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MIT student blogger Vincent A. '17

Slam Dunked by Vincent A. '17

Long crazy week...a few necessary lessons

My high school academic life was by no means a cruise through pleasant waters. It had its several current peaks and rocky outbursts, challenges I found myself learning to deal with as time fled. I was part of the school’s ultra-small math olympiad class, and spent a significant number of hours outside my normal classes dealing with things like geometric invariants, number theory and unruly combinatorics problems. In eleventh grade, a sort of climax emerged. I was on the path to being part of Nigeria’s International Mathematics Olympiad team, and if I wanted to turn probability into certainty, I had to make a few sacrifices. Specifically, I was allowed into a program of learning that swapped two-seventh of my regular classes with olympiad classes, but I use “swapped” here very loosely. I would still receive grades for the regular classes I was missing, and needed to make up for them in what little free time I had. It was my most stressful high school semester, a stormy set of months that found me working past midnight on most nights trying to finish up difficult olympiad problems while trying to catch up on voluminous notes from regular classes. I barely made an “A” at the end of the semester, a grade that was necessary if I wanted to remain on scholarship. Looking back on this memory, I realize I had thought it had been one of those sappy, happy tales of triumph—out of the roaring flames come the strongest steel. Out of the difficult semester had come a sense of time management and prioritization-skill that would let me handle anything thrown my way.

Last week, MIT laughed at this happy ending and tore it to pieces. There was still a lot I had to learn.

Many MIT students you talk to will understand a distinct “transition” from high school to the Institute. They’ll recognize that while high school might have been anywhere from easy sailing to a fairly time-consuming cross-country race, MIT morphed into this full-blown restless marathon that demanded more energy than you might have ever thought necessary. The most difficult of problem sets will consume your time, sometimes without any clear results; midterm results will strip you of the pride-laden identity of “being on top” that might have defined your high school years. You’ll work hard, really hard, but you can get used to it; you’ll strike this balance between work and relaxation that will make you love MIT and appreciate work. I thought I’d found this balance, up until last week.

Last week, I had two midterms and two p-sets. Normally, this should have been a stressful week—aren’t most weeks here—but not enough to warrant this much reflection. The reason the week sent me buckling to my knees with more force than was needed was because I still lacked something—balance, time-management, something.

In my first few weeks here, I got a fair taste of how much time my classes demanded. I could expect to expend between five to eight hours on every problem set or paper, and a little more outside of that doing some additional studying. I could expect to start a problem set on Tuesday afternoon and get done by midnight with a few breaks in between. Once or twice, there’d be a super-weird p-set that demanded just a bit more time, but for the most part, I had figured out how the system of the first semester worked for me, and I had adjusted to it.

Then boom. Monday Afternoon. I studied my schedule and realized I had a physics p-set due and a bio midterm on Wednesday. I spent the rest of Monday studying for the midterm, and realized that somehow, things were getting out of my grip. Somehow, the material I needed to understand seemed to have quadrupled in the space of no time, and I felt that I really needed a lot more time if I was to do half-decently on the midterm. I tried old problem sets and exams, but they just consumed time horrendously while leaving me half-confused. I was mixing up similar ideas for similar concepts, and it was around three a.m. on a Tuesday morning when, weak-eyed and drained, I told myself that I had an entire day ahead of me, enough time to figure out whatever was going on in these suddenly mysterious tales of protein localization and restriction enzymes.

Tuesday morning slid along. I was reluctant to get up from bed—I always am, really—but I managed to…after shutting off three consecutive alarms. Classes rolled along from noon to five p.m., and I got back to my room feeling somewhat disoriented. For some reason, I really wanted to sleep again…but I did have a midterm the next day and a p-set due. It was barely dark yet. I still had time.

I watched a few videos from MIT’s OpenCourseWare site, which hosts an infinite collection of past lectures, and tried to sort through my Biology notes. I spent a good while going through them, often pausing to remark at how awful my diagrams were, and took a break only when my stomach began growling. I needed food. I had dinner and returned to work. After shifting through several pages of detail and pictures, I tried online problem sets from edX, an online educational resource. There…there was still something wrong.

For the most part, I felt as though I had a good grasp on the general concepts, but when I faced problems, similar ideas to tackle them swam to the forefront of my mind, but I knew that the contrast in those ideas made the difference between a correct and an incorrect answer, and I had somehow turned all the relevant information into a sludge of concepts I could barely distinguish. Was polyadenylation for eukaryotic DNA templates or prokayortic ones? Was a distinction made between the two? I couldn’t remember.

I did a few practice exams. You need to understand these things just a bit more, they seemed to smugly suggest.

“You need to sleep,” my roommate told me. He had just finished up a p-set and was wrapping himself under a snug blanket. “It’s late…you’ll do fine.”

“Soon…” I mumbled wearily to him. “I’ll be fine…just a little more time…trying to understand what’s going on…”

It was close to three a.m. when I slept, waking up six hours later to prepare for the midterm.

The midterm threw questions at me that tried to navigate the frenzied tangle of details my frayed mind held, searching for what fit where. Time flew with rude speed; next thing, I knew, time was up, and I hadn’t even finished.

That didn’t go well at all, I thought dispiritedly to myself.

Just before my final Wednesday class—P.E. Running—I went to the student center, bought a sandwich and stared at the physics problem set. My mind felt far out of a thinking mood, and I didn’t want to brood over problems right now. I just wanted to…to brood.

