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MIT student blogger Yan Z. '12

This entry has a surprise ending by Yan Z. '12

While you wait for decisions to come out, I remind you that people at MIT fail a lot.

DID YOU KNOW? About 25% of my blog posts are partially written while doing laundry.

(The “Did You Know?” opener is a throwback to the olden days of MITblogs, circa 2006. Long before my time, Sam ’07 would prelude each of his blog entries with a snappy yet life-changing piece of trivia like “Paula Abdul actually isn’t African American” or “McDonald’s in Hawaii sell Spam.” I, however, sorely lack his flair for distinguishing useless information from interesting useless information, so I usually opt to start my entries with some useless metaphor instead.)

A few weeks past, I observed that my calendar looked like it was about to suffer an aneurysm. Little denouement did I provide, so let me resolve it now: after finishing the last of four exams on Monday, I had a pleasant four-hour lapse into the depths of meditative relaxation, AKA, I ate some fruit and read Wikipedia. Later that evening, I checked my Linear Algebra grade online:


Exam 1: 52.5%.

I may have choked.

Turn on the slow-motion cameras, and observe the brain-chilling shock in all its bizarre detail: In the beginning, there was numbness, trailed moments later by slightly grayer shades of numbness. I considered having a stroke and then decided against it, mostly because I needed to go to class the next day.

Emotionally, the discovery that you have failed a test is the equivalent of eating a burrito smothered in wasabi and filled with crushed glass: confusing, painful, wildly disorienting, and refreshing in an absurd way.

Now, back to normal playback: I swallowed it and moved on, eventually. I knew I understood the material, so the situation was far short of alarming. The logical conclusion was that the test somehow misrepresented my abilities in a grossly disastrous manner, by which I mean that I had probably forgotten how to add properly.

Over the course of a long and ponderous night, revelations tiptoed through my streams of thought: the brutal, knife-sharp truth is that failure at MIT happens more often than some people do laundry. Best to get it over with, soak up the life lessons, and hope for a brighter future. At least I was in good company.

The next morning, I felt oddly sympathetic to the enduring spirit of the Institute, as if I were suddenly engulfed in the camaraderie of endless generations of students who had been betrayed by simple arithmetic errors in their moments of greatest need. Everywhere I looked, I glimpsed the honest hallmarks of a community that was deeply, wonderfully tolerant of failure- one might even say fundamentally rooted in the acceptance of failure. There were open office hours throughout the day, tutoring sessions far into the night. Counselors. Advisors. Study breaks. Student support services. Stress-prevention pamphlets. Upperclassmen who had no doubt lived through worse. Free hand sanitizer.

There it was, glaring me in the face, the luminescent fact that MIT wants you to succeed and will extend to you as many ropes as you need to pull yourself away from your mistakes and weaknesses. All you need to do is reach out.

So I did. I went to extra recitation hours the next day. My back-up plan was to compose an elegant but slightly insane letter to the head of the math department demonstrating my ability to perform Gaussian Elimination on matrices.

After recitation, I approached the instructor with cautious intent to eviscerate the gory inner consequences of my abysmally low test grade. I hovered. And hovered. And waited, hovering. And then, with the nonchalant grace of someone who unknowingly steps on a match and prevents a forest fire, she mentioned that the test score was out of 60.

Pause. Repeat: I got a 52.5 out of 60, not 100. Which, most likely, was an A. I think this calls for additional punctuation marks!!!

In retrospect, at least I built character. Now please excuse me while I check my blood pressure.


