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MIT student blogger Mollie B. '06

Public service announcement by Mollie B. '06

One stereotype that I just won't accept.

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?

6 responses to “Public service announcement”

  1. Sarab says:

    Nice to hear it.

    Forgive me for my further scepticism, but I sat and compared MIT to the IIT’s.

    3000 out of say 1,500,000 (yes that’s the right number) get in. They pay about Rs. 1,50,000 as tuition fees in the 11th and 12th to prepare and then, continue to undermine everyone else to get a job. (Not that I like the system, but India has developed it, and my friends are studying like mad, as am I, so it’s rubbing off on me!)

    As a result, I do feel that a place like MIT, the worlds best in Engineering, MUST have cut-throat competititon. Not to imply that you’re lying or anything, I’ll only believe it when I see it (hopefully I will get the chance)

  2. Sarab says:

    Sorry about my tone and aggression there. just re-read it. Have just come back from a 3 hour bio lecture in which my teacher fried my brains.

    Our syllabus for the exams by virtue of which we go to college is:-

    Plant Physiology

    Human Physiology

    Classification of Plants and Aniamls


    Applied Biology



    and a whole bunch of others I can’t remember.

    My teacher put me thru hell ’cause even though I remembered Peyer’s patches and Kpuffer’s cells, I could’nt remember what we had done last year in June, namely the scientific name of the opium poppy and where the opium is extracted from.

    The answer, papaver somniferum and the buds.

    Sheesh!. Anyhow, my apologies again.


  3. noddy says:

    Sarab i hope 1500000 is not the correct number but its one zero less.

    Secondly i can tell you, from experience , you can learn pretty less and get into iits they dont expect you to know everything but to know corectly and think independendently, even if you dont know other topics.

    I am not comparing IIT with MIT or any institutes both are distinctly different institutes and i am sure that applies to any pair of institutes. But you have to be love to work on the extremes to enjoy college be it iit, mit, or elsewhere, perhaps thats one of the reason for millions craving for few good college, ofcourse noney factor in carrer is next to none but its not surely one and only.

    Entrance for 3000 in 150000 is surely tough but i have felt it very easy compared to other enrance where its only the speed and not thinking ability.

    you may enjoy your courses and get it

    difficult to beleive , isnt it??:)


  4. elizabeth says:

    I have one… I was talking to my dad, trying to make decisions about this whole college application thing, and he said if I were planning on going to medical school I should definitely NOT go to MIT. Apparently, MIT graduates are like the worst med students ever. He said they’re totally lost and can’t talk to people and all they know how to do is stick their noses in books and that older doctors dread having to train MIT grads. That seems completely opposite to anything I’ve heard about MIT–I thought, as you say, that it was a really collaborative, people place. I don’t know if I want to go to med school. I actually have no idea what I’m going to do, but medicine is definitely a possibility I don’t want to rule out. I’m thinking things must have changed in the twenty some years since my dad has been in med school… Do you know any MIT grads in med school? Should I worry about that?

  5. Lori says:

    My daughter graduated from MIT in June. She is currently in med school. Two of her close friends from MIT and a number of other students that graduated in June also went on to med school. One of the reasons my daughter applied to MIT was at the recommendation of our physician, who was an MIT grad in the 80’s (and he’s an awesome doctor!). Perhaps contact the pre med office for more info.

  6. faye says:

    So, a question completely unrelated to collaborativeness/competitiveness…

    I’m wondering how doable a double major is. As in, is it something only the truly motivated and slightly masochistic undertake, or would you say that it’s totally doable and wouldn’t cause frequent cerebral hemorrhaging?

    …On that note, what about triple majoring?