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Fight Fire With Fire by Selam G. '18

How is MIT so hard?

I received the following question on tumblr the other day:



This is a really good question, because it forced me to think and deeply consider why I found MIT so hard–and exactly what it is that causes people to buckle under the pressure. I’ve adapted the response I created for tumblr to this post, which I hope will shed some light on the teaching and learning philosophy of MIT, and exactly what makes it this burning furnace that, through a lot of heat and pressure, turns all of its students into steel (see last week’s post for even more fire metaphors!).

Recently, this video made by the MIT media lab (which includes Chris Peterson and many others) called “How MIT Learns” was posted to the admissions homepage. I’d encourage you all to watch it if you’re interested–it’s pretty cool, and also touches on a lot of the general reasons as to why MIT is both so difficult and very effective. Then, below, you can read my more specific take on the matter.



The reason MIT is so hard is because you are not just given knowledge–you have to earn it. I’m going to guess that at your high school–just as in many high schools–the days you spend in class might go something like this:

1. Introduce a specific concept (let’s use integrals as an example). Your teacher talks about integrals for a little bit, maybe where they came from and gives some background on the theory behind them.

2. Work on Examples. Your teacher might do some simple integral problems on the board a couple times, and one of these times they might write a problem and have you solve it in class.

3. Homework. The homework you receive on integrals starts out easy and gradually becomes harder. Generally speaking, the homework will line up with what is taught in class (at least, it should).

4. Tests. The tests might be a bit harder than the homework, but often they still line up pretty well. If you study, there are not usually many surprises. Most people get B’s. Some get A’s. Sometimes a lot get A’s. Some get C’s–and the C people often drop down a class if it happens consistently.

In this method, even if your teacher is terrible and you don’t understand the homework, the pace is forced to be slow enough that you can still manage, or work with friends and piece together your bits of knowledge. There should be a reasonably direct correlation between effort and grades. Also, for most high school subjects there’s a lot of information available on the internet, whereas in college, sometimes what we’re studying is basically hot off the academic presses, and so you can’t find much outside information to help you. Of course high school can still be very hard–I thought it was hard. It’s made even more challenging when you’re involved in a lot of outside activities, or you take a lot of AP classes. But still, from the standpoint of an individual class, the material is designed to be doable–and this is by no means a bad thing. It’s important to train people in how to acquire knowledge, which is the purpose of high school.

In fact, (a brief tangent) I’ve always disliked it when college/high school/middle school professors and teachers said things like “WELL, I know your high/middle/elementary school teachers did not teach you blah blah blah and that whole time of your life was basically a waste of time and I’m going to actually teach you things now/get you closer to the “real world”/etc./etc.”
This mentality is terrible. Everyone needs different types of education at different levels. I especially never understood why public school teachers said things like that. Being teachers themselves, they should understand the difficulty of their own jobs. To say phrases like that hugely disrespects the teachers that prepared the students before they got into that current teacher’s classrooms. I lose a little respect for teachers or professors who do that.

In contrast to high school, here is how MIT teaches, a method many people call “the fire hose”:


(^how I feel on the daily)


1. Introduce a General Concept.

If you’re supposed to be learning integrals, an MIT professor might start off with the foundation of calculus and talking about summations. In my experience, a lot of the professors really like to tell “stories”, such as “let’s say we have a moving car, and we don’t know how far it’s traveled, but we know it’s velocity…..” and you don’t really know where they are going with this until they explain that the integral of velocity is distance. I like this because it gets you excited. Until you have to do homework.

2. Go over one example.

Expectations are higher at MIT. You are expected to do a lot on your own. If you want more examples, you have to read them on your own time. In class, we might do one or two examples, and often the professor will skip a lot of the intermediate steps. Everyone hates the phrase “and the rest is just algebra” or “…and then I’m sure you guys can do the algebra, so in the end the answer is 5″. Sometimes “just algebra” takes me an hour.

3. Collaborate on homework.

MIT has one very important philosophy: no competition. What I mean is, if, hypothetically speaking, everyone in a class got an A, then everyone would get an A. There is never a curve or weird grade cutoff thing that works against you, it can only ever work for you. This means everyone is encouraged to work with and help each other all the time. This is important, because if you tried to do everything yourself here, you would be absolutely miserable. My biggest regret this semester is not working with other people on our math homework–I really should have done that more.
The homework at MIT has a much greater gap with what was taught in class. There might be a few “confidence boosting” problems that are short, and similar to in-class examples, but most of them are completely different. You might have done a velocity/distance integral problem in class, and then all of a sudden all your homework problems are about heat dissipation. The math is the same–but I’m sure you know how much more confusing things can be when taken out of context. When the math wasn’t all that clear in the first place, it’s exponentially more confusing. You are expected to make the connection between the general concept and the specific problem on your own. The professor does not reveal this connection to you. You MUST ASK FOR HELP from somewhere–TAs, office hours, the professor, your friends. The average set of homework problems here can take anywhere between 4-8 hours, depending on what you yourself are better/worse at (math takes me forever, but physics is usually ok). In high school, I think my homework usually took two hours, except for AP Physics C (which was the most college-like high school class I ever took, take it!!). That 4-8 hours is time spent even when you are working with other people. If there’s something you really don’t understand and you are stubbornly working all by yourself, you can work on it for a whole day and end up with not much more than a pool of tears and eraser shavings (definitely have done this a couple times). We need each other to survive at MIT.