Topping my list of preferred study spots on campus is the Physics Undergraduate lounge, which, unfortunately, is accessible only to Physics undergrads and people like myself who accidentally overheard the password. Reason: Couches. I once sat down at 5:30 pm to start an 8.022 (Electricity and Magnetism) problem set and forgot to go home until 10 pm, thanks to the couches. The caffeinated murmurs of jaded upperclassmen scrambling to finish their quantum problem sets also provided for soothing waves of ambient noise during the night hours.
Spring04 004

Should anyone be interested, the textbook for 8.022 is Purcell’s Volume II of the Berkeley Physics Course, a borrowed copy of which I am reading right now as I type this. Be warned: it’s liberally salted with formulas and skimps on the meat of satisfying explanations, sort of like canned soup but easier to open. I do, however, like the spots where Purcell is like, “Oops, I forgot that I’m writing an introductory-level text and now I’m going to spew random theoretical physics all over the page.” There’s literally a section on Page 6 where he’s like, “Charges can be positive or negative. By the way, I think quarks exist!”
Spring04 003

Also, there’s a window in case the existence of outside has fled your memory.
Spring04 002

I’m going to stop writing now so you guys can get back to thinking about regular action decisions. A final word: In the inexorable yet mysterious course of a human life, it’s not whether you get in or not that truly matters; the important thing is that you don’t go to Caltech.

72 responses to “This entry has a surprise ending”

  1. Mitch says:

    Well, if I don’t get into MIT, Caltech is still my best choice at the moment. Got in last week, but I’ve still got lyk 4 more schools to wait on. Though, it would definitely b awesome to go 2 MIT.By the way Yan, wots with “…the important thing is that you don’t go to Caltech.”? Happy birthday Einstein!!

  2. comboy says:

    it’s a treason to write my ideas about caltech cannot v MIT here in yan blog since she has a pen soaked in magic.

    yan special skills in laundry like squeezing is not applicable for the magic pen
    meanwhile i am squeezing the trigger of my pistol but nothing is happening why MIT
    i’m gonna write my ideas in my next firefox tab

  3. First? says:

    What really bites are the tests where you get ~100, and they’re out of >>100

  4. YESSS!! says:

    FIRST !!!!?? Nice entry !

    Good luck prospective ’13 ers — you have all worked so hard and should be so proud!

    In 2 hours will be Einstein’s 130th birthday! Happy Birthday!

    and Happy pre-pi day!

  5. YESSS!! says:

    Darn, so close :- Oh well…

  6. Anonymous says:

    ah, didnt reload the page for a while. apparently not…

  7. Cowboy says:

    Yan I think ur damn cute smile

  8. jimmy '13 says:

    “A final word: In the exorable yet mysterious passage of a human life, it’s not whether you get in or not that truly matters; the important thing is that you don’t go to Caltech. “

    I second that.

    And how is your UROP coming?
    The search for non exploding polymer betteries, i think?

  9. Yan says:

    @ Jimmy:

    The postdoc I work with in lab skipped out this week, probably because he had some sort of terrible kitchen accident*. Anyway, none of my batteries have exploded yet, but they’ve been weird at temperatures above 80 C. Also, this other postdoc in our lab accidentally fried a few of my cells by running them at the wrong current, but then he left the country 4 days later. No kidding.

    *By “probably”, I mean “maybe, but most likely not.”

  10. '13 Hopeful says:

    Sorry Yan, if I get rejected from MIT, I’m going to Caltech, where I actually got accepted EA rather than deferred raspberry

    At my high school, I’m actually taking a Linear Algebra course that uses the same book as 18.06 at MIT and follows pretty much the same curriculum. Our teacher even directed us to MIT’s OCW listing of it. What was your exam on?

  11. '13 Hopeful says:

    Also I hate when I find out that I got some really score on a test only to find out that it was out of 60 or 70. That’s happened to me countless (but still a countable number of) times.

  12. Chloe says:

    Niiiiiice. the whole entry. and your character-building. :]

  13. If I get rejected from MIT, then I am going to Caltech for sure (I got into Caltech EA), unless I get into Harvard/Stanford. I would put Stanford better than Caltech for Aerospace engg. although Caltech has a NASA jet propulsion laboratory on campus. But Stanford is beautiful and more lively than Caltech.

  14. '13 Hopeful says:

    @Navdeep I want to go into Compsci/math, so I’m pretty sure Caltech’s pretty good for that, and I think I like the undergrad community better at Caltech. I applied to Stanford too, but RA, so I only find out in April.

