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MIT student blogger Mollie B. '06

Get psyched, stay with it, do whatever it takes by Mollie B. '06

Adam's dad's advice is succint. Mine isn't.

I have to admit that I don’t have fifty pieces of advice for anybody, but I do have a couple of things to say about starting college, particularly at the only college about which I know anything substantial.

The most succinct advice I can give is from Adam’s dad (my future father-in-law, yay!), who has three pieces of advice which he applies to every situation anyone in our family encounters.
1. Get psyched.
2. Stay with it.
3. Do whatever it takes.

I think this is superb advice. My advice is a lot more wordy (surprise surprise).

The most important thing you will learn at MIT will be how to fail.

Okay, one time I said that the most important thing you’ll learn is how to ask for help. And that’s still true, but I guess the failing part happens before the asking for help part, so the failing gets to be primary.

This might sound surprising, since people seem to think that the most important thing they’ll learn in college is how to design a robot, or how to calculate the thermodynamic properties of a chemical reaction, or how to succinctly prove that If an integer n is greater than 2, then an + bn = cn has no solutions in non-zero integers a, b, and c. Well, it just ain’t so. I mean, if the cold hard facts were the important thing, you could save your tuition money and get your education via OCW or the NCBI Bookshelf. But an MIT education explicitly sets out to teach you how to think, and how to approach thinking, and how to take things you don’t know and turn them into things you do know.

And how to fail.

If you’re going to be a practicing scientist or engineer, you need to learn how to fall flat on your face. Despite the best intellectual efforts of any given scientist, lab work fails at least half of the time. Sometimes it fails even more than that. Sometimes the scientist can figure out what’s wrong and take steps to fix the problem, but much of the time, he’d be just as well off chanting incantations and waving religious amulets. (Some scientists I know recently put up in their lab a statue of St. Jude — patron saint of lost causes — next to a picture of Thoth, the Egyptian god of knowledge, figuring that plurality could only be a good thing for their protocols.) Failure’s just as necessary a skill in engineering, or business, or life. Nobody’s successful all of the time.

So what you need to learn how to do is fail, but not let failure get you down. You have to realize that “something that I did failed” is not the same as “I am a failure,” even if you have to tell yourself a hundred times before you believe it. You have to realize that being the best at everything you ever do doesn’t mean you’re amazing — it means you’re afraid to take chances.

Almost everybody fails a test or two their first term freshman year at MIT. A lot of people fail a whole class or two. This is okay — it’s pass/no record! Live it up. You’ll figure out what you need to do to get the grades you want, and you’ll do it, and everything will be okay.

And, of course, when you’re stuck in your UROP lab doing a reaction for the nth time because you just can’t get it to work… well, I’ve been there too. (Actually, I’ve been there a lot.) Try to resist the urge to punch a machine, because they’re very expensive.


1. Leo (after reading my directions to Target stores in the Boston area) asked,

I checked all the bus stops and places you linked, man, I feel so powerless without a car.
Isn’t there a delivery-to-door option offered by some of the superstores?

There’s always online ordering. :) I order stuff online quite a bit, and even though I hate paying shipping, it’s easier than carving out a chunk of the day to get to the store and back on the T. I will note, though, that a nonzero number of students do have cars, and most are more than happy to take a Target trip on a Saturday or something. My designated drivers are Rachel ’07 and Woody ’08 — Rachel takes me to Target, and Woody takes big groups of people out to IHOP and Outback Steakhouse.

2. Charlotte noted,

A short note to all- having a safe campus doesn’t mean one should lower his/her guard, take care, especially if you’re a girl (sigh…).

As Adam says, don’t wander around by yourself drunk at night with money hanging out of your pockets. ;) You should always be aware of your surroundings — Boston’s a pretty safe city, but it is a city after all.

3. Al asked,

is transfering to MIT hard than entering as a freshmen?

In terms of admission percentages, yes. About 14% of freshman applicants were accepted last year, but only about 5% of transfer applicants were admitted — and that’s actually somewhat high for the transfer admission rate. Not many students leave MIT, so there aren’t very many spots open for transfers, unfortunately.

4. I think Colin gave a great response to Aja’s question (and Ankit’s, too), so you should go look at it if you’re wondering how to make yourself shine in the application. :)

4 responses to “Get psyched, stay with it, do whatever it takes”

  1. Learn how to fail!!!

    I applied to MIT last year but got rejected! I guess thats a good start at learnig how to fail! LOL!

    Who is Colin???

    Ankit Chandra

    Gabotone, Botswana

  2. Aja says:

    Learning to fail…I think I have no choice but to accept it and move on since I can’t do anything to change it again. I really think I’m a match for MIT, but I’m not a valedictorian or a good standardized test taker. But Colin is right. I might regret it if I don’t apply….

    Ankit, Colin made a comment in Molli’s post called Value Added. I think he commented right after you. Look for the names of the commenters, you’ll find Colin in there. smile

  3. Mikey says:

    Nice post Mollie! I can’t even begin to count how many times my experiments have failed…and how many times I wanted to break those stupid machines. I swear, it’s a conspiracy – the machines purposely gave me the wrong results…haha.

    But Mollie’s right – especially if you’re gearing up for a career in science or engineering (though this applies to pretty much any career), get ready for things to fail. And to have to deal with it. Really, it’s a part of life, and a very important part of it – learn to deal with and learn from failure, and ultimately, you will truly succeed.

  4. MITalum says:

    This comment is in response to one of your earlier blog entries…

    I am an MIT alum have to say that you rubbing your MIT admission in your ex-boyfriend’s face is really pathetic. I don’t know what this guy did to you, but if getting into MIT was his whole life as you say how could you pour salt in the wound like that?

    You’ve posted your test scores and your rank in high school, and you certainly have nothing to brag about. For an MIT student, getting less than a 1500 on the SAT and graduating with less than a #1 rank in high school is pretty subpar. Certainly, it doesn’t justify that level of arrogance which you have demonstrated.

    Unless admissions have drastically changed since I applied (about 10 years ago,) you shouldn’t be telling prospective applicants that MIT is not looking for near-perfect grades and test scores. They are looking for academic stars, and grades and test scores are an important indicator of this. In fact, they shouldn’t be going for the “A”, they should be going for the “A+”.