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MIT student blogger Paul B. '11

The Space Between by Paul B. '11

In which I attempt to explain IAP. (Hint: it's not a Dave Matthews Band song.)

Over Winter Break, whenever any of my friends or relatives asked me when I was going back to MIT, I couldn’t help but sigh, just a tiny little bit. In the past semester or so, I’ve realized that being an MIT student makes answering supposedly “normal” questions into rather elaborate affairs. As one example, when someone asks me what classes I took during fall semester, my natural, MIT-conditioned response is to rattle off the course numbers: “18.02, 5.112, 7.012, and 8.012.”

So I know I’m not in Cambridge anymore, Toto, when I – realizing that none of my relatives know what any of those numbers mean – have to force myself to say the actual subjects themselves: “Well, I took calculus, chemistry, biology, and physics.” It’s the same problem with majors, or buildings, or the Pass/No Record system for freshmen, or any of the wide variety of acronyms that have worked their way into the lexicon of MIT slang.

So, when someone asks me when I’m going back to MIT, what I’d really like to tell all my friends and relatives is that, “Oh, I’m heading back this Sunday for IAP.” If I actually said that, though, I’d be met with, at best, a raised eyebrow and an innocent query of “What’s…IAP?” Or, somewhat more likely, I’d receive a blank, quizzical stare, as my aunt silently thinks to herself, What are they feeding my nephew out there in New England? It’s like he’s talking in another language! (For all you pre-frosh out there, just think: next year, this could be your aunt. Another great reason why you should come to MIT.)

All humor aside, that basically brings me to the point of this entry: what is IAP? The one-sentence, in-a-nut-shell version that I like to tell my friends and relatives is that “IAP, which stands for Independent Activities Period, is a month-long intersession in January between the fall and spring terms, which we spend taking courses, doing research, or just hanging out and having fun.” At which point the aforementioned friends and relatives nod knowingly and generally go, “Ah, that makes sense, I guess.” (I’ll be addressing my answer to their common follow-up question – “So what are you doing for this IAP?” – a little later.)

But there’s a slight problem with that explanation. While it’s a perfectly true statement, that single sentence doesn’t really capture the true sense and scope of IAP. Today’s MIT homepage describes IAP as “an intriguing array of possibilities.” Again, that’s completely accurate – but at the same time, it’s quite not the whole story, either.

I think the real answer is that IAP is truly what you want it to be. MIT students and faculty are, after all, famous for their innovation. So when you give 4,000-some undergrads, approximately 1,000 faculty, and countless other staff and community members four almost-completely-free weeks to participate in and organize whatever ridiculous, crazy, and/or freaking sweet activities they can up with…well, you can bet some sparks will fly. (Literally and figuratively speaking. Have you heard about the welding class?)

If you ask two people what they’re doing over IAP, you’ll almost certainly get two completely different answers. Melis already blogged about the variety of activities some of her sorority sisters are pursuing, and I’ve witnessed the same breadth and depth of pursuits among my own friends. Their plans range the gamut from fun (if perhaps slightly absurd) things like truffle-making lessons and a Mel Brooks movie marathon, all the way to completely serious and intense offerings like the EMT training course and for-credit classes in physics, computer science, or calculus. Other friends are rounding out their month by studying glass-blowing, investigating the history of constructed languages, taking PE courses, or just relaxing with friends and enjoying all that MIT, Cambridge, and Boston have to offer. And, of course, there’s always Mystery Hunt to look forward to.

Of course, not all students come back to MIT for IAP. A few of my friends are indeed using the first week or two of January to extend their winter break, although they’ll be back for the rest of IAP. And campus definitely feels quieter, at least around the dormitory areas, although main campus remains fairly busy. (Perhaps the fact that more people are sleeping in has something to do with it as well. But that’s just a hypothesis.) All that said, most students who remain off-campus for IAP are actually pursuing some other sort of educational or career experience outside of Boston, anywhere from New York and California to Spain and India. Since taking a full semester abroad can sometimes be disruptive, visiting another country during IAP can be a great way to expand your global horizons without sacrificing too much else.

As for me, I’m trying to keep things low-key during my first few weeks back at MIT. I’ll be spending most of my time working on my UROP in the Langer Lab – I actually wrote most of this entry during my lunch break. A little later on, I’ll be dedicating another entry to how UROP works at MIT, and how I found mine. In about two weeks I’ll be joining Matt, Bryan, and maybe a few other bloggers as we compete in the annual Mystery Hunt – an IAP tradition I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while now. And with any luck, I should have evenings open (more or less) to hang out with friends, watch some movies, play a little Rock Band, go to a quick seminar or two…that sort of thing. I guess we’ll just have to see how it all goes.

