It’s been a rough and challenging December and semester overall, both physically and mentally. I learned a lot of lessons that have forever changed my MIT experience.
This semester I did all of my psets early. I devoted hours and hours each day to psets as well as textbook reading, making sure I had understood everything. I got into a good rhythm and went to every class and completed all of my assignments on time. Freshman fall I made the mistake of solving problems with my study group without ever taking extra time to do the problem again on my own. I ended up no-recording a class. Freshman spring I wanted to fix that but overshot to the other end of the spectrum where I did all of my psets entirely by myself and I’d be working for three to four hours on a single problem on each pset. Eventually the deadlines hit me hard and I had to drop two classes. This semester, having learned from my freshman year mistakes, I worked in groups but I still actively did the problems on my own. My time management was on point, no denying that. And I would soon learn that it wasn’t enough. I could spend all day every single day for weeks studying and studying, but if I wasn’t learning it properly, I wouldn’t do as well as the kid who studied for a couple hours and got it.
Lesson #1: Hard work and time-management skills alone are not enough; not even close. You also need to know to learn
When the first exam week came in late September, I studied the nights before for many hours, doing review problems and re-reading the textbook chapters. Up to that point my grades were flawless, and I intended to keep them that way. As the first exam week came, I failed the first exams for each of my three classes. I was aghast, and when talking to my peers, they told me I needed time-management skills and to work really hard. Weird, I thought I was already doing both those things. Nonetheless, I kept up my near-perfect homework, lab, and attendance grades despite the failed exam grades bringing them down.
When the second exam week came late October, I prepared more time to study. Rather than just studying the night before, I would take care of everything else so that I had no other assignments that day and would come home immediately after my last class of the day to study the rest of day. I did more practice problems and went through practice exams. I even felt encouragement from friends who had taken the exam earlier and said “Don’t worry, this is the easy exam”. Come the second exams for each of my three classes and I barely pass one and do even worse on the other two than I did the first time around. Something was wrong but I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. I had learned all the material, and even taught some of it to classmates, but when it comes time for the exam it’s like I forget everything. I was already devoting so much time to just studying, and yet everyone was telling me that “you just have to sit down and study” as if all I needed to do well was to study really long and hard, which was clearly not the case.
I went to my advisors, my professors, and my friends to figure out what to do. I told them how I understood the material and how to solve problems but then the exam would throw a twist I have never seen before and I’d be stuck. Each one told me similar things, reinforcing how important I feel they are. They suggested that I try to understand how I learn and to learn the material in a way that I’d remember it. They also told me to take a step back and get an overarching view of the material to understand. What I pieced together from the conversations were that I needed to understand the models that were at play behind the problems. Understanding these models and what tickles them was the key to knowing how to solve problems you haven’t seen before. If I couldn’t solve a problem, it was because the model I had formed in my mind wasn’t robust enough to handle it.
Lesson #2: Understanding the models at play and what tickles them was the key to really understanding the material and knowing how to solve problems you haven’t seen before, i.e. exam problems.
Come the third exam week in late November, I was in full on warrior mode nailing planks onto my door to lock myself in my room. I was worried for my grades, especially for macroeconomics, 14.02. I had a near perfect homework grade, getting 100% on most of my psets and not punting a single one, but because of my first two exam grades, if I didn’t do ok on this third exam, I would most likely fail the class. There was no final. I had already been studying weeks before. The day before the exam, I thought more about what I was told. As much as I wanted to jump right into the practice problems, I forced myself, despite my limited time, to think about what it was that the class was trying to teach me. What was I supposed to get out of it? And also to look at how the structure of the class I was taking was set up. I read the table of contents in my textbook, and it had begun to make sense. I began to understand how the different theories for understanding the economy were tied together. Before, I knew what these theories were and the formulas tied to those theories, but now I could mentally map them together and see how they linked to each other. Then I started doing practice problems to fill in the “branches” of this mental map so that I would know how to do tougher problems.
The next day I took the exam feeling confident. It was an unusually hard exam and most of it was stuff I have never seen before and was not found in the textbook, homework assignments, or in class. I tried answering it to the best of my abilities. When the grades came out, I delayed checking it because I saw that the class average was considerably lower than before and i was afraid of checking my grade. I looked at it the Friday night before finals and my jaw dropped. I did even worse than on my previous failed second exam. I was done for. I failed the class. I’ll forever have a “F” on my transcript that employers will look at and think “Hmmm, it looks like you dropped the ball. What happened that semester? Did you have your time management skills in order? Did you try hard enough in the class?” Yes I tried hard! Yes I devoted time! I devoted so much time day in and day out, losing sleep doing everything I could to work hard and all I had to show for it was a “F”. I was discouraged, and I even grew mad because I didn’t understand how other people around me punt psets, don’t go class, don’t read the lecture notes, and copy answers all the time and still get A’s and B’s. I was falling into a victim’s mindset but I tried to keep myself out of it, reasoning that if they can pass the class, I can too. I was about to start studying for the finals, but first I opened up my word processor and typed up my blog post The Pretender. Decisions for the EA applicants came out the next day and, in the state that I was, I wanted to give a word of encouragement to them as well as all of my peers also studying for finals. I wrote the post and published it. Applicants started contacting me, telling me how the post was exactly what they needed to hear to calm them down for decisions. Then, other people started contacting me telling me how the post was exactly what they needed to hear to study for finals, for they were afraid of failing too. In that, I learned another lesson. I used to get mad when other people got stressed out because I felt I had it even harder and that the stakes were higher for me, but the responses to this blog post helped me understand.
