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MIT student blogger Michael C. '16

Freshman FAQs by Michael C. '16

and a cliffhanger or two.

Hey there!  Haven’t seen you in a while.  And by “seen” I mean “you haven’t seen the pixels on your screen that would indicate that you are reading an MIT Admissions blog post by Michael C. ’16.”

Anyway.

Around a week ago, one of the admins on the MIT Class of 2017 Facebook page asked me to do a Reddit-style AMA (Ask Me Anything) post.  I wasn’t able to do one at the time, since I was dangling off a cliff in Utah and had limited Internet access:

'cliffhanger' ha ha

(trust me, the lack of reliable wifi was by far the scarier part)

But here I am now, answering some of the questions that I’ve gotten via email/FB message/owl post in the past few months.

1. “Why did you pick MIT over the bajillion other colleges out there?”

Whenever someone asks me about this I always remember Connie’s post from way back when about “fit”.  Like many MIT people, in high school I was always known as “the smart one” or “the guy who’s good at biology” or whatever.  And while that’s nice for the ego, it’s not so helpful in terms of intellectual stimulation. I didn’t want college to be just a continuation of high school, where I could put some marginal effort into classes and get good grades but never really had to challenge myself. I wanted to throw myself into an environment where I’d be surrounded by people just as smart as, and in many cases much smarter than, myself.

None of what I’ve written above pertains only to MIT, of course. You’ll find people much smarter than yourself at any top university. What tipped the balance towards MIT for me was the culture. I didn’t realize this until I started visiting colleges, but culture is really a tangible thing that you can compare. So much of MIT is about openness, whether it’s the open source movement or OCW or edX or hacking – and I really liked that. In the op-ed “A love letter to MIT“, there was a paragraph that talked about doors, which really resonated with me:

“You made yourself an open playground. Literally, your buildings are always open. You can easily find an open classroom for students and friends to gather to brainstorm startup ideas. This is quite different from Harvard where even if you are a student, you are often met with locked doors.”

I’ve found that to be very true; at MIT, pretty much every building is open 24/7 to students (and if a door’s locked, there are ways around that…but that’s another topic).  It sounds silly, but I feel it does make a difference in terms of culture and accessibility.

2. “How hard IS MIT? And how is the workload/party/chill balance like?”

MIT can be any level of difficulty you like, as long as that level of difficulty is “hard.”

Yeah, MIT classes by themselves are pretty hard.  But classes are only such a small part of life here.  You can increase the difficulty as much as you want by adding UROPs, extra classes, clubs, etc.  It all becomes a game of time management.  For example, I was a perfectionist about things in high school (I harboured this dream that I would ace every test in AP Calc BC, and was kind of let down when I got a 98 on my third test) – and I have a feeling that some of you are like that too.  But trust me when I say that you’ll get over the perfectionist thing – not necessarily because you’re not capable of acing tests, but because you’ll realize that for the first time that time really is your most limited resource.

Time. is. everything.  How you allocate it will be one of the biggest factors influencing your experience here at MIT.  It’s not simply a case of “studying vs. socializing” anymore.  Now, it’s “studying for the massive midterm tomorrow vs UROPing vs ‘networking with ethanol’ (aka partying) vs prototyping new designs for Toy Product Design vs sleeping vs hacking….”  Whenever I consider joining a new activity, I think of it almost in terms of credits (one credit roughly corresponds to one hour per week).  I’m currently taking five classes and a UROP, which is the rough hour/week equivalent of 67 credits.  That’s a hefty load in itself, which is why I’m careful when adding new activities like UAV team or yearbook or blogging or whatever.

But honestly, don’t worry too much about the workload.  Not yet, at least.  Pass/No Record first semester is a godsend for helping people acclimate to MIT’s academic environment.

Also, a word of advice from the not-so-elderly: I’d strongly recommend against spending too much time gaming or Facebooking or Tumblring (I’ll have to admit that I have trouble with those last two).  You’re spending $55K a year to be here.  Don’t waste it doing activities you could do in your parents’ basement.

3. “UROPs.  UROPs UROPs UROPs”

MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program is one of the major things separating it from other elite schools.  If you’ve got the will, it’s comparatively easy to get a research position in whatever field you’re interested in.  I actually didn’t realize how unique the UROP program was until I started talking to my friends at Ivies like Harvard and Yale, where it’s much more difficult (and in some departments, nigh impossible) to get a research position in your first year.

But how do you get a UROP?  A good first step is to look at the UROP openings website, just to get a sense of what opportunities are out there and what various labs are doing.  But applying to these advertised openings isn’t the most optimal way to get a UROP, because these are the hardest positions to get.  If a lab is advertising an opening, they’re usually expecting applicants with more substantial experience.

A better way to get a UROP is to find labs whose work you’re interested in, and then directly contact the lab.  For example, I got my current UROP (in Langer Lab at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research) by emailing Langer Lab’s administrator with my resume and interests; she then forwarded my email to all of the postdocs in Langer Lab.  Postdocs who were interested and had openings then emailed me back, setting up casual interviews.  Once you’ve found a postdoc willing to take you on, then you apply officially through the UROP website.

4. “I’m not sure what I want to major in.  Is that okay?”

Yes!  One of the best things about MIT is that you don’t have to declare a major until the end of your second semester.  I came into MIT pretty sure that I would be majoring in something bio – Course 6-7, or 7, or 20, or maybe 10.  And the best way to know if you’re interested in a field is simply to get experience in it; through UROPs, clubs, project-based classes, etc.  Through my UROP and Toy Product Design, I realized that I was interested in less of the wet lab stuff, and more of the applied engineering stuff.  Or to quote my friend Connie, who actually did an AMA:

“I’m really results-driven and having a concrete goal like “make this device”, rather than “cure cancer” is a lot easier for me to work towards and agrees with my working style a lot better.”

(still not sure if “results-driven” is a euphemism for “impatient”, but hey, it describes me.  I think)

I like building neat stuff.  I’m Course 2 now, and I still might integrate some of my love for bio through 2A-20 building medical devices or something.  We’ll see.

That’s it for this post!  For absolutely no reason, here’s some photos of food I’ve cooked recently in the lovely Senior Haus kitchens, because I like pretty pictures of food and still harbour a secret desire to be a food blogger:

seafood om nom. pan roasted scallops for the first time and they were sublime.

whenever strawberries are on sale at Shaw's it kind of makes my week

Also, feel free to ask any more questions you’ve got in the comments!