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MIT student blogger Rachel F. '12

Navigating The Tunnels…Of Freshman Academics by Rachel F. '12

You didn't actually expect me to write about hacking on the internet, did you?

MIT has a lot of resources that could have made my freshman year a lot easier that I just didn’t find out about until much later. I’ve been thinking about blogging a guide to something complicated, like the HASS system, for a while, but after querying the 2015s, I discovered, to my horror, that the HASS-D lottery ended yesterday. Also, that HASS-D’s aren’t even mandatory for you anymore and I have no idea what’s going on with the 2015 HASS requirements. So, uh, whoops. By way of apology, I’ll do my best to actually bring you useful information applicable to the remainder of your prefroshly days, for once in my brief but glorious professional blogging career.

How can I…

…get sophomore standing?

The freshman class website is often frustratingly vague on this topic. Fortunately, the actual requirements are outlined here. In order to qualify, you will need to have completed (read: passed) the following by the end of first semester:

  • one CI-H/HW
  • at least half of the science GIRs
  • acquired sufficient credits (more complex than an absolute number)

…balance extracurriculars and schoolwork?

As is only inevitable, all of the bloggers have already composed pages and pages on this topic during their darkest hell weeks at MIT. In lieu of resummarizing the endless cycle of agony and achievement that psets inspire, I’ve painstakingly scoured the archives to produce a strew of incisively insightful oldies for your perusal.

stories from hell
Chris realizing ‘dammit, psets are actually hard’
Yan on metaphors for energy
Me on my best (work-related) all-nighter ever
Paul on how 8.012 is really hard

hell survival guides
Jess on getting through the rough patches
Chris on time management
Sam on how MIT’s difficulty is a highly accurate caricature of itself
Lulu on surviving MIT

optimizing your stay in hell
Sam looking back at undergrad
Keri on getting the most out of your four years
Keri on how having too many extracurriculars is totally awesome

via People Sleeping In Libraries

…figure out what to do freshman year?

Mollie on freshman advising
Chris’s guide to the GIR’s: ‘don’t take 8.012 just because you hate TEAL!’ I was guilty of this, but had a great/hellish time anyways.

…figure out what to do with my life?

Okay, that’s a tough one. But we’ve also written a lot about figuring out how to choose a major.
Lulu on Course 8 and choosing a major
Anna on picking out her sweet joint degree
Melis on — oh wait she basically already wrote this entry haha recursion

…change all of my classes?

We have a magical phenomenon called Reg Day, where you’re required to physically go to your advisor and sign off on the classes you’ll be taking for the semester, or change them as necessary. Hopefully, this meeting involves you actually asking for some advice, since, you know, that’s what advisors are for. The beautiful thing about this is that, since the meeting is mandatory anyways, you might as well prereg for one random class by the deadline, take the whole summer to figure out your courseload, then waltz in on Reg Day and change everything. Most upperclassmen have adopted this strategy.

For the first week of classes, you’re allowed to add classes as long as your advisor signs off on them.

For the month after that (up to Add Date), you have to get both the instructor’s signature and your advisor’s, which takes a surprising amount of effort.

…find study buddies?

Your living group, or classes, or clubs, or really anywhere…but if you want a little something extra, and you missed the application deadline for Concourse, ESG is a really great program. You can also sign up for Seminar XL, a structured study group program, at any point during the semester.

What classes should I take?

I really want to take this cool HASS first semester, but this other HASS gives me both CI-H and distribution credit, so I might as well kill as many birds as possible with one stone, right?

I and many others have discovered and re-discovered over the long years at MIT that taking classes just to maximize requirement multitasking is totally not worth it. You have to take eight HASSes anyways, it’s not like you’re going to run out of opportunities to take free-for-all electives.

Pick out whatever sounds the most interesting in theory, then install your certs and head over to the student course evaluations to make sure the class is actually interesting in practice. Seriously. Do whatever you want. And get used to it.

I want to double major in 6 and 2 and double minor in 14 and 8 and do research with this CSAIL robotics group and I’ve picked out the five clubs and three varsity sports I’m going to join. How should I optimize my courseload to get a headstart?

I actually know a couple of upperclassmen who handle this with ease, but the vast majority of freshmen who come in with this mindset change their plans or even their interests completely after a semester or two here. Also, establishing social groups and networking during your first year will be vital to the rest of your time here. So relax a bit. Don’t overconstrain yourself. Be open to different possibilities, and use your first semester to explore MIT.

A word to the wise: investing a lot of time in a hobby or interest will often be far more rewarding than trying to juggle a double in the related major.

photo by Juan Carlo, via VenturaCountyStar

X sounds more fun than Y, but Y sounds easier and I want to get an A.

Good news: grad schools couldn’t care less about your nontechnical GPA. No, really! Not only does no one care, but if half of all your grades are B’s, you’re still extremely competitive. GPA-wise, at least. Research and references are where it’s at.

Also, it’s really, really tough to get a C in a HASS class. Trust me, you’d probably have to at least skip half your assignments and a midterm and then never follow up when your professor nicely asks you if you’d like to make them up any time before the end of the semester.

Oh, and one more key thing. PASS/NO RECORD.

I’d like to try taking a class to get a taste of a certain major, but I’m not sure if I’m ready for it.


I want to take this interesting class that I don’t formally have the prerequisites for.

Go look at the curriculum (shortcut:[course number]) and honestly ask yourself if you think you can handle it. It’s really not interesting taking a class if you lack the foundations. Cryptography, for example, sounds quite romantic (and it totally is), but if you don’t get the piles of number theory that make up the daily grind of the class, the insights will be lost on you.

Useful links

Student Course Evaluations
Course 6 Evaluations

Course catalog
Degree requirements (mysteriously titled ‘course catalog’)
Overview of undergrad academics

Now go forth, and conquer!

6 responses to “Navigating The Tunnels…Of Freshman Academics”

  1. Emily says:

    Wow! I think MIT should hire you to redo the first year website. Mad kudos to you~

  2. Karla '15 says:

    Really helpful! thanks for posting this
    I do have one more question though: what’s the benefit of sophomore standing?

  3. Rachel F. '12 says:

    Karla: most people want sophomore standing because it lets you break the freshman credit limit second semester. you can also declare your major early, and subsequently get an academic advisor in your department.

  4. Phoebe says:

    Fantastic post! Thanks.

  5. Miriam '14 says:

    On sophomore standing:
    96 units isn’t enough. You need 100. (I determined this empirically by having exactly 96, complaining to UAAP that I didn’t get offered sophomore standing, and being informed that I had only completed 24% of my degree.) Note: This was not actually a terrible thing. Later, I realized that what I was planning to do with my sophomore standing was a bad idea and wouldn’t have worked anyway.
    On not having prereqs:
    Once you’re at MIT, try to find people who’ve taken the class you want to take, and ask them if the prereq is really necessary. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

  6. Rachel F. '12 says:

    Miriam: aw, sorry :( I had exactly 96 by the end of first semester, and got sophomore standing…not sure what’s going on there or if they changed the requirements.

    Note to course 6ers: the course 6 evals tell you past students’ opinions of the realistic prereqs for each class! it’s pretty nice.