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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

Q&A by Anna H. '14

The ones that passed the "lmgtfy" test

Hey all! Time for another round of Q&A. A few general comments:

1) Easily-Googleable questions make me grumpy. Ex: “what is the application deadline?” or “how many letters of recommendation do I need?” Please ask the Internet for logistical questions before you ask me.
2) When I receive questions via e-mail, I have one of two responses: respond immediately, or file away and respond when I have longer chunks of free time (these chunks do not come by with great regularity). Sometimes I get e-mails with literally dozens of questions, all stacked together. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that (unless a subset of those questions violate (1)) but it’s worth letting you know that really really long e-mails will often go into the “respond later” or “respond much later” pile.
3) For whatever reason, asking questions in the comments section of a blog post seems to have become a thing of the past, even though site traffic hasn’t decreased at all. If you post your question there, you have a few advantages: you’re likely to get a response more quickly, because current MIT students read the blogs as well, and you will get more diverse responses, because I unfortunately represent < 1/4000th of the undergraduate population. So, I’d encourage your generation to bring the comments section questions back!

Phew. Okay. I think that’s it. Moving onto e-mails from you all —

Z. H. asked,

Do you read the essays?

The answer is no, I have no input whatsoever on the admissions process. NONE!

A.S. said,

I just learned that my AP Calculus AB grade for my first semester is not a B+, but a C+. My teacher hadn’t properly input my final exam score into the school’s grading system…

I’d love to go to MIT. I want to major in Economics, and I’d love to attend a school that is strongly scientific and result-oriented. I had a good application and a fantastic interview, but I think I’ve just ruined my chances.

I truly empathize with your situation in Quantum II class. I hope that things even out for you soon.

I said,

Thanks for your message. I’m sorry to hear about what happened in AP Calc. Sometimes when I’m bummed out about something, I try to imagine what it will look like to me a few years down the road. You may look back and think “wow, that C+ really ruined everything” – alternatively, you might look back and think “wow, you know, I’m really glad I got that C+, because it motivated me to put in a bunch of work to fill in the gaps in my mathematical background, and I’m way better off for it.” How you feel down the road is up to you now :)

But yeah – I do empathize with you. I’m a little freaked out that it may have ruined my grad school chances, but I’m confident that I’m a good applicant in other respects and I’m sure things will work out.

A.S. replied,

Based on what I’ve read on the MIT blog, you’re crazy awesome. Presumably, graduate schools want to admit crazy awesome people, so obviously you should get in. I hope you get into your favorite school so that you’re happy, but if not, it’s quite literally their loss.

On the calculus front, my teacher agreed to raise my grade to a B on the condition that I get a B or higher by the end of the second semester. We both agreed that such a thing was very feasible–I always do better in semester 2. I’ll be going to more study sessions and doing more practice problems, as well. Hardly the most exciting of plans, but it’s nice to have an outline for the battle to come.

Thanks, bro. Battle on!

V. M. asked,

Over here at my school, we aren’t taught any foreign language. The languages taught here are English, Hindi and Malayalam of which English is my first language and Hindi my second. So I would I be able to fulfill that requirement by learning Hindi?

Unfortunately I don’t know anything about that — best to direct e-mails like that to the admissions office.

M. B. said,

I spoke with some counselors at the community college I’m attending for the next two years in place of my high school junior and senior years…In a totally unexpected turn of events, I will actually finish with Higher Level Calculus I, II, and III as well as Physics based Calculus I, II, and III, Differential Equations, linear Algebra, and a LOT of coding experience, which is particularly important to me. I am SO excited that I get to take these classes but I worry that I won’t be able to handle it or that I’ll overload myself and have a mental breakdown?! Alternatively, I worry I’ll struggle too much and inherently have a suffering GPA because I took classes that I wasn’t prepared for.

The counselors at the college assure me that by the end of this year I will have had all the pre-college math I need in order to do well in Calculus 1, but I suppose some amount of uncertainty is natural on my part.

I replied,

The community college courses sound awesome! I sympathize with the fear of, you know, ruining yourself by taking more than you can handle. Let me pass on some advice that I got from Cathy Modica, the MIT Physics academic administrator, who has been around for a while and has seen a lot of undergrads come and go. She told me that she always encourages students to challenge themselves – in other words, when there’s a “should I take this class? I’m worried that it’ll be too hard” she encourages them to decide “yes!”, because even if you don’t get an A+ you learn a lot by stretching yourself – and even surprise yourself by how much you’re able to take on.

That said, if you really find that you’re WAY out of your depth – so much so that you’re not going to learn – then pull out. I imagine that that will continue to be an option.

So I’d say go for it! Also, with those classes, you will be very well prepared for MIT :)

Q. D. (a transfer applicant from California) asked,

What kind of research opportunities does MIT provide for its undergraduate Physics students?
Why did you choose to major in Physics?
Is the transfer admission process handled by the same people who deal with freshmen admission?
Why did you go to MIT? What’s bad about MIT?