  15. musicman says:

    @’13 Hopeful

    Yeah, I got into Stanford, and i just happen to be going into comp sci/eng, and Stanford just happens to be just about the best school in the nation in those, and it also just so happens that there is no snow in Palo Alto, and of course, there is the infinitely more important truth that Stanford is not Caltech.

    So i’m in pretty good shape even if i get rejected smile

  16. Kevin says:

    Haha, I thought it was suspicious that there was no mention of what the grades were out of…
    Frequently psets and tests are graded on random scales.

    Nonetheless, a pretty good message.

  17. @Anonymous
    We’ll discuss the horrible number of our class next year at the Physics lounge then. Looking forward to it!

  18. Ksl says:

    A similar thing happened to me once.
    I got an essay back that I thought I did terribly on and was astounded to see a 98 on the corner. It was only seconds later that I saw the /150 under it…

    I also vow to not go to CalTech even if I do get rejected from MIT. I’ve decided that the importance of research opportunities, rankings, facilities, and millions of endowment funds pales in comparison to my desire to go to a place where it snows.

  19. There’s literally a section on Page 6 where he’s like, “Charges can be positive or negative. By the way, I think quarks exist!”

    Hahaha I’ve been super nervous about the decisions tomorrow and this is hillarious. I’m in a state of numb (also), slap happy sleepiness, and anticipation, so i basically just laughed for 5 minutes on that part. Gosh that was funny! (By the way i love your blogs, they sound like me and make me smile!)

    @everyone accepted to big awesome schools!

    Haha MIT is the only really “Prestigeous one” i applied for, and it’s the only one i would want to get it. Honestly it isn’t even because of the prestige at all, it’s because i love the feel of it and i think it is the prefect school for me! On the plus all the kentucky state schools i applied to gave me full rides! That’s comparable to your getting into stanford and what not, right? haha Great job guys! Good luck deciding where you want to go!

  20. Sheila '13 says:

    w00t! Wow, your post is awesome…making me kinda surprised at the exam grade at first that you failed…but *drum rolls* you got an A!!! xD I guess I’ll have my share of failures at MIT, esp concerning grades, but hopefully, I”ll be able to graduate in the end.

    Btw, let me sum it all up for all of the posters and readers here: MIT>>Caltech!!!!! (Sorry, my Caltech buddy, but you know I w00t! Wow, your post is awesome…making me kinda surprised at the exam grade at first that you failed…but *drum rolls* you got an A!!! xD I guess I’ll have my share of failures at MIT, esp concerning grades, but hopefully, I”ll be able to graduate in the end.

    Btw, let me sum it all up for all of the posters and readers here: MIT>>Caltech!!!!! (Sorry, my Caltech buddy, but you know I <3 you!) smile

    Btw, good luck to all regular applicants!

  21. Anonymous says:

    52.5 / 60 = 87.5%

    Does MIT use a different grading system where grades are not assigned on the traditional 10 point system?

  22. Anonymous says:

    Pause. Repeat: I got a 52.5 out of 60, not 100. Which, most likely, was an A. I think this calls for additional punctuation marks!!!

    Sorry…I just posted the last comment and forgot to reference the specific passage.

  23. Matt A. says:

    Still holding out for MIT, but here’s my silver lining:

    If I don’t go to MIT, I’ll probably be at WashU with it’s brand new Chemical Engineering building that’s opening in fall 2010. Still not MIT, but not too shabby.

  24. Yan says:

    @ Anonymous:

    Were MIT to use the traditional 10-point system, the average GPA here would plummet. There’s classes where the average on tests is in the 50s or lower (In fact, I think this was the case with the 8.01 final last semester). For most freshmen intro classes, the A cut-off is around 85. Don’t quote me on this though.

    Remember, it’s not the number that matters. It’s how much sleep you lost in the process.

