Even though we’re only two weeks into the start of the Spring semester, I have already taken a final exam. In the midst of sitting down for first-days of classes and reading through new syllabi, I also frantically wrote flashcards for myself and tried to teach myself course material I hadn’t seen in ages. It’s an interesting combination; the beginning and the end of a semester, condensed into a single week. So, how exactly do you get something like this to happen?
Final exams and projects are usually at the end of the semester, occasionally mid-semester for half-semester classes. And, normally, you have to show up and actually take them, or actually complete the project. However, sometimes, situations outside of your control can make getting out of bed to complete your final really hard, or even physically impossible. Think: getting a really bad case of mono, being bedridden for a month and your mom having to fly in to take care of you in your dorm room. Or, your dorm is in the process of being closed. Or, you’re just dealing with a bad depressive episode.
The old life curveball, so to speak. In any case, it may seem like there are only two options in situations like this: first, to drag yourself to the final anyway in whatever state you’re in, realize that whatever has been making your life hard has also made you unable to FOCUS or STUDY, and promptly bomb the test, possibly failing the class and definitely tanking your GPA. Or, option two, realize that whether it’s your body telling you or your brain, you Will Not Leave This Bed, and simply do not show up for the final. As the time ticks away and you lie in your bed, your TA or Professor will start to notice your absence and wonder what’s happened to you. After not hearing from you, probably, I’m not a TA or a professor decide that you don’t care about the class, and mark your final grade as an certainly not A, for “I’m doing great!” Then, you see the O on your transcript, thinking nothing of it, until you realize that it counts the same as an F, and your GPA is tanked yet again. Even this isn’t the end of the world, since it’s not quite an F, it’s just an F until you fix it.
Luckily, there is a third (more reasonable) option, that just involves a as much planning as you can do when Life’s Coming At You FAST Here at MIT, there is a system in place called Excused Absences, or, an OX. During the last two weeks of the semester, if you are thrown an unfortunate ball, and have up until that point been doing pretty Okay in the class of choice, you can get that final excused, whether it’s a paper or a project or an exam. Some questions asked. The professor still marks you down as an O, for not showing up, but someone over in Student Support Services will add an X and make it a pair. In my circles, it’s a pretty well known resource, and another blogger has even talked about it before. It’s nice, really – MIT may be an academic hellscape sometimes, but at least you can confirm that they don’t actively want you to fail.
So, let’s flash back to about April of 2017. Things were starting to bubble up in my personal life, I spent a lot of time running back and forth from meetings with admins or student leaders or the House Team at Senior Haus, and I was spending a lot of my time more focused on the state of the undergrad association Elections than I was on my classes. One night, I stayed up late to help paint a banner for my friend who was running, and we went out in the dead of night to hang it in Lobby 7, even though I had a problem set due the next morning.
Flash forward a few days, I dropped the class in question, thinking it would make my problems go away. In some way, it did, as it lightened my load and extended the days of my life where I didn’t have to try to i did eventually, last semester, but i pushed it to the end! But, in most ways, it didn’t, and the stress and general I-don’t-want-to-do-this-anymore feeling started to pile up to the point where I wasn’t fully engaged in my other classes.
One particular class, 4.605: A Global History of Architecture, required weekly blog postings about various architectural topics, such as Islamic mosque design or ancient stone-carved temples. Around this time, I stopped doing them, instead choosing to focus more on my other classes and responsibilities. I didn’t think about how my grade was being affected by it; to be frank, I didn’t think of the class at all. I spent a lot of this time period obsessing over any small detail that I could latch onto and still get the sense that I was being productive—what food we would order for a House meeting or planning a Senior Haus/East Campus Formal and what cupcake designs I could come up with. Anything to keep my mind from focusing on the Actual Problems.
Now, in May, as things started to get progressively worse, I finally realized how unprepared I was for my final. All my other classes had projects (most of them group projects) due, and this was the only exam I had to take. A project, I could push through, but an exam? We had quizzes in the class, and I did poorly on them, banking solely on my mid-semester presentation on the Hagia Sophia for a passing grade. Not to mention, I had tuned out so much of the material during lectures in my generally distracted state.
