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MIT student blogger Snively '11

How hard is it, really? by Snively '11

Let down

I know, I know, it’s CPW season, but that doesn’t mean that every blog entry has to be about CPW, so I’m going to treat you to another story.

I had very little physics experience when I came to MIT. I’d gotten a 730 on my SAT II but only because I’d crammed two days before the test by studying the test format and past questions, not the material. I took a physics class in high school but it was more hands on and not AP, nothing that could prepare me for MIT physics.

There should have been indicators, MIT does its best to make sure you end up in a physics class that will push you but not break you. They do this by administering a math diagnostic when you first get to campus. The results of the diagnostic help you decide which physics class (8.01L, 8.01, 8.012 — ranked from easiest to hardest) is best for you. The results of my math diagnostic said that I was prepared to take either 8.01L or 8.01. I opted for 8.01 because 8.01L continued through IAP in January, something I didn’t want to do.

The first day of 8.01 was quite fun, I enjoyed it, but we took a pretest and I didn’t know how to answer any of the questions. “That’s ok,” I told myself, “I’ll learn.” We had a couple of lectures and then had a problem set assigned. I worked on the problem set and realized that I wasn’t able to do any of the problems. People all around me were blazing through them, claiming that it was easy and that it was stuff they’d seen in high school. This was discouraging, but again, I figured that with enough practice I could learn. You know, people say that physics is only learned through practice, but I quickly realized that I had an issue. The class was moving too fast for me to practice. The lectures didn’t teach ANYTHING. They consisted entirely of powerpoint presentations that talked about theories, general concepts, and information that never actually taught me how to do physics. I asked dozens of people in class how they knew how to solve problems and the only thing I ever heard was “In high school ____ ” or “I learned this last year.” I learned nothing in 8.01 but was being testing over material I was expected to know.

It’s easy to memorize the equations for physics. What’s not easy is knowing how to manipulate them without practice. Physics is problem solving and I didn’t have the background. I got an 80/100 on the first pset while all of my friends got high 90s. I thought that this meant I just had to work a little harder, but then a quiz was announced. I took the quiz and got completely dominated. I didn’t know how to do any of it. The next day in class we got them returned to us. People around my table of nine began getting their quizzes back. Their scores were fine, high 80s and 90s. Some were complaining about how the only two points they lost were because of notation. I got my quiz back. 20/100.

I got a 76 on the next pset, drowning in the work. Time for the next quiz, which was just as hard as the first one. Also, like the first one, everybody else at my table did fine. I didn’t. 20/100. I began to take aggressive steps towards learning physics. I would practice back in the dorm, go to office hours, and do anything I could to learn, but it was extremely frustrating and I began to hate the subject. I began to panic. I would talk to my professor every day after class but he had nothing to offer me but to tell me to practice. At the start of the semester I had been assigned a seat at a table in the very back of the classroom, making it hard to see anything going on and interact/ask questions. I felt like crap, it was one of the worst feelings ever. I felt like MIT was just letting me fail. I showed up for class and was forced to sit in the back, I was failing quizzes, didn’t understand the material, and the only advice the professor could give me was to practice.


Eventually I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to do it. I couldn’t pass physics, I was going to fail. Completely miserable, frustrated, and on the verge of tears, I could only think of one thing to do. I walked towards my advisor’s office and caught her in the hall.

“Can we talk?”
“Absolutely, can you wait 5 minutes?”

We went into her office and I described my situation. We both agreed that I needed to not be in 8.01 anymore, that it wasn’t feasible. She showed me my options, we checked schedules, e-mailed professors, and eventually got me switched into 8.01L. I went to my first 8.01L class and realized that it was the perfect class for me. The focus was on learning to problem solve, on slowly learning the basics and refining them. I actually learned how to solve problems, not just how to smash my way brutally through seemingly impossible obstacles.

I ended up getting a B in 8.01L, even with the 20% plugged in for the first test I had missed while in 8.01. My loathing for physics has slightly decreased, but I’m still extremely frustrated by how my obvious lack of experience was handled while in 8.01. It’s my opinion that if a student is struggling in a class and is putting everything they can into getting a passing grade that the professor should do their best to help. My professor didn’t, he didn’t even suggest me switching into 8.01L, the solution that should have been obvious to him.

