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MIT student blogger Mollie B. '06

First term freshman year by Mollie B. '06

A horror story, I guess... but one with a happy ending

This is entry #2 in my series “entries that need to be written because some of the new categories don’t have enough stuff in them”. Today, we have the privilege of dissecting the first term of my freshman year to discuss freshman grading.

The background
Hopefully you know about pass/no record already. Basically, first term freshman year at MIT, you are only graded in a pass/fail fashion — if you get an A, B, or C in a class, it gets recorded on your transcript merely as a “P”. If you get a D or an F, the class doesn’t get recorded on your transcript — it’s as if you never took the class.

This is a really good system, for several important reasons.
1. MIT classes are harder than high school classes, and people tend to get lower grades first term at MIT than they’ve ever gotten in their lives.
2. The system encourages first-term freshmen to have fun and explore life outside the classroom without being overly preoccupied with their grades.
3. Freshmen can learn to manage their time wisely and find an appropriate balance between work and play without damaging their academic records.

Pass/no record really helps MIT students quit stressing about grades, and as a result, freshmen often blow off work and run around and frolic even when they have stuff they “ought” to be doing. (Case in point: At 1 AM one night in November freshman year, I was studying for an 8.01x (physics) test which was to occur the next morning. My friend Akhil ’05 MEng ’06 IMed me and asked if I wanted to go explore campus. I said yes. I ended up pulling an all-nighter the night before a test because I was having fun wandering around tunnels and basements and other such places. It was great.)

My freshman year
Freshman year at MIT was pretty difficult for me academically, since I didn’t take AP Physics or AP Chem in high school. Everything was new and challenging, and the problem sets were hard… and I’d never learned to manage my time wisely in high school, because I could just do all my homework during study hall the morning before it was due, when there even was homework in the first place. I skipped class a lot more frequently than I did in my upperclass years, because I hadn’t figured out yet that I learn best from lectures… I also skipped class because physics was at 10 AM, and I stayed up until 4 somewhat frequently talking in the hallway with my new friends. Plus, I was still dating my high school sweetheart, and our relationship was going downhill pretty quickly, so I spent a lot of time fighting with him on the phone.

All of this stuff was not great for my academic life, as you might imagine.

I have to admit that I don’t remember exactly how many tests I failed freshman year. I know it was at least three physics tests (two tests during term, plus the final), two calculus tests (one test during term, plus the final), and two chemistry tests (both during term). I ended up with a B+ in my HASS (9.00, intro to psychology), a C+ in 18.01 (single-variable calculus), a C in 5.111 (introductory chemistry), and a C- in 8.01x (physics). Passing in 8.01x was an overall average of 60; I had a final grade of 63.5.

And yet, my official transcript just says P for everything. ;) And that’s the transcript that admissions committees saw when I applied to graduate school — they had no idea that I passed freshman physics by the skin of my nose.

Rock out.

I had a couple of friends who failed classes first semester, and they just re-took the classes second semester, no big deal.

As an upperclassman, there are other strategies — Drop Date, the last date you can drop a class, is two or three weeks before final exam week, so if you’re not doing well that late in the semester, you’ll generally just drop the class and re-take it another semester. Juniors and seniors also get to take two classes on pass/fail, which frees them to take interesting classes without worrying about adverse effects on their grade point averages.

Current stuff in my life
Today was a tax-free holiday in Massachusetts — the governor suspended the sales tax for the weekend to encourage people to go shopping. Adam and I didn’t have anything to buy other than groceries (which aren’t taxed in Massachusetts anyway), but we went over to the Galleria just to watch the frenzy.

People were swarming over Best Buy, trying to buy their televisions and digital cameras, all for the sake of saving $25 in tax. I love it. People are really bad at math. Adam and I bought a movie and a digital clock. We saved two bucks.

I would also like to note that it’s fun to hang out with course 16 majors, because you can say, “This is not rocket science, buddy” in a really snotty voice when they suck at doing things like parking the car, and they can’t say anything, because after all, it’s not rocket science, and they of all people should know that.