  25. Yan,
    You are such an awesome writer — you make even failing a test intriguing! You had me quite nervous there for a moment that you acutally had failed the test, but I knew you wouldn’t have.
    Perhaps I’ll see you in the Physics lounge next year as that is my intended major atm! Looking forward to it.

    @RD awaitees
    Good luck to you all! I can’t wait for next year when we get to enjoy our experience at MIT!!!

  26. Oasis '11 says:

    And then there’s the rest of us, who get 52.5 out of 100. (in fact, I’ve gotten lower than that on an exam out of 100).

    Don’t worry, my existence is proof that life does indeed go on wink

  27. @Yan
    That’s nice. I hadn’t realized that! That’s even better than the Chicago math scale, and way better than the 95+=an A. Basically my school. haha

    Also i regret to inform you that i posted on Chris M.’s blog a few minutes gao and spelled your name wrong. I’m sorry, it had two n’s. haha

  28. aidan says:

    @Yan: That’s true about Caltech (heh I’m being biased) MIT is the best school.. period!

    It might be stressful/tough, but at the end of it you come out a great thinker and an achiever smile

  29. RKE says:

    Yan, was it your lab that invented the cool new liquid battery?

  30. Anonymous says:

    @Albert Rodenius (’13: why does it have to be that number?)

    Haha i love friday the 13ths and such (long story). Also that is my intended major too! Course 8 i beleive… i want to do a study in astronomy/astrophysics also! Maybe we’ll both be there!

  31. Didn’t mean to post the last one as annonymous. It’s me Elizabeth Hall. Call me Elly!

  32. Yan says:

    @ RKE:

    Yes!!! That’s us!!

  33. '13 Hopeful says:

    One of the reasons I want to go to MIT over Caltech is that you could actually do a Physics minor at MIT. Caltech has no math/science minors :
    Anyway, I guess we’ll all see how we fared tomorrow at pi time. I guess I’m not getting much homework done tomorrow.

  34. Anonymous says:

    unfortunately, if i dont get in to MIT, i might end up going to Caltech (which i got into last weekend)–unless, of course, i don’t get enough aid, in which case i might end up going to UT…sigh (not that UT is bad, of course)

  35. Hah, I remember the first test I failed here. That was last semester. I pretty much had the same reaction you did, except it didn’t turn on to be out of 60.

  36. Pranav says:

    It’s ultra-important you don’t go to Caltech.

  37. Yan says:

    By the way, here’s the article on the all-liquid battery:

    Great read while waiting for decisions.

  38. comboy says:

    wow, tens of times higher than any other battery
    so i can read mit pages ten times more while i’m using laptop battery. may be no need to lower screen brightness and also watch some 3.09 videos.
    Donald never says lies, except drinking fresco in class

    let me get this solaris to get some sound from it, energy from sun – solar power opensolaris

  39. i feel like there needs to be a picture of all the jaded upperclassmen scrambling to finish their psets. quite an adventure. 8.06 is due tuesdays, 6pm, so a great picture time is tuesday 5pm.

    but yes, the pcr {physics common room} is a fantastic place. at least until you spend more than 15 consecutive hours there. then you get a wee bit worn.

  40. comboy says:

    i don’t need 13kmegawatts, but i really need current at night.

  41. Kiwi says:

    Even if I get reject tomorrow (err… I guess we’ve made it to today) I will still continue to read your blog because it makes me laugh. And have no fear, I will not be going to Caltech (I didn’t apply).

  42. Drammy says:

    Nice zinger at the end. Your blog entries are _always_ without exception hilarious.

  43. comboy says:

    my name’s neutron, don’t charge for my forty beers which i demolished. still opensolaris is quiet with no sound

  44. comboy says:

    for more jokes from Donald visit

    to watch video, Turn on the slow-motion cameras, and download from link

    but if your audio hardware is still not recognized, back to normal playback and read the transcript on the same page

  45. Dhvanit says:

    Just read the last line..! Burst out laughing! That is AWESOME!!!!!!! Just AWESOME! Thanks a ton Yan!