It’s IAP, after all. Anything can happen.

32 responses to “The Space Between”

  1. katekalb says:

    You? Low key? IAP? Somehow, that doesn’t seem to fit together. wink

    Good luck with the IAP pursuits! It will be exciting to hear about Mystery Hunt (and are you going to share any of your UROPing experiences?)

  2. Travis says:

    IAP sounds like a lot of fun. Enjoy the “break”, if that’s what you can call it! smile

  3. Shannon '12 says:

    You all better watch out next year. The Battle of the Brownies is totally in for some competition. That, and I’ve always wanted to play hockey, so it looks like I’m bringing my skates to campus next year.

    Oh, and where did you find that great acronym dictionary link? smile Also, the lab your UROP’s in is awesome. Looking forward to that entry.

  4. Shannon '12 says:

    You all better watch out next year. The Battle of the Brownies is totally in for some competition. That, and I’ve always wanted to play hockey, so it looks like I’m bringing my skates to campus next year.

    Oh, and where did you find that great acronym dictionary link? smile Also, the lab your UROP’s in is awesome. Looking forward to that entry.

  5. Jing Jing says:

    IAP sounds sophisticated….

    So you’re also UROPing during IAP?

    This may be a silly question, but are there UROP programs that can link you to research in other countries?

  6. Sara says:

    I completely agree with Collin.

  7. Paul says:

    Kate – Haha, very funny. ^_^ I’ll definitely be blogging about my UROP in the next week or so.

    Jing Jing – UROP is absolutely an international endeavor! Simply because of the nature of scientific research, many professors collaborate with other scientists from across the globe. As far as actually doing research in other countries, UROP has a lesser-known cousin called IROP – same thing as UROP, just international.

    Sam – Until I check your URL, I always think you’re blogger Sam instead of pre-frosh Sam. Just saying. smile

    Anon – I’m no expert on this, but I’ll give it a shot. Harvard is set up slightly differently…they do have an “intersession” between their fall and spring terms, but as far as I can tell it’s nothing quite like IAP. ^_^

  8. Laurie '11 says:

    paul – who is your friend doing the truffle making classes and the mel brooks marathon? because they sound really awesome. i mean, they must be really, really, cool.

    by the way, that “sparks flying” pun is just about the worst thing i’ve heard all day… oh. my. god.

    yay IAP!

  9. carmen says:

    they have glassblowing?!?!? i have always wanted to do that (actually not always…just after i saw this glass exhibition at the sculpture park..but still)but never knew where i could learn it…IAP is definitely one of my top reasons for mit

  10. Piper '11 says:

    So excited for my first IAP! Building fighter robots, dissecting brains, and learning biolab techniques, here I come!

    Also, bouldering for PE. Hopefully.

    And then, of course, there are the random lectures and events you can just attend without advanced sign up =P Oh IAP, you’re a terrible thing to waste. I hope no one spends it sleeping.

    As much as we need that.

  11. yea, i totally understand where your coming from. especially coming from a non-technical family, its quite amusing to have discussions with them about my school. better yet, its funny to see that my relatives have an easier time talking to my friends about their studies than they do me. oh saddness.

    hope you enjoy IAP, paul

  12. Sam says:

    I think IAP is the only time the words January and hot can be used in the same sentence outside the southern hemisphere.

  13. Sam says:

    In other news, there’s nothing I hate more than putting the wrong link in the URL box.

  14. Rahul Jain says:

    Hi! “IAP, What’s that?” I love that sentence… heh… well I am wondering as an regular decision applicant when does MIT starts school? September?

  15. Heidi says:

    Hi there!

    I’m Heidi and I’m a freshman at Harvard – Paul referred me to this post so that I could put up some details on intersession.

    IAP and intersession are not the same thing…at Harvard, finals are after winter break, and so I’m currently (supposed to be) spending the first two weeks of January studying for exams and writing papers. This might sound terrible, but we actually have a lot of time to chill and we get free food. My high school actually ran this way, and it wasn’t as stressful as it sounds.

    So what is intersession? Basically, it’s that week between the two semesters. Once your finals are over, you have an well-deserved break. [The amount of time you have for intersession varies; my roommate has a week and a half, while I have a week. Don’t take classes with late final times! ] It’s basically a vacation – that is, people go skiing, go to Florida or visit friends who actually have class. There aren’t any school-sponsored programs…so as my roommate says, “You’re obligated to have nothing.”

