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MIT student blogger Mollie B. '06

Standing out by Mollie B. '06

But what if you come to MIT and you're not the best in the class anymore? What will become of you?

First, an aside
Today, Adam and I were on the subway heading to the Museum of Fine Arts (MIT students get in free! Can’t beat culture for free). We were on an inbound Red Line train, and the conductor kept adamantly announcing that it was an “Ashmont and Braintree train.” Take a look at this map and realize how absurd that is.

Schrodinger’s train, perhaps?

And now, the real stuff
A common concern voiced about applying to/attending a school like MIT is that in a milieu of such strong students, it’s going to be difficult for a given student to stand out among his or her peers, and she/he won’t get into a good grad program. This is also usually bound up with the concern that not being at the top of the class will cause the student to shrivel up like a bacterium in Lysol.

I remember having those same concerns when I got into MIT. (I didn’t feel them when I applied, as you might recall, because I applied out of spite.) It’s a little nervewracking to realize that you’re no longer the class brain, and that you can’t sleepwalk your way to perfect grades anymore.

My first semester at MIT, I realized just how meager my high school preparation had been. I had never taken physics before, and I was suddenly taking 8.01 with a bunch of people who had “merely” gotten 4’s on the AP test. In high school, I’d been upset when I got grades below 90; my first semester at MIT, I learned to rejoice when I got class average. My first semester average would have been a 3.25 on MIT’s 5.0 scale, had it been on grades — I got 3 C’s and a B.

But the cool thing was that I was happy with that. I had worked my tail end off for those C’s in a way that I’d never worked for my A’s in high school. A semester of MIT taught me what twelve years of public education never had — it’s not about the grades, it’s about what you learn in class, and you have to learn for you, not for the grades.

My new philosophy informed my attitude about every other class I took at MIT. I didn’t drive myself crazy studying for finals; I did what I felt was necessary, then took a few hours to talk to friends and eat potato chips. If I had a choice between studying an extra two hours for a test and doing a critical experiment in lab, I chose the experiment every time. I didn’t go to night classes, even though some of my biology recitations were held at night, because I knew I needed time at home at night to defragment my brain and hang out with my boyfriend. I learned that learning is a priority for me, but getting perfect grades isn’t.

Ironically, the more I applied my philosophy — taking classes because they were just drop-dead cool, reading the scientific literature about subjects I liked voraciously, spending time in lab just for the sheer joy of it — the better my grades became.

I don’t think this would have happened to me if I had gone to Ohio State. I think I would have still felt like I needed to be at the top of the class, and I would have been focused on my grades to the neglect of my education and personal growth. Moreover, I would have needed to be at the top of my class at OSU to get into the grad schools I got into this year. I didn’t need to be at the top of my MIT class to get into those schools, as grad schools seem to be overjoyed to admit ridiculous numbers of MIT-educated scientists and engineers. (Point in fact, I wouldn’t know if I were at the top of my MIT class. MIT doesn’t rank, and nobody graduates with Latin honors or anything foofy like that. True story.)

I think MIT was worth it for me both in terms of the way I was taught to be a first-rate scientist, but also in the way that I was taught to follow my own desires and motivations rather than living for immediate grade-based rewards. I didn’t graduate first in my class at MIT. Thank God for that.

16 responses to “Standing out”

  1. Anonymous says:

    i have exactly the same thoughts with you

    but mine is earlier(since i was in grade7)

    although i have never got top 15 in my class

    but everyone in my class knows that my interest and passion in bio and chem are genuine

    that is, i learn them becoz i truly like the subjects, regardless of my grades or somewhat

    the more i read ur blog, the more i like you, and the more i like MIT smile

  2. Henize says:

    sorry, i forgot to write my name

    the anonymous above is “Henize” raspberry

  3. Jon says:

    very insightful post! I can’t wait to be done with high school and, if I go to MIT, not let grades worry the beejesus out of me. I never really focused on them until our class rank was released (middle of Junior year)….when I found out I was 4/356ish, I knew I didn’t want to drop below that….and thus, will be semi-school obsessed senior year….well, until I’m burned out/grades are locked after first semester =)

    and just to throw in a question, if you haven’t answered a similar one before, what kind of high school student were you? Did everyone always come to you for help, expect the best from you, etc?….did you like it or hate it?

