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MIT student blogger Laura N. '09

Why Course 2A is Cooler than You by Laura N. '09

I'm back from the dead, to tell you all about my major and its ridiculously long name. It has five whole characters! Five!

Yes, I’m alive. Yes, I haven’t blogged since JULY. I know, I’m a horrible person. Please don’t tell me about it, because I already know, and I feel awful about it. =(

But, my field hockey season is over and now that I have this wonderful thing called free time, I’m ready to start blogging again. Maybe I’ll even try to match how prolific I was as a freshman. But I’ll probably fail.

The topic of today’s entry is my own amusement over the number of characters in my major. Most of you are familiar with a system where majors have names, like “history,” “psychology,” “computer science,” or “physics.” If you know anything about MIT, you’ve probably heard that we number EVERYTHING: majors, classes, buildings, even the trees. No joke. Majors at MIT are also called “courses” rather than majors. Very nearly everyone at MIT (the exception being students who are involved in obscure programs) can identify their major in one number of one or two digits. For example, “Course VI” (which is the only one written in Roman numerals, as far as I know….oh, the intricacies of MIT jargon) is MIT for “Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.” Below are all of the names and numbers for your convenience. As a funny side note: students often get very frustrated when majors are listed in alphabetical order, which often happens on surveys we’re asked to fill out. It completely throws us off to not have the majors listed in the following logical order:

1: Civil and Environmental Engineering
2: Mechanical Engineering
3: Materials Science and Engineering
4: Architecture
5: Chemistry
6: Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
7: Biology
8: Physics
9: Brain and Cognitive Sciences
10: Chemical Engineering
11: Urban Studies and Planning
12: Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences
14: Economics
15: Management
16: Aeronautics and Astronautics
17: Political Science
18: Mathematics
20: Biological Engineering
21A: Anthropology
21F: Foreign Languages and Literatures
21H: History
21L: Literature
21M: Music and Theater Arts
21W: Writing and Humanistic Studies
22: Nuclear Science and Engineering
24: Linguistics and Philosophy

EDIT: I just realized that the “Majors and Minors” page on the Admissions site that this entry links to lists the majors in alphabetical order. I guess it makes more sense for people not familiar to MIT. But seriously- annoying!

Yes, we roll almost all of Humanities into one number, and Linguistics is the same major as Philosophy, and there’s no 13, 19, or 23. I know. (Also, for the record, I wrote that entire list from memory without pausing, except to double check that I had remembered all 6 of the “21”s. Most MIT students can do that. Seriously. It’s kind of scary.)

Now, there are a couple of side notes to some of these majors. A few of them have a “flexible option,” which is often denoted by an arbitrary letter. Flexible physics is 8B but flexible mechanical engineering is 2A. Also, Course VI is broken into three subsections, 6-1, 6-2, and 6-3, which correspond to emphasis on electrical engineering (EE) over computer science (CS), equal emphasis on EE and CS, and emphasis on CS over EE, respectively. (That made sense, right?)

Anyway, the point is, most people’s majors are MAYBE 2 characters long.

Mine is five.

And I’m proud of that, thank you.

I’m 2A-CIR.

Now, what in the hell does that mean?

First of all, it means that I chose 2A, the “flexible” version of mechanical engineering. Second of all, it means I chose to concentrate in “CIR,” or “controls, instrumentation, and robotics,” which is one of the primary research departments of MIT’s MechE Department.

Why am I telling you this now? Well, 2A is currently going through a re-accreditation process, which means that representatives from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) are at MIT evaluating the program and making sure it’s up to scratch. I was invited to attend a meeting for the ABET representative to talk to several undergraduates about the program to get some students’ perspectives. One of the questions he asked us was why we chose 2A.

But before I jump into the answers, I should probably explain a little more about what 2A is.