This story is not really meant to be depressing, it’s meant to show that MIT can be too hard, absolutely, but you’ll know it. Many of my classes are hard (2.001, 8.02, 18.03, etc) but I can do them if I put in the work. Sometimes it’s not fun, but it is feasible. If you get a class that seems impossible but are still working through it and getting decent grades then MIT is doing its job. If you get to a class and find yourself extremely frustrated, failing everything, and can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, don’t be scared to fix the problem. You are not a superhero, not everything is possible.

MIT is hard and most of the time is manageable. Sometimes it isn’t, the smart thing to do is to be able to recognize when it just isn’t possible, admit that you aren’t the smartest kid in your class, and take action to fix it. Nobody will fault you for coming forward with your shortcomings and taking the steps necessary to correct your problem. You’ll be much better off for it.

28 responses to “How hard is it, really?”

  1. anon says:

    Snively, your honesty is refreshing and appreciated. Obviously everyone’s opinion is colored by personal experience but that doesnt mean that you shouldnt express yours. There will be people who find themselves in the same circumstance as you did and they will find this helpful. Keep up the good work.

  2. MIT Parent says:

    I think this is one of the most useful blogs I’ve read. My daughter’s uncle was at MIT, so before coming, we heard lots of stories about how difficult everything was. There’s a student culture at MIT that sometimes encourages the idea of signing up for the most difficult set of classes possible, but conversations with her uncle led her to avoid this during her freshman year. As a result, she had a great first year and gradually took on harder and harder loads as she realized she was capable of the work. Final result = very happy experience.

    For students who have never had more than an introductory physics course in high school, would you recommend some additional preparation over the summer? Or is it enough to enroll in the introductory-level course at MIT?

  3. christine says:

    dude, try to get some sleep before the madness starts smile

  4. '12 hopeful says:

    Thanks for this Snively!

    I’m on the wait list and sometimes I really lose hope that I’ll ever get in. But stuff like this helps, it really does. Thanks for making my day. smile

    And I agree with anon 9:34, if that’s the way you experienced it, that’s what you should write.

  5. Jeremy says:

    Good to know. Helpful story, thanks for sharing it.

  6. MITGrad says:

    Best advice ever! I think this rings true for ALL freshman at ANY university, the key isn’t in KNOWING everything (why would you pay for a service you don’t need?), but rather the key to success in school and other things is knowing when and how to get help.

  7. José P. says:

    Snively — which SAT Subject Test would you have rather taken: Biology, Chemistry, or Physics?

  8. Monica '10 says:

    This is so incredibly true. Everyone who comes here has very different levels of pre-MIT preparation– I had never set foot in a physics class before my first day of 8.01L. “I did this in high school” is seriously the most annoying sentence at MIT. smile Thank you so much for putting this out there, because when you’re failing, and floundering, you completely feel like you’re the only one. You’re not, although you’ll never agree with anyone who tells you that.

    On a happier note, once you get fully into your major, everyone’s on much more equal ground, and life gets much better. smile

  9. Piper '11 says:

    It’s true. I didn’t have much preparation for MIT in high school. My school offered 8 AP classes – one in science (biology), one in math (AB). I was never taught in any sort of theoretical way. Last semester was really rough, and this semester isn’t much better. I felt (and still feel…) like crap. But I had a good discussion with someone the other day who probed into my background and suddenly gave this look of ‘well of course you’re having trouble’ and said, “Piper, everyone else has LEARNED this before!”

    And that made me feel better =D. I guess that’s the point of the GIRs. Get everyone on an even ground before the major stuff begins…

  10. Steven '12 says:

    Wait, MIT physics professors don’t teach?? What professor did you have?

    Though I did really well in physics over the summer at MITES, my physics class in high school sucks! But wait, won’t the physics class I take first be Pass/No Fail? Should I get an AP Physics prep book for 8.01? I don’t want to do anything over IAP except have fun and maybe learn multivariable calc!