  46. JonTec says:


    This is precisely why I pride myself in grade-revealing-procrastination–for any course. After I have completed an examination as cruel as you caused the Linear Algebra exam to sound, I simply would rather not think about it until the very last second… that is, until I actually have to do something about it (or we review the answers in class). In fact, upon receiving the graded abomination, I promptly hide it within the folds of a sweater or under a large assortment of folders, papers, and/or notebooks. Ignorance about the grades may be bliss at this moment, but the ignorance does indeed _feel_ like bliss. Until you look, you can hope… but after staring the red ink directly in the face, you’re left with (_potentially_) crushing certainty. In other words, before I peek, my chances of feeling badly are zero, plain and simple; after looking, though, the same chance instantaneously skyrockets to almost 100%. Therefore, while I applaud your admirable initiative for reviewing the grades, I strongly disagree with your tainting of what appeared to be such a lovely day– after all, what’s better than Wikipedia?

    I, for one, will be checking my RA decision at 1:59pm on 3/14.

  47. @18.06 hm…that didn’t seem like such a difficult exam. Looks a lot like our exams, actually.

  48. akhila says:

    That was a really wonderful post Yan !!
    I enjoyed it. Congrats on your great score. Thanks for the beautiful post.
    And I am axiously waiting for decisions !!!!

  49. Anonymous says:

    Great post, We shall see what we shall see tomorrow. I’m just extra-excited that, due to time zones, I will be able to see my admissions decision at 11AM tomorrow. YEAH!

  50. Guess I am the only one who didnt understand why Yan says,” the important thing is that you don’t go to Caltech.”

  51. Pan says:

    Awesome post!
    I am waiting for the decision already?LOL *damned time difference*…It’s already 3:37pm here haha…
    I didnt even apply to Caltech…

  52. LOL I got rejected from CalTech and got into MIT… Thank God! smile

  53. Narce says:


    When my dad went to MIT, there was an especially notable freshman course test in which the average score was a 29~32. Out of 100. He got a 30, so, average-ish.

    There was a single student who got a 100, though. The next year in the same class, new frosh showed his class the “upgraded” test which he said was literally twice as hard. Average score was a 17, and no one got higher than like a 30~40.

    It sounds like they got rid of THAT level of difficulty in frosh courses??

  54. comboy says:

    our demand is to observe you keep on doodling here,
    it’s much of a frustration to see you frustrating failure at MIT, suggestion on your side is to do less laundry for failure exceeds.
    please run more and sweat more and attend more recitations and do more laundry, we want you keep on business of posting on your blog while refining your clothes

    do you think i should wait for ra since i didn’t fill any form – according to 8.02 anything can happen in MIT. be quiet, there’s some mal air

  55. Arash says:

    The last part sure was cool! If there was no time difference I would have been seeing the decisions by now!!

  56. comboy says:


    please explain how this outside world is so bright at 10 pm? does the sun set when you sleep?

    that’s ok that you take the self-shot photo at 10:9:29 while reading a book as big as a problem

    but the window and outside world being so far from darkness at 10:9:29 is not easy to digest

    wow, same minute the original is, how many seconds for auto-timer? G9 – well you unveil G9 in your blog before

  57. Yan says:

    I woke up at precisely 6:28 AM today! Unfortunately, I was supposed to have been awake at 1:59 AM for a friend’s surprise birthday party . . . oops.

    @ Oasis:

    No worries, I’m sure major failure will happen to me for real soon. At least I’ll be ready for it.

    @ JonTec:

    I didn’t make a point of this, but the test was actually embarrassingly easy as far as tests at MIT go. As in, a talented middle schooler could have aced it.