Course 2 is one of the “stricter” majors- there are a lot of core requirements that must be completed before a degree will be awarded. This doesn’t leave much room for electives- there are dozens and dozens of cool classes offered in Course 2, but most students are only able to squeeze 2 or maybe 3 into their schedules around all of the core classes. The core classes are 2.001-2.009, and they’re all paired in levels of difficulty. In other words, 2.001 is Mechanics and Materials, and 2.002 is Mechanics and Materials II. So every 2.00-odd integer is a new topic, and every 2.00-even integer is the continuation of the class before it into more advanced material.

The idea behind 2A is that students are able to skip some of the “advanced” core classes and gain more room in their schedule for electives. In turn, the extra electives most constitute a “concentration-” so you can’t skip important core ideas about MechE just to take random classes that look easy. You have to prove that all of your electives contribute to the improvement of your skills in some area that interests you or will help you in your career aspirations after MIT. Lots of people take this concentration entirely outside of Course 2, so it’s possible to be “2A and 6” or “2A and 8.” These students receive a degree from the MechE department and no official recognition from the “secondary” major, but they do get the opportunity to explore that major more thoroughly than they would have if they had just chosen Course 2. Other students choose classes based on pre-approved “tracks,” which roughly correspond to the research departments of MechE. My track is robotics, hence the “CIR” distinction. Other pre-approved tracks include pre-medicine, biomedical engineering, energy conversion, product design, and business management. (You’d be correct in guessing that not all of these are MechE research divisions- the department has been working hard to expand the number of pre-approved tracks available to choose from.) Still other students just make up their own- as long as they can convince the professor in charge of 2A that the electives they’ve chosen contribute to a cohesive concentration.

So, why did the students at today’s accreditation meeting choose 2A? Most said they liked being able to take more electives. Some said that they already knew what they wanted to do with their degree, so they knew that certain core classes would be a waste of their time.

As for me, I told the truth: I thought that Course 2 would bore me to death. Seriously. I was undecided between Courses 2 and 16, and felt that they had opposite problems- 2 was too broad while 16 was too specific. I just felt that I could spend 4 years here, take 2.001-2.009, learn a LOT of different things about a lot of different topics within the insanely broad field of mechanical engineering, and then graduate without having the slightest idea of what to do with my life. I’d hardly have a chance to try something more specific and find out if I’d be interested in it because I’d be so busy learning ALL of the basics. (And with a field so broad, there are a LOT of basics). So, I chose 2A as a happy medium, and I’m really glad I did. Because of the flexibility, so far I’ve been able to take Introduction to Computer Science and Introduction to Robotics. Plus I have another 3 or 4 computer science/electrical engineering/robotics classes coming up in future semesters. And for someone with an attention span as short as mine, I really need that- I’d go crazy if I couldn’t mix things up a bit and take some non-Course 2 classes every once in awhile.

So, why did I just spend all this time explaining this rare combination of characters of “2A-CIR”? Well, for one thing, as far as I can tell, I’m the only person at MIT to have that exact major. Which I find pretty awesome. But also, there are a couple of other departments which have similar programs, and I think it’s an excellent concept. So keep in mind, that even if you don’t know what you want to major in, or what you want to do with your life, there are opportunities at MIT for you to forge your own path. Because in the end, forging our own paths is what MIT students do best.

Before I sign off, I’d like to address one question I received via email a few weeks ago.

Donald asked: In your entry “Application Advice v2.0” you set out the cardinal rule of the process as being “Be Honest” and do a good job of expounding on what exactly you mean. Having kept your advice in mind (I read this entry when you actually posted it .. in addition to again earlier today), I find that I actually am beginning to have a problem opposite of some of the hypothetical ones you describe—rather than approaching it wrong and trying to write about what I think they want to hear, I worry that what I would honestly write about myself sounds like I am attempting to write what they want to hear.

