One thing I’ve been hearing from prefrosh at an alarming frequency lately is that MIT is a competitive and cutthroat place, and that collaborative behavior is rare.
Let me first say this is not true.
Most stereotypes have at least a grain of something resembling truth to them — for instance, many people in Boston do like the Red Sox and say “ah” instead of “r”; many girls do like to talk about their feelings, and many white boys do suck at dancing. In this case, however, I don’t see the connection between stereotype and reality. At all.
I think it must be that people confuse “difficult” with “competitive/cutthroat” (which, I might add, is a confusion not supported by my friends Merriam and Webster). Sure, MIT is difficult. This is partially because the courses are inherently difficult, partially because professors enjoy foisting difficult problem sets upon their students, and partially because MIT students secretly love to work right at the edge of their abilities. But this difficulty is what fosters, rather than discourages, a collaborative atmosphere. Freshman year, most students take the General Institute Requirements and learn that the fastest (and most fun) way to get through problem sets is to do them in a big group of your friends with lots of snacks and pizza; this behavior doesn’t really change through the upper years.
Adam is an aero/astro major, and course 16 is generally considered one of the most difficult majors at MIT. During sophomore year, all course 16 majors take a four-class series called Unified Engineering (when a class is known by its name rather than its number at MIT, you know it’s bad news). Each year, there are about 70 kids who declare aero/astro as a major and take Unified; literally all of them would gather on campus and work on problem sets together. I mean, what good does it do you to be competitive? Nobody would help you with the problem sets, and then you’d be screwed.
Adam’s take on the matter
“This freshman asked me the other day if course 16 was a competitive major. I was like ‘Wha?’ *confused face* What does that even mean?”
My own majors, biology and brain and cognitive sciences, are pretty premed heavy. If there’s any place at MIT you’d expect to be cutthroat, it’s the place where premeds congregate, right? Well, I still didn’t see any cutthroat behavior. Any time I had a question or needed help on a problem set, I had no problems securing that help. Ever. I feel silly even offering a list of times I experienced MIT’s collaborative environment, since most of them are so mundane. It’s just normal to be helpful around here.
One of the first things people realize when starting classes here is that competition stops at MIT’s front door. Everybody here was smart in high school (duh), and most people had to fight to get the opportunities that made them strong candidates for admission. Well, you don’t have to fight anymore once you’re here. UROPs practically grow on trees, and most student groups are open to anybody who wants to join. The only person with whom you’re competing anymore is yourself.
Again, I am not saying that collaborative behavior is “pretty much” normal, and that cutthroat behavior is “fairly” rare. I’m saying that everybody here collaborates with everybody else, and that people simply don’t act in a way that’s destructive toward other people. (At least with regard to academics. When it comes to romantic and social relationships, MIT students act just like any other group of 18- to 22-year-old people.)
I guess my feeling is that something has to be easy to be cutthroat — there has to be the possibility that everybody could get a 100% or something, so people take it upon themselves to make sure that other people don’t succeed. Here, it’s more that everybody could get a 0%, so people take it upon themselves to make sure that other people are doing well also. That’s the benefit of difficulty — it tends to make people feel that they’re all in the same boat together.
So no, MIT is not a cutthroat, competitive place. Any questions?