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MIT student blogger Sam M. '07

I need a fix ‘cause I’m goin’ down by Sam M. '07

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love a 40%.

DID YOU KNOW? Mary Tyler Moore sent a signed copy of the single “Buddy Holly” to Weezer.

Yesterday I met three people who did not know who Mary Tyler Moore was until I educated them. While dispensing said education, I discovered on Wikipedia that TV guide rated her iconic hat toss as the second-greatest moment in television history. If memory serves me correctly, #1 was the moon landing or something ridiculous like that.

It’s about that time of season when MIT students buckle down, chain themselves to a differential equations textbook, buy their first starbucks doubleshot from LaVerde’s, and get ready for their first exam of the fall term! I’ve got a German III test tomorrow, but general consensus on campus is that HASS-D tests don’t really count. So really, the only test class I’ve got this term is 6.003: Signals and Systems. And, to be honest, I don’t even care anymore when those tests are.

I think the quintessential MIT story to tell freshmen during orientation is “Oh yeah, I cruised through high school without doing any work, then I got to my first 8.01 test, pulled an all-nighter studying for it, realized I didn’t know my butt from a scalar product, and got a 42 on it. But then I realized I was on Pass/No Record. And then I went to a party at my frat. Hey, want to come over? It’s free lobster night!”

Well, I didn’t exactly cruise through high school, I got a 95 on my first 8.01 test after studying for like one hour, and since then I’ve never actually failed a test in an MIT class. That doesn’t mean I’ve never done poorly on a test, or never left five pages on the same test blank, or that I’ve never scored below fifty percent… just that those scores have never, well, technically been failing. To me, succeeding at MIT is just a gradual process of lowering your standards until you’ve learned to be satisfied with mediocrity.

And so, in the spirit of exam season, I thought I’d give you a term-by-term breakdown of my lowest test scores at MIT.

Fall 2003 — I was inconsolable after getting a 79 on my second 5.112: Chem for Masochists test. It wasn’t even my lowest grade of all time in that point–that honor fell to an AP US Government test on the legislative branch in which I was asked “What is the mace?” and I wrote down “a popular brand of pepper spray.” It wasn’t even a B–class average was 68 and standard deviation was 15. But man, I studied that Schrodinger equation and those funny shaped orbitals and that vibrational degree of freedom, and I was not going to be told that 30% of the people in that classroom knew it better than me! GRRR!!

Spring 2004 — The first test in 5.12 (that’s organic chemistry) is historically all nomenclature, so if you remember like eight simple rules for identifying your primary carbon, you’ll just be like “Oh, that’s hexa-para-n-butyl-blah-blee-blah-blee-blah” and get a 98 on your first exam. Emboldened by such an experience, I came to the conclusion that I was rocking organic chemistry’s face off and ended up studying about two hours for the second exam, not really paying attention to the fact that I was getting all the answers wrong on the practice exams. So I strolled into the exam the next day, sat down with my five sharpened pencils, opened the first page, and then I was all, “WHAT-side attack?!” I was rewarded for my feeble efforts with a 59, only 2 points below class average, but still a potent motivator for me to do hundreds of pages of practice problems in preparation for the next two exams–and this was before I knew the lpr -Pprinter2 -h command to print without a coversheet.

Fall 2004 — So I took six classes in about four different majors this term and ended up with four exams in the same week, three of them consecutively on Friday, following a 10-page lab report due on Wednesday. I actually started off extraordinarily well out of the gate, with a “196/186 A+++” on my test in 21M.271: Symphony and Concerto. However, I failed to keep up this momentum, spiraling downward into a 98/105 in 5.07, an 80/100 in 5.13 (that’s organic chemistry), and a putrescent 54/100 in 18.701, a class which I dropped one day before the final to go Christmas shopping. They told you about P/NR (the term when nothing is real), but nobody ever mentions SOPHOMORE EXPLORATORY AWESOME!

Spring 2005 — I didn’t actually see a test score lower than 54 this term, but about half of my 5.43 (that’s organic chemistry) final was basically an elaborate work of fiction set in some fantasy world where some mischievous deity had invented new laws of physics starting at the molecular level. There were people leaving this test after about 1 hour, and I don’t think it was humanly possible to finish the test that quickly. Thanks to an 85 on a previous test, though, I still made out with a B in the class overall.

Fall 2005 — So, as a point of comparison–two years ago a 79 had left me inconsolable, but by this point a 50.5 on my 10.213: Thermodynamics midterm barely fazed me, especially because it was only one point under class average. The next test had an average of 44 and a standard deviation of 25, which meant that my 63.5 was pretty darn good. It also meant that you could have gotten a zero and still technically passed.

Spring 2006 — I was stomping a mudhole in 6.002: Circuits, and RLC was like ABC to me. Then we got to the RLC test and I forgot, like, what an imaginary number was, and what a resistor was, and apparently what addition was because half the test was quanititative and I got basically all of that wrong wrong wrong. As I described in an earlier blog entry, the 40 I got on this test was not quite as upsetting as me to the staple that I put through my finger ten seconds after seeing my grade, and neither was traumatic enough to prevent me from falling asleep in recitation. And don’t despair, frosh: even with a 40, which was well below class average this time, I still pulled it up on the final and made an A in the class. It really does happen.