I was in a rush to reply to Donald, so I gave him the basic advice to still tell the truth, and promised to assure him of this in a future blog entry. So Donald, here’s the rest of the answer to your question:

The admissions committee has been doing this a long time. Even those that have only been doing it for a year have read hundreds of applications. They’ve seen and heard it all- the good, the bad, and the ugly, and they can smell BS about a mile away. They can tell the difference between someone writing what they think they should write and someone writing what they really mean. And no, they’re not entirely psychic. Because the truth is, the rest of your application will back you up. The reason that lying never works is that you won’t be able to do it consistently, I promise. The only thing you really have control over is your essays and your short answers. Those are really only a small part of the larger picture of your grades, test scores, teacher recommendations and interview. (If you think you can fake a good interview, you’re wrong.) So if you say in one of your short answers that the thing you do for the pleasure of it is learn a lot, and it’s TRUE, that’ll show up in the rest of your application. If your teacher recommendations say that you love to stay after class and ask questions completely unnecessary to pass the course, and if your application shows years of dedication to an academic team, and if your interviewer tells admissions that you seemed really excited to learn about their work (this happened to me; to this day I think my interviewer’s “office” was THE coolest lab I’ve ever been in), then whoever reads your short answer is going to say, “yeah, that makes sense, I believe that.” If, on the other hand, your teacher recommendations are mediocre, and all of your activities are athletics, and you write “I learn for the fun of it,” the person reading your application is going to say, “well, this person seemed cool, but now I can tell that they’re full of it.”

And it’s more than just lying or telling the truth on an application. It’s about how you lead your life. Don’t worry, I’ll step off the soapbox in a minute. But really- your application is a reflection of 4 years of your life. The only way to fake it is to be someone else for 4 years. Which is just plain dumb, honestly. Just be yourself, and it will all work out in the end.

Was that too preachy? I hope that some of you understand what I mean. In the end, the bottom line is just BE HONEST on your application. Don’t change your honest answer to something you think your reader will be less suspicious of- because that kind of selling out is no way to treat yourself.

Coming soon: a look at machine shops at MIT, plus the story of the disaster of my last semester. The second one’s long enough to be a novel, so be prepared.

25 responses to “Why Course 2A is Cooler than You”

  1. Ben says:

    “Yes, I’m alive. Yes, I haven’t blogged since JULY.”

    I was beginning to wonder what Snively had done to you to secure his Burton-Conner spot…

  2. Snively says:

    Whatever I did (bwahahaha) it wasn’t enough. . .

  3. Sam says:

    oh, poor Ocean. I miss it already.

  4. Sh1fty says:

    to be honest, i’m worried that my realistic app won’t sound as good as stretched ones… i never liked to exaggerate anything i made/did/learned, and i’m not sure if admissions committee will see that :( we’ll see how it’ll go… if they reject me i know what to do next year :D
    btw it’s nice to see you posting again wink

  5. Harrison says:

    Snively (along with other people) basically kept her locked up in the 22 suite all semester and let her out only for field hockey and water. And occasionally to go to class and save lives and other stuff like that.

  6. Isshak says:

    I’m glad to know I did what you tell us to do : ne honest ! (I sent my app waaay weeks ago, no, I am not EA…). My interview is in 2 days and I’m so excited !

  7. Mollie says:

    EDIT: I just realized that the “Majors and Minors” page on the Admissions site that this entry links to lists the majors in alphabetical order. I guess it makes more sense for people not familiar to MIT. But seriously- annoying!
    I remember once, in a 5.60-induced stupor, looking through that list trying to find chemistry in the f’s — for five, of course.

  8. Snively says:

    Ouch, harsh Taylor! We’re on teh interwebs of the g33kiest skul out there, expect to see some misspelled w0rds and web2.0 j4rgon.

    Also, you don’t have to study for the SATs. Studies (don’t ask me to cite my source, I can’t, but there are studies, I promise) have shown that just retaking the test w/o studying will improve scores quite a lot. Retaking the SATs to improve a sub-700 score is never a waste of time. Retaking them to improve a score that’s already higher than 700 is excessive because, according to past admissions blogs by higher-ups (Matt and Ben) the admissions office only looks at the 7 in the 7~~. If they see a 7, they give you a gold star and keep reading.