  4. Katie '10 says:

    This might seem kind of random, but I was just wondering if we really need extra long bed sheets. I’ve heard from a few college students around here that they are actually too long for their beds and that they could have bought regular sheets.

  5. Christina says:

    I loved this post.

    And I really hope what Katie said isn’t true; I just bought a full size comforter because I couldn’t find an extra long one.

  6. Omar '10 says:

    Haha, I just learned to rejoice a C. I got a 79% in my first Interphase’s Chemistry test and I’m soooo happy about it.

    btw. The mean was 54% with a deviation of about 18 which means that my 79% was graded as an “Excellent”… isn’t that… exciting?

  7. Anonymous says:

    Great entry.

    When did you [I]learn[/I] to rejoice when you made average grades? When did your mind set change?

  8. Charlotte says:

    Hey Mollie, I agree with Jon that that was a very insightful post.

    I wonder if you could also comment on one issue which I’ve been debating with my brother for years, which is, learning from books vs learning from lectures. Some people choose practicality over passion in selecting courses because they feel that whatever they’re interested in can easily be read in books anyway and therefore the only thing that counts is the final grade. So what will make a course far more rewarding than mere reading?

  9. Omar '10 says:

    Hey Mollie,

    Great entry, as usual, it’s nice to see how MIT does promote cooperative work. I’m currently @ MIT learning a lot thanks to Interphase and I really like the way that teaching is done here @ MIT.

    MIT is awesome… that’s what I know so far, and the most amazing thing is that I feel comfortable saying that even if I’ve been sleeping an average of 5-6 hours per day (including weekends) and have a Calc test tommorow wink.

    I love MIT… that’s a fact.

  10. Omar '10 says:

    Oh! BTW, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts during my second week here at MIT smile

  11. Mike says:

    Excellent insight of MIT life.

    Convinced me to pick MIT at the top of my college-application list.


  12. Ariadne '10 says:

    Omg! That book that you referenced in your entry on how you chose to go to MIT… my uncle bought it for me for Christmas and I’ve read about half and it’s fascinating! I’m currently planning on majoring in course 2, but how easy is it to take classes in neuroscience outside of one’s major?

  13. ramya says:

    hello,this is ramya frm very interested to join MIT for my engg….i really don kno how tuff its gonna plz do rite to me all abt it if u really get time for waitin.

  14. anon says:

    You are in neuroscience, right? I’m looking at MIT undergrad, and saw this in the Boston Globe online today

    In a letter responding to professors who wanted MIT to investigate the senior professor’s treatment of the job recruit, Hockfield said there are “ongoing tensions among MIT’s neuroscience entities” and suggested that the current situation “threatens ongoing disruption of the collegiality of our academic enterprise.” The letter, dated Monday, was obtained by the Globe.

    Is this just jostling between profs, or does it affect undergrad students too? If you work with one prof, will others resent it and not help you or give you good recs?

  15. ale says:

    Hey! I’ve been reading for a while your blog and I like the way you expressed about your school, I’m from Mexico =)

    and if you have time, please don’t doubt in writing to me. I’m very interest to know how do you get in there? I mean, how do you noticed that MIT was for you, I’m a little afraid of it, hope you are well and we’ll stay in touch.

    bye smile

  16. ale says:

    Hi! again m.. I already saw the part where you explain “Why I came to MIT” jaja sorry =)

    even though I admire you because you are there, studying so hard ready for graduate school.

    Good luck in everything and I hope to be there the next year.

    take care

    bye smile