  11. Snively says:

    I don’t really feel comfortable saying who my professor was. He knows.

  12. leah says:

    dude thats gonna be me in 18.01, probably physics too.

  13. FeynmanFan says:

    “I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly.”

    Best. Quote. Ever.
    (It’s a related topic, right?)

  14. DanN says:

    Wonderfully insightful post, Snively. I think your honest and humble words will be useful and encouraging for others.

    Your story about enlisting Hasbro’s help in gaining entry to the toy expo shows you can work a system to your benefit when need arises. It’s good to see how this can be possible in the academic realm, too.

  15. Oasis says:

    The thing with 8.01 (and 8.02) is that there are varying degrees of professors in the course. There are some pretty helpful ones, but there are also some really poor professors (who aren’t even professors but just PhDs working here on their research). I didn’t have a very good 8.01 physics professor, and I learned most of 8.01 through self-studying, something that I learned through high school because my high school had a very limited college-prep curriculum.

    What Snively said is definitely accurate to a lot of different people, but as other people have commented, there are MANY avenues to get help. For example, 8.01 and 8.02 both possess an army of TAs (physics grad students) that are on hand to help with psets/quizzes/exams every single weekend, and my friends that go to those sessions (I’ve never actually been to one so I can’t comment) claim that they’re very helpful in getting a good grade on exams and understanding the psets. Working with other people also help, since I feel like a lot of the best techniques and skills for different courses I learned from my fellow classmates, rather than the professors. I’ve seriously met some ’11s (who are taking the same courses as I am) who “teach” better than the professors do.

    Notice I might be bombasting the professors here, but really, MIT professors aren’t bad. It’s just the fact that 8.01 and 8.02 are required classes that ALL students have to take so there’s so much variability in the quality of teaching (we have EIGHT different sections of ~80 students (on average) right now for 8.02).

    And again, like people pointed out above, some people learn better with different learning styles, so a “bad professor” is a very subjective label, based on the opinion of the learner.

    @ MIT Parent –
    I only had an introductory physics course in high school, and I did fine in 8.01. The material encountered isn’t necessarily “hard” if you put your mind to it and seek help from other people. I can’t emphasize that enough – if you are struggling, please SEEK HELP. Struggling alone will only pull down your grade and increase your frustration.

    I feel like people come in with such varying backgrounds. I’ve known people in my 8.01 class who either:
    -Did not have physics at all
    -Had one year of intro physics at a regular public high school
    -Had one year of intro physics at a magnet/elite private high school
    -Had two+ years of physics (including AP) in high school
    -Took college courses in physics during high school

    All 5 types did well. Granted, there were students who still struggled despite having taken physics (even AP!) in high school – so I guess it really depends on your personal transition to MIT.

    I personally loathe physics, and I can’t wait to be done with it forever – and I didn’t have much preparation in high school in terms of physics, but I didn’t find 8.01 to be too hard.

    After the first couple of quizzes and psets in the course, you’ll probably figure out your level. As for work during the summer – I don’t think it’s really necessary. 8.01L, 8.01, 8.012 – MIT is cognizant that there are varying degrees of capabilities in its incoming students, and that’s why they established different levels. You’re going to fit in somewhere as long as you try hard and give it your best shot.

  16. Tanmay '12 says:

    hmmm… it all reminds me of 8.012.

    Great entry, Snively. Wonderful. grin

  17. Steph says:

    Great story. I’m in the same situation you were in. My high school didn’t offer any labs or physics. I basically have to teach myself all that now I’m in college.
    Your story makes me feel better. I know now that if I’m a little bit behind some of my peers, I shouldn’t worry.
    I’m glad 8.01L worked well for you. I totally know how it feels to be stuck in a 8.01 class. Very frustrating.

