glamorous movies about rising against all odds. It’s crushing, especially to a young and naïve freshman away from home for the first time. The feeling of failure lingers around MIT’s students like a dark cloud, but it’ll pass, like all storms do.