4. Exams.

……oh man.

On my first math exam in college ever, I failed. I’d never actually failed an exam before. Then my TA was like, “oh, but it was only by a few points” and I was like HOW ARE YOU SO CALM.

I was not the number one kid in high school, but here I immediately began to feel like I was at the very bottom, even though I wasn’t. The distribution is different. I think most people get B’s in the end in most classes, but C’s are much more common, and sometimes more the norm in other classes. Getting an A is very hard in most classes. C people are not encouraged to drop–they are considered doing well enough, and if they want to do a little better, they talk to their professors and TAs. This distribution is difficult to get used to. While I’ve talked a lot about the difference between MIT and high school, I think the significantly lower grade distribution is what makes MIT different from other colleges. Some people think, why not just move all the averages up so more people can get B’s and A’s? It might help all the students get better jobs or into better grad schools.

The reason is that MIT is designed to keep you uncomfortable. Making the grade distribution so different from other places and especially from high school makes all the students here very uncomfortable–many of us were straight-A types, after all (actually, the fact that I was not a straight-A student helped me adjust a lot).

We don’t grow when we are comfortable, because our instincts tell us to stay in our comfort zone. MIT tries its best to make sure there is no comfort zone–which, even with all this rigor, is still hard to achieve because of some of the geniuses that come here. In the end, your job will really not depend on your GPA. MIT has made sure that everyone knows it does not work on the same grading scale as other places. The only time this becomes a problem is with scholarships–but don’t ever let that keep you from taking risks. I myself have a GPA-dependent scholarship, but I didn’t drop any of my classes, because I know that I could appeal to either MIT (for more financial aid) or to my scholarship provider, and they would actually understand, because it really is that hard.

In general, I think the high school philosophy is to teach knowledge–which makes a lot of sense and is very appropriate for high school. Like I said, I hate it when people discount our previous experiences and education. You need a good knowledge foundation, and that will definitely help you at any college you go to, including MIT. Difficult high schools are difficult because they teach a lot of knowledge in a short time.

But MIT’s philosophy is to teach learning.

I didn’t understand this at first. I couldn’t understand how we could pay so much tuition to go to classes where professors didn’t teach us anything (well, it felt that way at the time). You have to really learn concepts fully, and you have to reach an understanding of them that only comes from working with the concept in many different contexts on your own. Sometimes, this is not possible for some people in some classes–to be perfectly honest, I still have no idea what’s going on in math. In that case, if you work hard, you can still at least pass the class (get a C) even if you don’t fully understand everything (which is what I’m doing in math ^^”). In other words, if you really, actually learn things at MIT, you can get a B (maybe an A), and if you don’t but you work really hard, you can get a C.

You also have multiple classes that are all this level of difficulty. This is another way that I think MIT might be different from other schools. The 4-8 hour problem set time I mentioned is for just one class. You’ll have at least four, and hopefully, you’ll also have, you know, a life–friends, clubs, music, art–all these other things that you like doing but which can also eat your time. On top of all this, despite our “no competition” policy, when it seems like everyone around you is doing just fine, it’s demotivating (although trust me, they’re actually not perfect) another difficulty particular to MIT. This feeling can be more crippling than any of the actual work you have to do, and makes it difficult not to descend into listlessness or panic. Random external problems (family, social drama, getting sick, etc.) take a greater toll on your time, your life, and your grades than they would in high school. I actually get more sleep in college than I did in high school–but I also feel like I need sleep more. I cannot survive the extremely dense flood of information–the fire hose–that is fired at me in a single day with less than four hours of sleep. I just can’t.

So that’s why MIT is so hard. Success is not getting an A here. Success is not even getting a C here. Success is maintaining your mental and emotional stability in the face of this fire hose. You cannot give up. You cannot fall away. No matter how badly you do, you cannot let academics define who you are. You have to keep working, and keep working really hard, no matter how pointless it seems at times. Success here is finding or creating a group of people that support each other–giving and receiving both academic and emotional/mental support. Don’t ever close yourself off from these people. Success is knowing that it’s okay to feel upset–but you cannot let being upset consume you. Success here is still making time for the things that make you happy, and separating yourself from your disappointments. Success is failing–and being able to move on.

If you are admitted to MIT, it’s because they know that you have fire. The educational system seems to put every effort into extinguishing that fire, and that often feels awful. But actually, you just become really, really good at burning.



(if we’re going to continue with this metaphor thing then MIT students must be like Valyrian steel!)

(this gif is from Game of Thrones)

(is anyone currently watching season 5? I still need to catch up….)