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Life, the Universe, and the Energy Content of Gasoline by Laura N. '09

"Don't Panic. It's the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody's said to me all day."

Remember that epic pset I told you about? Well, a few days after that pset was due, we had our only exam in that class (Sustainable Energy).

I used to be really good at taking tests. I never had any kind of test anxiety or anything like that. But tests at MIT…well, they’re hard. So right from freshman year, I came up with a plan to help me to stay calm and ward off test-taking anxiety.

Quoting myself from a blog entry freshman year: “Considering my track record in math, I figured I’d need reminding that stressing out over tests never helps anyone during my last 18.01 exam. So on the back of my index card, after writing in all the last minute derivatives that I never bothered to memorize, I wrote myself an important message in what I hoped were large, friendly letters.”

This quickly became a tradition. Every equation sheet I’ve ever written for an exam at MIT has had those words written across the bottom. After freshman year, fewer classes allow equation sheets, so I started writing it on my hand before the exam. (Despite the fact that I was always sort of afraid that a TA or professor would notice ink on my palm and think that I was trying to cheat, only one professor has ever noticed and said anything. He seemed to think it was kind of pathetic, actually.)

I even took to writing my mantra on my hand during particularly stressful periods in general- with or without exams. If I was having a rough day, or knew I had a hard pset or tons of work in general, I’d grab my pen. During one memorable week (I believe it was while planning for CPW last year, and around the time of my famously long to-do list) I must have re-inked the fading message on my palm at least twice a day for 5 or 6 straight days.

And seriously? It works. Every time I glance down at my hand it seems like I suddenly remember how to breathe.


I got a 68 on that take-home exam. (Learn to recalibrate your brains: that’s awesome.)

The tradition has served me well. So Douglas Adams? So long, and thanks for all the wit.

22 responses to “Life, the Universe, and the Energy Content of Gasoline”

  1. I remind myself that every problem has a soloution, let it be a tricky integration question or organizing an event.I keep my mind open and answers sometimes come from unexpected sources.

  2. anon says:

    Haha! I should do that. Last year a friend and I made a tradition of writing “I will get an A today!” on all of our tests. And it usually worked :D

  3. frosh says:

    Maybe I should write don’t panic on my 5.111 exam Wednesday… and my 8.01L exam Thursday… and my 18.01 exam Friday…and…oh… going to write it all over my room just thinking about this coming week…!

  4. Speaking of panic-worthy math tests… I was wondering about the SAT II math subject test required for applying to MIT. I know that the info page about it states there is no preference between the two tests (math I or math II), but… does it really make no difference which one you take? (If you guys who are already accepted don’t mind telling) what subject tests did you take?

    I would feel far more comfortable with the Math I (my SAT math score was competitive, but not so great I think I’d want to take a more advanced one–that could lead to disaster, especially considering I’m only taking pre-calc this year, so I’m not confident I’d have all the skills I’d need to address the Math II test). However, I also read (on college confidential somewhere, I think) that Math I is considered a bit of a joke, because it’s practically equivalent to the math already on the SAT. I don’t want to hurt my application by not taking the more challenging test, but I also just don’t think I’ve covered all the material I’d need to get a score that would benefit my app. And I’d hate to bomb it, and create something negative for myself if there is truly no difference in how the two are viewed.

    Any advice? Thanks in advance!

  5. Colton says:

    With my senior year at my school being my worst year yet (and by a huge margin, too), this post has cheered me up. I will definitely try to write Don’t Panic on the front of all of my notebooks to help myself stop stressing out in AP English.

  6. Colton says:

    Brittany: I don’t think it matters. MIT wants to see who you are as a person.

    Also, I took AP Calculus AB and SAT Math Level 2. The Math Level 2 test is actually quite easy (nothing calculus level and very few items that may be challenging to somebody in pre-calculus).

  7. Laura says:

    @Brittany: You just said, “I know that the info page about it states there is no preference between the two tests” …. so you just answered your own question. Do you think they would lie on the admissions website just to trick people into screwing up their own applications?

    If you ever encounter conflicting information between this website and college confidential, PLEASE CHOOSE THIS WEBSITE. College confidential is a forum where trolls, crazy people, and reasonable and informed people all have equal rights to speak. The information pages (not the blogs) on this website are written by people who will actually read your application.

  8. Anonymous says:

    The question is, do you have your towel? ;P

  9. Anonymous says:

    What Laura said. RTFAs, people. They don’t lie.

  10. Lauren '12 says:

    Wow, I do this too! On my notecard for this year’s first physics exam, I wrote a list of Important Reminders to myself: “1) Show all work for partial credit. 2) Always write and check units. 3) Don’t panic.” And it really does work.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Brittany:
    For what it’s worth, the math 2 test isn’t that much harder than math 1, and it’s actually easier to get a higher score, since it’s skewed differently. On math 1, you can only get one question wrong and still have 800, whereas on math II, you can usually get away with missing five or six.

  12. Sam says:

    All I can think of when I read this is the Coldplay song. Laura N, believe me, you are the last person I ever expected to remind me of Coldplay.

  13. Laura says:

    Wait, what Coldplay song???

  14. Colton says:

    Anonymous: I never heard of how the math tests were curved. I know that if you miss a few on the SAT Physics Test, you will still get a 800.

    Sam: It’s truly sad when I realize I have no idea who Coldplay is. I need to stop listening to concert, orchestral, jazz, and marching band music and instead start listening to more modern music. I just learned who Billy Joel is last year (yes, I’m that far out of the loop).

  15. Steph says:

    I’m going to do this for my math test tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll chill out.

  16. Anonymous says:

    The Coldplay song called “Don’t Panic”

  17. '12 says:

    Yeah, the three tests this week are going to be hell. My “don’t panic” for the semester is P/NR though grin

  18. I just say “WHOLLY COW” all the time whenever i am in a hard test, to relieve that stress.

    Oops! there’s a rhyme up there but somewhat stupid because both words do not really rhyme.

    (LAUGHS LOUDLY!, I AM A FREAK AND I KNOW THAT. HA HA HA HA)

  19. deng says:

    I never panic during tests or anything because I know there’s nothing I can do at that point…
    does that make me too uncompetitive for MIT? lol

  20. Claire says:

    Haha, one time I wrote all of my science notes on my hand (I literally covered my entire left hand, fingers, sides, everything) because I couldn’t find any notebook paper. Unfortunately, I had a test in English that day and I had to prove to my teacher that I wasn’t cheating. She just thought that it was really funny.

  21. Vivi says:

    P/NR doesn’t do much to alleviate my fears when I’m not even close to passing two of my classes, haha. But perhaps I’ll take a page out of your book, Laura, and scrawl your legendary phrase over the top of my 8.012 exam for kicks wink

  22. Colton says:

    deng: You aren’t the only one. I have performed solos on bari sax numerous times and have learned to remain calm during normally stressful situations. I now find myself just going with the flow and improvising my way through life.