So there you have it. And If I ever score below 40 percent on a test at MIT, rest assured that you guys will be the first to know. Because “Yay! A 33 in 6.003 that I took in 38-101 before UROP!” is just MITese for “I love being a senior at MIT!”

13 responses to “I need a fix ‘cause I’m goin’ down”

  1. Kathy says:

    So, why is it that MIT students have to lower their standards and be satisfied with mediocrity? My perception is that MIT students are bright and hardworking. Do students not work to master the material, is the material so extensive and advanced that a poor grade is actually a good grade, or do the professors fail to adequately teach the material? Or, are there multiple reasons?

  2. carlos says:

    Hey!! I study mathematics in Peru , and I have to say that I feel the same . Here in my college , having poor grades is actually having good grades .But there is a reason for that ,universities in Peru and Latin America are very very poor , we don’t have good books , good infrastucture , our teachers aren’t well paid ; while u guys ,have ALL that .Mit is for me the most prestigious college of the world but I just can’t be there because it’s also the most expensive . So please STUDY and don’T cry FOR NOTHING.

  3. Mollie says:

    Kathy, it’s the second reason — the tests are quite difficult and based on problem-solving ability rather than memorization or plug-and-chug.

    I think it’s also something of a lesson in humility — professional scientists and engineers aren’t right 100% of the time, so why should you think you’re going to be?

    The low averages are intentional; professors in my department, for example, aim to write a test that will have a class average between 65 and 70. The classes are curved, rather than straight-scaled, so a 65 is usually about a B.

  4. Mollie says:

    Is it bad that I don’t even remember the lowest grade I got at MIT?

    It might have been at 44 in 5.111. Except that I think I got a 30 on the 18.01 test where you have to memorize all the trig integrals, because I am morally against the concept of memorizing trig integrals.

    *insert snarky anti-Harvard comment about how I don’t have to worry about that kind of thing anymore*

  5. Jess says:

    Ooh wee ooh, you look just like Dr. Strangelove. I don’t care what they say about us anyways; I don’t care ’bout that!

  6. Laura says:

    I like Mollie’s morals.

    I’m not entirely sure what I got on the last 18.03 exam of last term, but I want to say 26.

  7. Jess says:

    Oh, I meant to say my first test is Friday, so I’ll definitely be adding my score to this pile some time next week. I think probably my worst test in high school was a 48 in Honors Chemistry, but my teacher (this crazy old man who kept bees) let us retake it because he thought we were too young to worry about 48s.

    Now, though, I can take it. I think. I hope. Oh, no oh no oh no. I might have to tape The Office tomorrow and study.

    Missing The Office is serious stuff for me.

  8. Sam says:

    Hey Kathy, good question! I guess this entry might come off as a little cynical.

    Just to add to Mollie’s response–one thing I didn’t make clear is that the range of scores on any given MIT test is generally ENORMOUS. I think on the third 5.13 test, the highest score was a 98 and the lowest score was a 4. I personally think that’s a good thing–designing a test that results in wide range of scores means that you probably fairly separated the people who studied hard and mastered the material from the people who just memorized a few formulas going in and hoped to cruise through it. As Mollie said, the tests are generally designed to take everything you studied class and then throw you into a totally new situation using those facts to see if you can really apply them. One of my tests last year had a 20-point question about proving what would happen if you installed a distillation column upside-down by accident. Needless to say we never accounted for such an eventuality in class, and getting all 20 points required a pretty deep understanding of the engineering concepts and derivations behind distillation.

    For this reason, when I said that you should get used to mediocrity, I meant that you should get used to getting mediocre test scores, not having a mediocre understanding of scientific concepts. Believe me, even if I left half of that 5.43 final blank, I still have the Leimgruber-Batcho Synthesis down cold.

    Well, not quite, but you get the idea.

  9. Kathy says:

    Thanks, Sam and Mollie, for your responses. As a parent of an MIT applicant, my concern is that students are learning and mastering the concepts that are being covered. I also think there’s something to be learned from working hard, learning a lot, and still not being able to get everything right on the test, i.e., grades aren’t the most important thing.

  10. I _actually_ managed to recieve a -sqrt(2) once. Yes, my recitation instructor got angry at me doing well despite never coming to recitation (I had taken the class in HS before, so I knew the material).

    For real though, I think I got a 38 in 8.01, and stayed around there all term. Yay TEAL. *sneer*

  11. Thu says:

    Thanks Sam for this brilliant post! The fight for 90s at high school is making me sick to death. I can’t imagine that MIT people can handle lower-than-average grades with a smile. This seems to be one reason why MIT matches me :D :D :D.

  12. Ruth '07 says:

    Going down… six underground

  13. Sarah says:

    lmao, that has got to be the funniest entry I have ever read in all of MIT history of blogs, coming from a near perfectionist..kudos kudos my man, it takes great skill to cope with such and take it lightly. MIT is rought but more and more alluring as the days come.

    ::I think the quintessential MIT story to tell freshmen during orientation is “Oh yeah, I cruised through high school without doing any work, then I got to my first 8.01 test, pulled an all-nighter studying for it, realized I didn’t know my butt from a scalar product, and got a 42 on it. But then I realized I was on Pass/No Record. And then I went to a party at my frat. Hey, want to come over? It’s free lobster night!”::

    “realized i didn’t know my butt from a scalar product”…Roooooooooooooofffllllllaughing laughing laughing…can’t breathe.