I replied (frantically, from an airport),

Research opportunities: all kinds, from beginner stuff (simple coding, electronics, experimental stuff) to more advanced theoretical work for those with the requisite coursework.
Why I chose physics: I liked my classes in physics, and the department here is absolutely fabulous. The professors are very invested in the undergraduates (which is not the norm for high-quality research institutions!) which to me is the most important thing. Also, there are great opportunities for doing research.
Transfer admissions: I actually don’t know anything about that, I’m sorry…

I’m actually not 100% sure why I went to MIT – it was kind of a gut thing. I showed up for CPW, loved it. I also had been reading the blogs for many years, and felt comfortable with the place. There are the obvious things like GREAT UNDERGRAD RESEARCH OPPORTUNITIES! and SMART PEOPLE! etc, but in the end I think it was a feeling that I would be happy here – and certainly, I’ve had a good time. That said, there have been very rough patches. The atmosphere isn’t “competitive”, exactly, and people are good about working together, but every individual is incredibly competitive with him or herself. We’re all used to being the best, I guess, so we can be very hard on ourselves. I’d say that student low self-confidence and high self-imposed pressure is the worst thing about this place. It makes for kind of a stressful environment.

U. V. asked,

Any tips on writing?

I replied,

Read a lot of good writing, and write a lot.

P. G. from India asked,

I have sent in all my college applications before the deadline, and am now enduring the nerve-wracking period of waiting for the decisions.

While my MIT admissions interview has been waived (owing to a lack of interviewers in my area), I do have upcoming interviews for some other schools.
Would you have any suggestions regarding the college interview? It would certainly help a lot. Maybe a few general guidelines.

I replied,

Congratulations on having submitted all your apps!

Advice on the interviews: if these are US schools (interviews work differently in other countries) then I would suggest thinking of it like any conversation with an interesting person. You want to find out about this person (and MIT!) but also want to communicate certain things about yourself. Relax, and let it be casual. It helped me to think in advance about the kinds of questions they might ask (what my interests are, what I do for fun, etc) so that I could have answers prepared – but I didn’t rehearse anything.

N. L. asked,

I have an equal passion for both the humanities and science/math fields. However,I am stronger in the humanities. Math and science are a challenge for me. I often stay after school to get tutoring from my teachers/other students.

I was wondering what the average class size at MIT is. Also, are the professors available to help students one on one after class?

I replied,

I also have equal passions for the humanities and science/math fields – and I’m also stronger in the humanities. Unfortunately, average class sizes at MIT are very big, for beginner (freshman) subjects…often hundreds of students. As you get more advanced and more specialized, class sizes get much smaller. That said, professors and Teaching Assistants are available to help – at least in the physics department, they’re very easy to get in touch with and reach out to. Not necessarily directly after class, but each has a special set of office hours when you can drop by and get help.

N. L. wrote back,

Regarding the beginner freshman classes, I was wondering how how quickly material in class is covered. In my AP physics class we usually learn the whole chapter within a few days. I’m a slower learner who needs lots of reinforcement before grasping a concept and the fast pace we’ve been going at has been a struggle for me to keep up with.

I wrote back,

It really depends on the version of the freshman class. For intro physics mechanics, for example, there are multiple versions: 8.01L, 8.01, and 8.012, which cover the topic at wildly different levels of rigor and pace. I also need a lot of reinforcement to grasp a concept, and classes here have been difficult for me. Granted, there is always help available if you ask for it. It’s worth bearing in mind that you can’t spend all your time getting extra help – and if you always need extra help, in all your classes, this probably isn’t the right place for you, or you haven’t picked the right level / number of classes.

It’s really difficult to give you advice on your situation, because I haven’t taken your AP physics class, so I can’t really compare the pace to the pace of an MIT class. It is certainly true that if you don’t enjoy the challenge, you will probably not enjoy MIT classes…they’re not easy for anyone.

A. J. asked,

Is coding really required for physicists?

I replied,

Yes, coding is definitely required for physicists!

I. S. asked,

Anyway, because it is very competitive to get into schools such as MIT, I understand that it is important to do what is enjoyable in school in terms of both academics and extracurriculars. I really enjoy doing cross country and robotics…but I haven’t really won major awards in high school – I’ve won some awards in cross country, but in terms of academics, I haven’t won any departmental awards. Though I have been in the math club, I haven’t won gold medals or any other type of recognition in a competition. However, I feel that I would still be able to write well about what I enjoy doing in my college applications. Would my lack of qualifications in awards be taken negatively by schools such as MIT? Or would it depend on the application as a whole (as they are evaluated “holistically”)? I really enjoyed the learning environment of the schools I visited, but sometimes, I worry that the admissions officers might question my qualifications because of my lack of awards/recognitions.

I replied,

You’re right; it is (outrageously) competitive to get into schools like MIT nowadays. So much so that acceptance is really down to luck, and whether you can somehow distinguish yourself from the zillions of other applicants. “Distinguish” can mean “win every math award ever offered by the United States of America” or “win one gold medal per day since birth” – and I have classmates that fall into that category. However, it can also mean having a particularly thoughtful, kind character, which shines through on your application. It can mean taking a handful of AP classes, despite not going to a school that offers *any* AP classes. Basically, the goal of the admissions office is to identify applicants who will succeed here, and demonstrating the *potential* to succeed is just as important as having already succeeded. In other words, showing that you’re the kind of person who *will* do awesome things here (who is brave, resourceful, etc) is as important – if not more important – than being able to list 20 awards that you’ve won.