Questions and other things of that nature

1. Colin asked,

I was wondering — is there a good chance that I’ll be able to get the HASS-D course I want if I go on the first day? Are there any notoriously popular HASS-D courses? Specifically, I’m thinking I want to take 21M.011 (Intro to Western Music), but I know music is a popular interest among MIT students.

There’s usually a pretty good chance that you can get into a class on the first day, even if it is traditionally popular. I didn’t get lotteried into 24.900 (Intro to Linguistics) in two different semesters, and the second time I just showed up with an add form, and got in easily. The thing is that a lot of upperclassmen pre-register and enter the lotteries without actually intending to take the classes for which they’re registering — I know a few people who actually pick pre-reg courses randomly. As you might imagine, this creates a lot of unexpectedly empty spots in various courses on the first day of class. :)

After the lottery results are out, this page will show a list of HASS-Ds with open seats. Although it does vary from semester to semester depending on what’s popular, it looks like 21M.011 had quite a few open seats last semester. (And for that matter, even if a course isn’t listed as having open seats, there will usually be a few people who decide not to take the class, so it’s worth showing up the first day with an add form.)

The bottom line is that there’s very little that’s hard and fast about MIT lotteries and other class stuff — there’s almost always a way to get what you want.

2. Curious Freshman wrote,

Are professors rated by students? Is there a way to see the ratings before choosing classes? Do MIT students use

I wouldn’t use The one time I visited the site, I noticed that not a lot of MIT people are on it, so the ratings aren’t reliable.

Students evaluate professors and courses in a standardized form at the end of each semester; the evaluations can be found here (certificates required). Those results aren’t perfect (the surveys are administered during the last week of class, when all the people who hated the class enough to drop it are already gone), but at least they’re standardized and taken by a large number of people.

3. JE asked,

For a research career in undergrad to be considered valuable and worthwhile, is publication a must? Ex. is there an X number of times you should be published to have a good shot at a top grad school?

You definitely don’t need to be published to get into a top grad school. It helps, no doubt, but it’s not required. It’s actually not even common — when I went to a workshop on grad school applications junior year, the course 9 faculty said that only about 5% of their applicants are published. So if you can get published through your UROP, get psyched, but if not, don’t worry about it in the least. (And, to put in a plug for Melis — you can publish in MURJ!)

12 responses to “First term freshman year”

  1. Melis says:

    Wahoo! Thanks for the plug, Mollie! And I just realized I wrote about the same course selection advice that you did in my entry this morning… great minds think alike, I guess?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Awwww…. you were such a drama queen!

    Here I was thinking you were flawless, and worshipped the ground you walked on.

  3. Aziz '10 says:

    Great entry Mollie! Extremely useful for those of us with the Freshman Heebie Jeebies ;p (that must be the corniest thing I’ve ever said, but hey I’m at an apple store right now so I don’t feel like thinking a whole lot when I’m standing ;p they should put chairs in these stores ;p)

  4. Minh says:

    Hooray for pass/fail!!

  5. Drew says:

    If someone applies to MIT for grad school, does Pass/No Record still take effect?

  6. Sarab says:

    I love the Open Course ware you have. I never knew that outsiders could access it. Thanks. My next many hours are booked. i love it

    Thanks again!!


  7. Hey, Mollie! I wrote my latest blog post just for you! Check it out!

  8. Sam says:

    Hey, don’t make fun of the tax holiday! My floor debated using our floor funds to buy a new big screen TV for 9 months, and it ended up being just the catalyst we needed to get it done in time for orientation.

  9. kash says:

    Hey, what kind of GPA does it take to get into MIT? 3.75?, 4.0?, 4.25? what general area, and if you don’t mind what did you or any friends have?

  10. Faith says:

    pass/no record is awesome!

  11. al says:

    is transfering to MIT hard than entering as a freshmen?

  12. i read the whole thing and i guess i cliked the wrong thing but i need to know the “G.P.A” of M.I.T so can you tell me in your next blog

    a high school freshman