  18. milena '11 says:

    I don’t mean to be a bitch about this, but I don’t think you’re being fair to your (our) 8.01 professor. I thought he was very good at his job, and so do a lot of other people, considering he has very high numbers on the student evaluations posted online. Maybe his teaching style didn’t work for you, and that’s OK, but you don’t need to say that he doesn’t teach anything, or that he is not doing his job. I had never, NEVER, taken physics before (either mechanics or E&M) and I did OK in 8.01 and I’m doing pretty well in 8.02, both TEAL. Again, it’s OK if it didn’t work for you, either the professor or the system itself, but think twice before making such a controversial claim.

    Needless to say, you do have a point when you say that, if we’re doing all we can and utilizing resources to the max and we’re still not doing well, we should try to find a way to alleviate the situation.

    So, prefrosh, I’d suggest you get different views on the same subject before making such an important decision as picking out classes! grin

  19. Kathy '11 says:

    I agree with what Milena said. Maybe his style of teach didn’t work for you. BUt I definitely appreciated his teaching and think that he could teach very well, for some (most) people. I took his 8.012 (supposedly harder than 8.01?) class in ESG, and I did quite well in the class. I loved the way he explained things and so far, I’ve only heard positive things about him.

    I think it is a bit bold to claim that he can’t teach, because clearly many people have learned quite a bit from him, including myself.

  20. Kathy '11 says:

    Oh, and on your comment about sitting in the back of the room and feeling like crap, did you try talking to him and switching your seats? Did you try talking to him about struggling in the class?

    Based on personal experience, he may be busy, but he’ll always fit you into his schedule to make sure that you will do better on the next test.

    So I don’t think you can claim that he isn’t doing his job if you didn’t speak up. But if you did, and he still didn’t do anything about it, then yes, you have the rights to complain.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Is there any reason why do you put ‘betrayal’ as the link for ‘down’??

  22. Snively says:

    I spoke with him after many lectures and talked about how I was struggling. After telling him that I was going to office hours and trying to get help, he just said practice. It was a feeling of abandonment, I was trying to get help and couldn’t.

    I’m aware that many people like this professor, that he’s a popular person. That was not my experience, and I can only write about what I’ve encountered

  23. Piper '11 says:

    The real trick with doing well in a class is staying on top of things from the beginning. If you’re reading the books, doing psets more than the night before, etc, you’ll end up devoting enough time to the class that you’ll be fine (usually). MIT classes won’t assume that you’ve learned everything, but they will move through the material fast, so it’s important to keep up. (Er, I’m saying this about 8.01 or other classes like 5.111 and 18.01. I wouldn’t say this about 8.012 or 5.112 or other hardcore classes….)

    Sometimes coming in with a clean slate is actually a good thing, too. I did OK in 18.01 because I had it in high school, but now that I’m in 18.02 I find the methods I depended on aren’t sufficient and I’m being forced to learn the methods I should’ve known from 18.01 =P

  24. Anonymous says:

    Umm..maybe Snively was a little exaggerating.. I mean, he’s telling the story from the point of view of someone who’s really frustrated. People tend to round up things when they are frustrated, right? (e.g. rounding up 8.5 to 9 as to rounding up ‘style doesn’t work’ to ‘don’t teach anything’)

    Maybe he just want to illustrate how frustrating things were for him back then? =S

  25. Rena says:

    Thanks for sharing this story with us. I think one of the worst parts about all the SAT II’s and AP tests is that if you get a good grade that day, that means you “know” whatever subject it is. Schools should focus less on how to get a good grade for the test and put more time into teaching understanding of the subject (like college courses, because there are no SATs in college).

  26. Roshan '12 says:

    That was a really helpful post! Thank you for sharing that story!

  27. Hilly says:

    Thanks so much for sharing! as someone who is not particularly gifted in the physics dept. and was freaking out over the intensity of many/most of the classes, I thank you for showing that it is ok to admit when you are unprepared for MIT. I know I am!

  28. Yuzhi '12 says:

    Thank you so much for this post!!!
    During CPW, I hung out with quite a number of IPhO, Moppers. Knowing that their Physics and Math skills are probably WAY beyond my imagination , I was a bit scared since I heard many class are B or C centered.
    It’s good to know there are experienced advisors around to give suggestions when talking to the professor is not working. Also good to know that there are some more normal people who will be starting around the same level as me.