Lesson #3: People are on your side and most of them are working just as hard, if not harder, with stakes that are just as high, if not higher, even if it doesn’t look like it.
I started studying, and boy, it felt like that part in the movie where the main character had finally learned their lesson and was getting ready to defeat the bad guy. My plan was to study Friday night for 8.02, study Saturday for 6.01, study Sunday for 8.02, take the 8.02 final Monday morning, study the rest of Monday for 6.01, then take the 6.01 final exam Monday afternoon. It was too late for 14.02 but I couldn’t let that get to me. I thought more about the “learning models” I pieced together from what everyone’s been telling me. Rather than trying to learn every possible trick and twist they might pull on the exam, I tried to learn the “models” that the class was trying to teach. For physics, it was mainly Maxwell’s equations. It was no longer enough for me to just do the problem, I had to really understand on a practical level what they meant. You never forget how to ride a bike, so I had to imagine Maxwell’s equations as bikes and learn how to ride them. Then I did the same for the other concepts, making sure to learn what each one actually meant and in what situations they’re needed.
Oh and I also somehow caught a cold on Friday night. A bad one. Saturday and Sunday I was sneezing all over, feeling dead tired, and I spend each day studying in my room studying until 4am, waking up at 9am, and studying again. The exam was at 9am, so I studied until 3 and slept on the couch in my room because it was easier to get out of my couch than it was to get out of my bed. I got myself out of bed at 7 without hesitation despite how terrible I felt and I studied last minute topics. I went to the exam feeling physically bad but mentally confident. As expected, the exam had twists I hadn’t encountered before, but I navigated through them using the models I had built up. I came out of the exam feeling confident in myself and my answers, something that hasn’t happened on a single exam since coming to MIT. But no time to waste, 6.01 was the next day. I studied as much as I could but the sneezing and the headaches got progressively worse until I couldn’t concentrate anymore. I went to bed at 10pm and I woke up 6am. The exam was at 1:30pm so I had time to study, and, luckily, I was feeling better from my cold.
Lesson 4: If you really want something, exhaust all your options to get it.
I felt I had saved my grades save for 14.02, and I was about to accept my fate when I found something that changed everything: I had solutions right that were marked wrong in my exams. I flipped out, matching up my answers the solution guide and there were in fact parts where I should’ve gotten partial credit. Now, if I could argue my case well enough, I could get some extra points and possibly pass the class. I immediately contacted an instructor who told me to meet him the next day or leave the exams with a note in his office. I didn’t want to do the latter. I needed those points so I wanted to explain my solutions fully in person. But he wouldn’t be in his office until late afternoon Friday and my bus to go home left Friday morning. I had already paid $60 for a ticket and when I contacted their support, they told me they couldn’t give me a refund because it was less than 24 hours until departure time but that if I went at the departure time and told them about it, they could reserve a spot for me for the next bus that left 10:30 at night. So Friday morning I made the trek to South Station, dead tired from the week, and when I got to the station, I was told that the lady on the phone gave me wrong information. If I didn’t leave now, then I would have to come back at 10:30pm and hope that someone else who bought a ticket doesn’t show up, but there was no way for me to reserve a spot. Ugh, I just wanted to home! As I was walking back, the 14.02 instructor I was meeting with emailed me and told me he was cancelling because he didn’t have time to meet with me. The one reason I had to spend another 14 hours in Boston and lose $120 just cancelled, I emailed him back and was able to get a meeting again. We met, and I showed him my work, going through each problem on all of my exams, collecting whatever points I could. I got 4 extra exam points. 4 golden little extra exam points that could push me over the passing line. I stuck around at MIT until nighttime when I went back to the station, praying that there’ll be an extra spot. I was there by 10:00pm and by 10:30, people were still rushing in. By 10:45, people were still coming late and claiming their spots. I stood by the bus with my luggage waiting, and, after everyone else was seated on the bus, the bus driver looked at me and said “We have one more spot, get in.” I was overjoyed. I was going home.
And to home I came, where I had time to crawl up into a ball on my bed and sleep. For some weird reason I caught another cold again, but luckily this time I had Mom and was able to spend it watching TV and writing rather than studying for two bloodthirsty finals that determined my future. Pretty soon final grades were released and, in a pleasant Christmas miracle, I got all C’s and a B. My all-around perfect scores were strong cushions against my terrible exam grades, but the final exams were what brought me from a D to a C in both 6.01 and 8.02. And, surprisingly, I also got a C in 14.02. I was ecstatic, I had passed, and I came out of December with four life-changing lessons.
‘Twas a wonderful Christmas indeed.
I cherish these lessons I’ve learned, may next year bring many more.