When dead week rolled around and I had been too consumed with Everything Else to study, I started to panic. It was far too late to drop the class, and I needed it to complete my minor in architecture so I couldn’t just blow it. I had heard of other people OX’ing classes for various reasons, but so much of it felt like my own fault, like something I had to deal with on my own. For days, I ruminated over various ways I could rectify it instead of actually rectifying it.
Two days before the exam, I emailed my TA and professor asking if I could get my final excused as an OX, copying the deans I had spoken to at student support services The day of the final, I hadn’t heard back from him, and laid in my bed through the scheduled exam hour hoping it was going to be alright. A few days later, I had a nice OX lined up on my grade report.
Getting a final exam excused feels like a weight being lifted off your shoulders, and then that weight getting placed by your feet so you remember you have to pick it up again later. The more important part is the fact that it’s a break, though. Sure, it’s visibly there. Until the OX becomes a grade, it’ll remain there on the transcript, filling you with regret the longer you wait to do something about it. But, at least you can rest for a bit, recharge, and lift that weight when you’ve recovered some of your strength.
Besides being there, it doesn’t really do much of anything. It’s like a ghost, loudly taunting you but unable to actually to actually touch you. Your GPA remains exactly how it was, and you can’t get credit for the class, as if you had never even taken it. In theory, you can just graduate with OXs, and they won’t negatively affect you save for a few questions from curious future employers. But, odds are, you need to take the class in order to fulfill some graduation requirement, so that’s not a likely option.
The OX was one of the many things that hung over me as I came back to MIT, reminding me constantly of the time then and who I used to be. I wanted to get it over with, but I also wanted to be smart and spend time reviewing the material. I decided to wait and see how my first semester went before trying to fix it, instead resolving to spend my IAP simultaneously studying and applying for summer internships. I emailed my former professor in December asking to finally take the final and resolve the OX. We coordinated over email for weeks, deciding on a date, me frantically pushing it back to the first week of class because I didn’t feel ready.
Much to my personal disappointment, I didn’t study all through IAP like I had planned, and as the date approached I felt the looming anxiety more than ever. The very real possibility of failing the class and having to retake it, and having my GPA suffer entered my mind, fueled by the fact that I didn’t even know how I was doing in the class beforehand. I emailed my TA from then, practically begging to see if he had study material or anything that would help me do well on this final.
I spent two years not thinking about architecture history, and then I condensed a semester’s worth of classes into two weeks. I made flashcards for specific terms and places, speed-reading through the textbook and lecture notes, quizzing myself occasionally in between. There were practice problems online, which I spent one late night before the final answering again and again and again until I was nearly certain. To my absolute shock, I think I learnt more in the two weeks than I had while I was in the class, memorizing definitions and how to draw terms like sotdae and lingam and narthex and pendentives.
When the final came along, I experienced what has been a relatively new feeling for me—feeling prepared to take an exam. In just three business days, my grade was up and the OX effectively gone from my life. It still shows up on the unofficial grade report as OX/Grade, but on transcripts it’ll just show the grade. So, effectively washed away, taking all the lingering stress with it.
And that’s the whole process! I managed to to my shame, i discovered when my professor emailed me my exam grade that my prior grade was… not very good which makes me question how badly I would’ve done if I took that when I was supposed to. I’m grateful for the moment of reprieve, if one can call 2 years a moment. It’s interesting to note all the ways I’ve changed as a student, but it becomes so clear in an example like this. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder If I could do it now, why couldn’t I do it then? There’s no way of telling. But, most of all, I’m glad it’s finally over.
- probably, I’m not a TA or a professor back to text ↑
- certainly not A, for “I’m doing great!” back to text ↑
- as much planning as you can do when Life’s Coming At You FAST back to text ↑
- undergrad association back to text ↑
- i did eventually, last semester, but i pushed it to the end! back to text ↑
- architecture back to text ↑
- student support services back to text ↑
- to my shame, i discovered when my professor emailed me my exam grade that my prior grade was… not very good back to text ↑