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MIT student blogger Michelle G. '18

How to miss deadlines at MIT by Michelle G. '18

Policies for late assignments, and ways to keep your grades afloat when life inevitably happens

There is this class I’m taking called 18.100B (Real Analysis) which I can’t tell if I love or hate. I’ll be working on the problem sets and thinking like, “man, this is amazing, I can feel myself getting smarter by the second! I feel like I’m finally starting to get math.” But then, the workload is super intense, and my brain can only take so much abuse before whining at me like “what the heck are you doing, you’ve been working on this for ten hours it’s 7 a.m. jesus christ, go to sleep,” but I can’t cause it’s due the next day. Basically, finishing the problems feels amazing and rewarding, but doing them takes forever and routinely costs me sleep.

Usually, I am fine with losing a night’s sleep as long as I don’t have to do anything attention-demanding the next day and can can crash sometime early in the evening. If I force myself to stay up longer than that, though, I will start to feel less-fine and my internal monologue will gradually evolve into a running commentary on how terrible everything is, and then later into something more like a random assortment of wingdings characters (i.e., totally incomprehensible). I will have trouble saying a coherent English sentence, let alone writing a coherent Real Analysis proof, let alone finishing a whole pset. Sleep is important!

Anyway, one day last week – the day I had planned to grind out the near-entirety of my 18.100B pset – I found myself lying in bed awake at 4 a.m. And then 5 a.m., 6, 7, until literally I had been lying awake in bed for 6 and a half hours without falling asleep, leaving me with a total of an hour and a half before I had to wake up again for a mandatory-attendance class. I don’t know if it was because I had coffee too late in the evening, or had slept in the day before, or just had too much random stuff to think about that night, but it was very upsetting! and I immediately started worrying about how I was going to be able to finish my pset that day with my sleep-deprived brain disintegrating into a sad, slow, whiny thing with compromised comprehension. I considered just punting the pset, then thought about going to S^3 to ask for an extension, and at some point figured I could nap and then over-caffeinate and force myself to stay up another night. Before coming to any decisions, though, I scanned the syllabus to see if there was any leniency regarding late homework. Sure enough:


Ahh. Beautiful. *sleeps for 13 hours*

So I ended up just doing the pset during the following week and finishing it alongside that week’s assignment. The extra time without penalty was a lifesaver, and allowed me to not have to choose between being nice to my brain and body and doing well on the assignment. In general, I find that professors are understanding of the importance of not having to make this trade-off, and they try to be flexible when a student is unable to make a deadline here and there. These kinds of “built in” policies for flexibility with late or missing assignments are extremely common, and a majority of the classes I’ve taken so far have had some policy written into the syllabus to provide some leniency when Life happens.

Judging from what I’ve seen, I would say the most common of these policies is “drop the lowest problem set score.” So for example, if there are ten problem sets due for the class in total, your grade is calculated out of your 9 best problem set grades. This can serve as a nice grade-booster for those who complete every pset, or it can just be a free pass to throw an assignment out the window if you’re having a particularly difficult week.

Some other policies that I’ve seen:

  • Drop the lowest score *out of psets that were handed in*. This is much more rare (and a bit less forgiving) than the policy without the stipulation.
  • “You may turn in one problem set late without penalty.” For some classes, like 18.100B, this applies only up to a finite amount of lateness, which is probably paternalistically a good thing, because it’s better to make up work sooner than later.
  • In a philosophy class I’m taking right now, we have a 500-word assignment due each Sunday at midnight. There are 13 of these, but we only have to turn in 10 of them for full credit.
  • “Linear decay until the grades are posted, capped at a 20 percent penalty.” This means that you will lose about 3% from your grade on that assignment per day for work handed in late, up to a maximum of 20%. Which in my opinion is kind of amazing.
  • “X percent penalty per day for late work.” Most classes in general don’t accept late work, but some have a policy where the grade decays over time after the deadline, which is nice and makes taking an extra day seem like less of a “big deal” considering the penalty is too small (e.g. 15% off a problem set that’s worth 3% of your grade) to have a significant impact on your overall performance in the class.
  • For essays, I’ve seen both 1/3rd of a letter grade penalty per day and 1/2 of a letter grade penalty per day for late submissions.
  • I had a class last semester where for the final essay, there was a nominal deadline, but the policy was basically “turn it in whenever you want without penalty, but trust us that it becomes much harder to write it the longer you procrastinate”
  • From the 6.004 (Computation Structures) syllabus: “Late policy for lab submission and check-off: There is a 1-point/day late penalty for both submissions and check-offs after the posted deadlines. The penalty is waived for the first 7 late days, so if you’re off campus, having a stressful week, or just need a break, you can use the “free” late days without having to get S^3 in the loop.”This is a little bit like the policy for 18.100B, except the 7 late days can be divided up and used for different assignments, so you can take an extra week for a lab if you need, or you could (say) turn in 7 assignments each one day late.
  • From the 18.102 (Functional Analysis) syllabus: “How many marks you get for late homework is decided by me based on a secret, highly dubious, formula.” (@_@)(apparently in practice this meant something like, “I’ll be forgiving if you usually turn in everything on time, and apply a penalty if you’ve been late before.”)
  • “Grades will be computed by two methods — the cumulative and the hope-springs-eternal method with the actual grade the greater of the two. First method: Homework 30, Tests 30, Final 40. Second method is based purely on the final.”In other words, if you’re having trouble handing in the problem sets or did poorly on the midterm, then you can choose the “hope-springs-eternal” option and keep your grade on the final as your grade for the whole class. Seems kind of risky, but maybe helpful, I dunno.

Overall, I have found these policies to be super helpful in maintaining a balance between academics and everything else. But what happens in cases where one of your classes doesn’t have any policy like this, or you’ve already used your late day(s), or you’re facing some circumstance which actively prevents you from getting your work done?

In these cases, you definitely shouldn’t panic either! There are other options for you to explore before resigning to lose points on your grade. Here are some other things you can do when this happens.

Talk to S^3:

Student Support Services, or S^3 (pronounced “S Cubed”) is just wonderful. You can visit them and talk to one of the S^3 deans if you need advice, need to talk to someone, or need extensions on your assignments. I have found that the deans there are extremely kind and genuinely care about students’ wellbeing, and it’s easy to make an appointment with them. I have gone a few times to get extensions for things like illness, too much stress, and too many converging deadlines. If you’re looking to get an extension, you can go into the office and talk to them about why you could use the extra time. They/you will then email your professor saying you talked to S^3 and they agreed to give you extra time on your work, and the professor will accept the assignment any time within this extended due date. Typically people get extra time for things like illnesses and difficult personal circumstances, but you can definitely also try to work something out if you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed or stressed (or sleep deprived) from having too much work. You shouldn’t really go in for things like not wanting to work or procrastinating too much, but if there is some external/physical/emotional reason you’re unable to work, then it’s totally worth dropping by to see what they can do.

Talk to professors directly:

If you email your professor directly and explain to them that you need extra time on an assignment, they will likely say “yeah sure, that’s fine, just get it in by [arbitrary upcoming day].” Alternatively, they might say “go to S^3 and get this approved first, then sure.” Or once I had a professor just say like “oh, check the syllabus, there’s a policy where you can drop the lowest pset, so just take care and don’t worry about it.” The willingness to be lenient obviously depends on the professor, but in my experience professors seem to be mostly understanding, so it can’t hurt to ask directly if you don’t feel like taking the time to make an appointment with S^3.


Other than this – I mean, missing a pset on occasion won’t kill you, and some say it feels liberating once in a while to just look at a problem set and be like, “nah.” (Especially if you’re a freshman on pass/no record.. ah, the good old days when grades *actually* didn’t matter.) Still, it also feels really good to be able to occasionally miss deadlines without being penalized at all for it. Professors know that we’re smart and hardworking, but they also know that we’re human. So, when pitted against matters of health and wellbeing, sometimes those psets can wait.