    Depending on what you like, this may or may not be for you. But Harvard is changing its calendar – so in two years, finals will be before break. It could be the case that we’ll also have some form of IAP. So whatever the calendar is, post-break finals at Harvard won’t impact you too badly. So don’t make your college decision on the finals schedule smile

    Good luck, guys! I hate to cut in, but if you have any questions about “that school down the street,” as Paul calls it, do let me know.

  16. Snively says:


    School starts in early September (5th-ish), but orientation is a week before that and if you do a pre-orientation program those start a week before orientation. I ended up getting to Boston on August 20th.

  17. Rahul Jain says:

    Thanks Snively, thanks very much. What class are you in? (Freshman, Sophomore ect…). One main concern in my school is favoritism. There are some teachers that grade you on how you look ect… MIT is prestigious no doubt however how fair are systems there?

  18. Paul says:

    Thanks for covering me, Heidi. Much appreciated. wink And for those of you who might be confused as to why a Harvard student like Heidi is posting here, well, it just goes to show you that there’s no rule preventing MIT students and Harvard students from being friends. :D

    Rahul – I can’t help but be really, really surprised by your question, because I’ve never seen anything of that sort happen here. Granted, I’ve only been here a semester. But so far, I’ve found the grading to be both fair and consistent. A cornerstone of “what makes MIT MIT” is that we’re a meritocracy. Your grades are based solely on the work and effort you put in, not how you look like or anything ridiculous like that.

    (Snively and I are both freshmen, as are Karen and Chris. )

  19. Tanmay says:

    It feels strange that how in spite of being exactly on the opposite side of the world I am in love with MIT to such an extent…

    Blogging here really makes you believe that MIT is an absolutely incredible place. Great work, Paul!

  20. Masud says:

    @ Rahul Jain
    Just teasing but do you go to like a modeling school or sumn? But that’s really crappy anyway, grading something/someone on how it looks…I could probably understand if their is a caste system in whichever country you live in and I know that there’ll be a host of prejudices etc associated within a society with a rigid caste system…It’s extremely unfortunate that such caste-system foolishness-es exist in the present world or ever existed at all! It’s almost like racism, if I might say. I wasn’t born in india but I am of east indian descent , btw

  21. anonymous says:

    thanks for the clearification.This is of the aspects that makes MIT a wonderful study environment.But can you tell me if this gos on in other universities,Harvard for example?

  22. Collin says:

    IAP looks/sounds/feels/tastes like the coolest thing ever!

  23. Anonymous says:

    Ouch, looks like with IAP, I’d be staying there the whole year. I could never turn down an oppurtunity for fun wink

    @Rahul: Actually, I could understand that. Being nice to the lecturer, buying presents, a few well-placed compliments ‘earns’ a student the questions that pop up in the finals. It’s a dirty tactic but it works for some. Of course, I never did anything like that. The closest I did was befriend the people who did that and indirectly got the questions to the finals when they asked me for the answer, lol.

    Favoritism happens in a lot of places, but I’m sure a top university like MIT would avoid it. Don’t worry about it, if they were at all biased against you, you wouldn’t be there raspberry

  24. Rahul Jain says:

    Thanks Guys! Now I really want to come! Here at this school, if you schmooch the teacher, well you get the best grades. It is soo hard to stay on the top, i hate schmooching the teacher so I really have to study hard, write longer answers, give way clearer answers to even stay on the top. Finally a true meritocracy.

  25. Rahul Jain says:

    @ Masud : Yo! I am from India, however being in an International School in Africa has it’s own twists… So not like caste system or anything but flattering a teacher can get someone really far when they do not deserve it… It ticks me off that everyone uses that to their advantage, and have told my self not to be like them. Still hardwork over favorism… it actually works…

  26. Mitch '11 says:

    Paul, I totally feel you about answering the “When are you heading back to school?” question. It felt good to say “The 6th, to spend 4 weeks sleeping, taking a class on alternative energy, and snowboarding for credit.” :D

  27. Masud says:

    sorry for the double post but my last post had one too many ‘in’ s!

  28. Tanmay Kumar says:

    @ Rahul:

    That is exactly one of the reasons why things called SAT or ACT exist!

  29. bindu says:

    Just happened by this blog. I am from India and have always been fascinated by MIT. Now I am getting a true flavor of MIT through what you have written so far. Will keep visiting you for sure.

  30. Hawkins says:

    IAP is one of the things that appeals to me the most about MIT. It seems like a great opportunity for freedom and creativity! This year I’m hopefully going to remotely participate in Mystery Hunt. =D

  31. KelseyK says:

    Yea welding! And the group is so small – only 9 people!

    IAP is amazing.