I’m so (SO) glad to hear that you’ve been doing activities that you enjoy. Too many high schoolers think that the key to college admissions success is doing activities that will look good on their application – and they ignore what they are naturally drawn to doing. I don’t know you very well, but I can tell you that MIT will absolutely evaluate your application holistically, and that a laundry list of awards is NOT necessary for admission.

A. T. asked,

I don’t know why am I telling you all this and I’m sorry to ramble on this way but I’ve always wanted to go to college at MIT ever since I’ve known about the place; it’s just that I feel I haven’t done anything significant in the past 17 years of my life to be thought of as good enough to attend MIT…I was hoping you could tell me what does it really take to get in and whether or not I still have a shot at getting in.

I replied,

First of all, saying that you haven’t done anything significant in 17 years doesn’t make much sense. You’ve definitely done things that were important to your family, your friends. Sure, maybe you’ve never been on the news – but most of us haven’t. The phrase “good enough to attend MIT” also doesn’t make much sense…we get admitted here because we’re a good fit, and that can mean a lot of different things.

To get in, it takes a demonstration that you will thrive here. That you will be able to succeed academically AND socially. I don’t know you very well, so I have no sense at all for whether that would be true for you. If you think you would be a good fit, then apply, and see what happens!

S. S. asked,

I’ve had a fascination with space, physics, and math and science in general since I was small, and I think I would probably like to pursue a career in a related field. I don’t think that I’m interested in a teaching/professorship position though. I know that there must be research positions out there but I don’t know much about them, and generally when I look for information on jobs in these fields I find a lot of results about academia. Do you think that you could tell me a little more about career options besides tech/engineering available for someone interested in studying the sciences?

I replied,

There are definitely options other than teaching or being in academia. For example, I work at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which is an NSF-funded institution and is made up of staff scientists, not professors. I really like the environment, and I’d be happy to tell you more about it if you have particular questions. Other similar places include national labs, like the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, or the Los Alamos National Labs. These places tend to do a lot of defense-related work, but they have cognitive science departments and definitely hire a lot of physicists. There are also communities of researchers at (some) museums.

S. S. responded,

I think my parents are a little concerned that if I major in a pure science like physics or even chemistry, rather than something with more obvious applications (engineering or something similar) that I will have a harder time finding a job. Is it very hard to find work with a physics degree? Also, do you kind of need to have a Ph.D or will a bachelors or a masters get you a good job?

If I were to pursue a Ph.D or grad school, are there similar amounts of financial aid available? My parents and I are probably going to have enough trouble with just paying for the bachelors and I don’t know how expensive grad school is.

Do you know much about how jobs and research opportunities in Europe compare to those in the U.S.? Are there similar opportunities available?

I heard or read somewhere that in some of the bigger, more basic classes at MIT, you ended up “teaching yourself” a lot of the material, rather than it being taught to you. I took the majority of my high school classes online through community colleges so I’m no stranger to that learning method but I was curious if you agreed that that was the case. Also, are there a lot of physics majors at MIT? And as a blogger, do you get a lot of emails from random people such as myself?

I replied,

– I guess it depends on what kind of job you’re hoping to have. Actually, a lot of companies (for example, financial institutions) really like hiring people with physics degrees! And you definitely don’t need a Ph.D. in physics to get a good job — you really need a Ph.D. for academia (research, teaching at the college level, etc.) There are some good resources online; the American Physical Society has a thing about careers for physicists in the US. In any case, once you get to college, you will have the opportunity to talk about this stuff in more detail with company representatives, professors, and upperclassmen, before you have to make a decision about a major. So you have plenty of time, but it’s good to start doing some research now!
– You actually don’t have to pay for grad school in physics — YOU get paid! It’s considered a full-time job (and, really, it is — you’re working all the time.) You’re paid (albeit not very much) to do research :)
– Europe: depends what you want to do! I know that in my particular field (astronomy) there are a lot of really strong research institutions in Europe. Not sure about other areas of physics.
– For me, learning in college has certainly required more independence than learning in High School did. That’s because I went to a really small school, so had a lot of guaranteed interactions with teachers. If a student didn’t do his/her homework, the teacher intervened and tried to work with the situation. On the other hand, college classes are so much bigger that you often slip by being anonymous — if you fall behind, there won’t necessarily be someone to push you and make you turn in your homework on time. All that said, there are a lot of resources available for people with enough initiative to take them; at MIT in particular, I’ve found the professors to be REALLY helpful — you just have to make a point to get in touch with them, and take advantage of the available resources!
– There are, relatively, quite a lot of physics majors at MIT. I think that in a given year (~1000) there are about 80 physics majors. Departments like computer science/electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering, are a lot bigger though.
– Depends what you mean by “a lot” :) I usually get a couple of e-mails a week.