    I’m just bad at math on tests. (A year ago, while I was getting top scores consistently on multivariable calc. exams in a college class at SLU, resulting in strong recommendations from the prof. to try for a math minor before graduating high school, I wouldn’t have said this. Since then, I’ve learned that “good at math” is a relative term. MIT is one of those places where you have to use it cautiously.) The funny thing is that being bad at obvious math is sort of okay here . . . I recall an 8.022 test in which I forgot to evaluate a definite integral at its lower endpoint, arbitrarily decided to flip a sign instead (since the potential was clearly negative, although my math didn’t show it), did this throughout the subsequent parts, and still ended up with something like 16/17 points on the problem.

    More reason to major in Physics.

  58. comboy says:

    hmmm, can i spam sam, or yan can you tell me how a photo can be downloaded from down to top, or how excited can someone be to be hanging out with me?
    while i am me, change i with s and remove space to end up two equal scientific terms. is me a good SI unit of measurement named after me. did i have to use question mark for the recent sentence?? do you see something additional

  59. Ha ha!! Yan, you are one cool writer!! like I’ve been following your posts since August, and have always been temped to comment on them.
    I am looking forward to the MIT replies… but I don’t see a reason why I shouldn’t apply to CalTech (haven’t applied though).

    Wishing everyone who thinks MIT to be their dream university good luck!!

  60. Yan says:

    @ Anon:

    Yes. A brief recount of my failures in the past 24 hours:

    -Failed to wake up at 1:59 AM for a friend’s Pi Day birthday party. Woke up at 6:28 AM instead.
    -Failed to produce working MATLAB code. Had to call dad for help.
    -Failed to learn how to write a ridiculously simple program using Processing, after about 3 hours of trying.
    -Failed to produce a convincing harmonic analysis of a Chopin mazurka for my music class. Although it might still be correct (we’ll see next week).
    -Failed to learn E & M. This has been true all week, actually.
    -Failed to interpret strange matrix index notation on the 18.06 pset. Still working on this.
    -Failed to do a Fourier transform correctly using matrices. Had to google it.
    -Failed to realize when to ask for help.

    There you go. It’s easy to be happy anyway though.

  61. Narce says:

    You know perfectly well that Anon was asking if you’ve ever failed a test at MIT. Like, received a technical F. As a score. On a test.

    My bet would be no. You’re not one of those psychotically insane level geniuses that coasts through a place like MIT, but you’re above the average even there.

  62. Ilyanep says:


    Do you guys actually do the MATLAB stuff for 18.06? Professor Strang seems to like incorporating it, from the looks of the book. I think Mathematica > MATLAB :—–
    AUTHOR: Yan
    DATE: 03/14/2009 10:04:09 PM
    @ Narce:

    Technically, no, but I plan to throw a dinner party on the day that it happens.

    @ Ilyanep:

    18.06 is a MATLAB class, but the assignments are sparse and extremely simple (as in even I can do them). Strang doesn’t actually teach 18.06 this semester, but sometimes I like to read his book while sitting by his office in building 2. It feels surreal.

    Mathematica is nice, but MIT gives you free MATLAB installs!

  63. @Yan

    Gasp! They don’t give you free Mathematica installs? :(

    Anyway, I just finished some homework in my Linear class. It was about orthogonal matrices.

  64. Narce says:

    *knew that he was right*

    Well, considering it’s MIT, I admit that even you’ll probably fail at least one test over the course of 4 years, though there’s no way someone like you would fail a whole class. I think you’ll make it through the last bit of frosh year easily*, though.

    *rather than the literal definition of easily, which never applies to MIT, pretend I worded that sentence to say “I think you’ll definitely make it through the last bit of frosh year without failing anything”

  65. Anon says:

    Seriously, Come on! when it says 52.5 AND it says 60 RIGHT NEXT to the 52.5….what do you think it’s out of?

    Regardless, Nice job on 18.06

  66. Yan says:

    In my defense, there was a brief period on Monday when the Stellar max points column actually read 100 instead of 60. It hadn’t yet been fixed when I checked my grade.

  67. Anon says:

    Yan, you’re disingenuous. Your Stellar image hides the fact that you very well knew what the point total was. This is not the first post you’ve penned revealing that you got an A in something. Do you ever fail?