MIT is harder than your high school.
In many cases, MIT is harder than your high school in ways you can’t even begin to imagine. A thousand freshmen show up here every fall, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and fresh from a world where they were the BEST and always got A’s and never had to ask anybody for help. As you might imagine, sticking 1000 of the brightest kids in the world on a single college campus means that not all of them will be #1 anymore. This is not Lake Wobegon — not everybody gets to be above average.
So one of the most important things you’ll learn in your first year at MIT isn’t how to integrate that particularly hairy trig integral, or how to predict the products of that incredibly complex organic chemistry reaction. It’s how to ask for help.
Help in the classroom
The most garden-variety way to ask for help is to find another person in your class and pick his or her brain about the problem set or concept with which you’re having trouble. Due to MIT’s General Institute Requirements, freshmen often find themselves living with a large group of people who are taking the same classes that they are, and it’s really common for freshmen to form big groups which study and do problem sets together. (Actually, I should say that it’s really uncommon not to do that.) There’s always a big group of freshmen in my entry’s lounge on Thursday nights doing 18.03 (diff eq) together; a smaller group gathers to do 8.02 (physics E&M) or 7.013 (biology). Everyone is always happy to lend a hand — it’s not in the MIT student makeup to be catty or cutthroat. Plus, I’m not going to lie — everybody’s good at different stuff, and the kid who just doesn’t get biology is often the one who helps your entire group through the calc pset.
If your study group is puzzled over a particular concept, the next step is to call in your favorite upperclassman expert. All the dorms and living groups at MIT consist of people from all four years (there are no freshman dorms or anything awful like that), so an upperclassman is usually only a few feet away. I’m the point person for 7.013 — over the last three years, I think I’ve helped my entire entry through intro biology; Fadam ’07 is the local expert on anything physics-related. In my experience, upperclassmen always love to help — it really solidifies your knowledge of a concept when you have to explain it to somebody else.
When your study group is lost and your local expert is useless, your next stop is a TA or professor for the class. Most TAs at MIT are graduate students (although some are professors!), and as such they’re available by email almost 24 hours a day. TAs and professors also hold weekly scheduled office hours, and students are encouraged to drop in and talk, whether about class concepts in general or about a specific type of problem. If you have a shorter question, you could also stay after lecture and catch the professor for a few minutes; they’re always willing to help out a student. Many classes or departments also have tutoring resources available — my friend Stephen ’05 was a tutor for biology, and he held court in his room at all hours of the night for confused students.
Help in real life
Of course, the classroom isn’t the only place where you might need help in college, and again there are several stops on the help train.
If you have a personal crisis, the first place to stop is again probably your group of friends. MIT’s residence selection process tends to foster incredibly close relationships among people who live together — you’re not just living in some random room, you’re living with people with whom you chose to live. I can’t count the number of times I’ve slipped into a friend’s room past midnight to freak out about boys and parents and school and life. For serious problems, you might also consider speaking with your GRT (graduate resident tutor, the graduate student who lives in your living group and watches out for all the undergrads) or your housemaster (the faculty member who lives in your dorm). You could also call Nightline, the student-staffed night help line which answers questions about anything under the sun… or just provides a listening ear to any student who needs to talk.
In stressful times, there are other resources at MIT. One I particularly like is Student Support Services, home of the counseling deans. The counseling deans are there to provide support to MIT students in personal matters, but particularly as liasons to the academic administration. Last spring, Adam caught a nasty case of the flu right before final exams, and the counseling deans got him excused from his finals so he could get better before having to take the tests. It was really easy, and we were both very grateful to the counseling deans for being so understanding and supportive.
For other serious problems, you can also head to MIT Medical’s Mental Health services, which and confidential and (bonus!) free with tuition. :)
I really think the myriad sources of support available at MIT are one of the things that makes our little community great. Nobody slips through the cracks here. You might be identified by your course number or the building number of your dorm, but you personally are not a number at MIT, and that’s that.