Minutes later, I was running laps round an indoor track, feeling tired and dehydrated way too early into the class. By the time the class ended, my heart was thudding out of control. My head was spinning. Woozy, weary, I trudged back to my dorm, which felt all too far, wishing I could teleport, wishing I was better at Biology, wishing I could have a cold glass of water at the moment.

My legs quavered when I got to my dorm. I collapsed on my bed, keeping in mind to rest for a few minutes and start on my physics p-set which was due in a few hours. A couple of hours later, I rose out of an unwilling slumber. The first thought that popped into my head of course was my physics p-set.

Due…due in four hours.

I had barely even started.

I was absolutely mortified.

“Oh God,” I whispered to myself.

Quickly, I grabbed a stack of A4 papers and began the problem set. My mind churned out chaotic thoughts.

I won’t be able to finish this…should I ask for an extension? No…no, I just…I just have to see how far I can go.

Diagrams. Arrows. Fruitless ideas. Crossed-out equations. Unclear physical systems. Illogical pictures.

Is this even possible?

I made my way to the central lounge on my floor with a bunch of papers, asked people a few questions, got some details clarified, and headed back to my room to continue the p-set. I managed to finish, turning it in with less than five minutes to spare.

“What’s going on this week?” I thought to myself. My roommate told me to try and relax.

“Maybe later,” I told him. “Still have a few things to do.”

I was about to start on my calculus p-set, but on a whim, I checked my online gradebook for the Intro Bio. Midterm grades were out. I had gotten a C.

When I began the calculus p-set that Wednesday night, I realized something was wrong—my pattern…my pattern of five-to-eight hours for p-sets wouldn’t hold for this one. It was going to be a lot longer. The problems were significantly more complex, and the material had gotten a lot more unfamiliar. I worked on everything till slightly past midnight, and feeling deeply frustrated with how the whole day had gone, slept earlier than I usually would have.

Thursday morning turned to noon. Classes came and went. I worked on the p-set, but there seemed to be a dispirited laziness in the way I approached the problems. My thoughts seemed to be drifting through a cycle of thinking about what to do and just thinking about why this week felt so awful, as if I was being plunged around the air like a slam-dunked basketball. This led to a not-very-speedy p-setting experience, and I stopped three-quarters of the way through, because it was already late and I needed to study for my physics midterm which was the next morning.

I made my way through the preparatory practice problems the class had been e-mailed, and maybe for the first time that week, felt a strong glimmer of hope. I actually seemed to have a fair enough grip on the concepts of elastic collisions and energy to understand what was going on in those problems. I still ended up sleeping late, with the clock ticking its way to four a.m., waking up an hour before the midterm.

The midterm went alright. It probably could have gone better, but I definitely felt that it had gone a lot more nicely than Intro Bio had. I made a bit more progress on the calculus p-set, and turned it in after having lunch with a friend. After my last Friday class, I felt very, very happy. A crazy week was over, and I had arranged to talk with my family.

I spent two hours Skyping with my mom and siblings, and an hour afterwards talking with my dad on the phone. I was happy to see their smiling faces and hear their strong, soothing voices. The cheerfulness lasted the rest of the weekend.

I definitely understand that the past week could have gone a lot better if I’d done things a bit differently. It’s clear that sometimes, the workload at MIT gets particularly intense, possibly at instances when other personal situations are cutting their way through life, but the problem this past week hadn’t really been from the workload. It had been from my approach, my mindset.

I thought a lot about what I could have done to make things better, to make studying for biology a lot more streamlined, to fit my p-setting and studying for midterms into a more seamless pattern, and the answers weren’t far from grasp.

Firstly, MIT might be a restless marathon, but it wasn’t a one-person mission. I had approached studying for the Bio midterm as though I were the only student in the class. There had obviously been concepts I had not fully understood, ideas that had kept getting mixed up, but I had made it seem as though it were my job, and my job alone, to figure out what was what, and why. I had extremely knowledgeable friends at Random Hall and in Concourse, Biology-loving brothers in ADPhi, teaching assistants with wide-ranging office hours. I could have turned to them for help. They could have provided insight my buzzing mind was missing. I chose the solitary road at a time I most needed the expertise of others around me—the expertise in particular that makes MIT one of the most fulfilling places to learn in, and ended up performing not as well as I otherwise might have.

In contrast, I had been able to get my physics p-set done in time only after I had asked for help.

Getting help is important here, and it might be easier on your nerves to understand this on a practical level before MIT puts on its boxing gloves and wearily shows you this the hard way.

I had also not given myself much leeway in terms of proactivity. I could have started my physics or calculus p-set earlier than Monday afternoon, but my original idea that everything could fit into manageable chunks of time had prevented me from doing so. Problems aren’t always fluid or predictable, neither in MIT nor in real life. Cruising through this week of p-sets in no way guaranteed that something about next week’s material wouldn’t be less intuitive, more unclear, more time-consuming. Recognizing that MIT can get quite difficult, that classes race by, translates to a need for strong time-management that prevents work from somehow distilling into this impossibly tiny time slot that will churn your time and energy away like the hungry ghosts of Pacman.

It translates to a need for balance.

A lifetime ago, in high school, I thought I had achieved this balance. Turns out I was wrong. I’m still learning how to build effective study habits, how to manage my time, and the past week taught me a lot, about collaboration, about seeking assistance, about trying to attain an equilibrium that lets me understand that getting a good amount of sleep doesn’t come at the price of falling behind on work, and vice versa.

I guess that’s what this freshman semester of Pass-No-Record is all about, this self-discovery.

I’m grateful the challenges of the previous week pushed me one step closer into ensuring I minimize the hectic nature of my time here. We’ll see how it goes, but right now, I’m pretty optimistic.