  9. Sam 2 says:

    Simply out of curiosity, I’m wondering: what would a list be of the courses in decreasing likelihood of having a social life?

  10. Harrison says:

    In response to Sam 2’s first/less serious question, from what I’ve seen Course 6 people (especially 6-3) on the old curriculum are consistently hosed but somehow always find time to complain about it/play Starcraft. 6 used to be an incredibly tough major until they messed with the curriculum. Also from what I hear Course 10 is also incredibly difficult but really awesome if you’re into ChemE.

  11. Sam 2 says:

    Er, that was meant to be a light-hearted question, but I suppose it could have been phrased better. Oh, though on a more serious note:

    Which Courses allow room for the most electives, and which ones require more courses within the major?

  12. EA applicant says:

    I can’t wait for the next post.
    YAY for Machine shops!
    My robotics team have always been deprived of one. We always had to beg random companies to allow us use theirs, then ending up making more than half of the pieces with just drill and band saw…then some massive de-burring!!!
    I learned that de-burring 200 lightening holes at 11:30 PM before the ship day, while being sleepy is NOT safe, and can make me bleed a lot. xP

    I hope you post lots of pictures for the post with the machine shop =)

  13. Anonymous says:

    What if are u are really honest about ur self..and it comes out in the app and in the recs and interview…but still the admissions people decide that you are just not good enough!!! Wouldn’t selling yourself by writing what they might want to hear…which u might be able to pull off have a better chance give u a better chance of getting in???

  14. Isshak says:

    Anonymous, yes it would give you a better chance to get it I suppose, but remember that the admissions office wants to know if you match MIT. If your true personality doesn’t, and you fake your app, once you’ll get in, you won’t thrive or you won’t have fun. You won’t feel anything the other MIT students feel. Because you and MIT won’t match, but the fake you on your app did. So really just be honest ! If you don’t match MIT, it’s better not to go there !

  15. Taylor says:

    @Snively: I didn’t think I was being that harsh. There’s a time and place for chatspeak, and I don’t think that asking a very important question about college is one of them.

    The words on the screen are the only interaction you get online and the way someone types provides you with automatic biases. To me, excessive use of chatspeak screams ‘teenybopper!’ My words were meant as helpful suggestion so that aluie might have a greater chance of being taken seriously.

  16. aluie says:

    hi…i got a 640 in math on reasoning in october n am givin my sat II math on november 3….i think i’ll make a 710-740 in satII..shud i retake sat I..??Its nt tht my overall app n all skul grades dnt prove tht im a good student..i ace calculus n chemistry n my school grades show any advice???

  17. Anonymous says:

    Harrison: I believe you mean the 23 suite.
    Sam 2: 6 and probably 10 are the most time-intensive.
    4 requires a lot of long nights in studio.
    7 is easier in terms of reqd courses, but has really long lab-hours.
    “social life” is very subjective: sitting around until sunrise coding with a few classmates (or the equivalent in your major) can be quite social.
    Elective-wise: I’d recommend you look through the websites for each department you’re considering. (mjr reqs are also listed in the course catalog) 7, 12, 11 and 14, I know have slightly fewer (and more varied) required courses. But you’ll be happier getting an overdose of a major you like than taking a ton of fun electives and hating your major.

  18. Taylor says:

    @aluie: Try making some efforts to use normal English. What you just posted makes you seem uneducated. If you think that you really truly could do better on the SAT I, then I would think about taking it again. But if you aren’t going to study, then I wouldn’t bother, it would just be a waste of time. Remember that your SAT’s are just one part of your application and MIT looks at the whole person.

  19. Paul says:

    I keep trying to tell you, Snively, just get rid of Jess instead. She’s much smaller, no one will miss her. wink

  20. donaldGuy says:

    Thanks Laura. In the time between question and response, I redid my “fun” essay to talk about DDR and how its one of the few things that I do where I don’t have to think … it’s sort of a trivial selection, but I think its worthwhile.

    Meanwhile, love of learning fits into my main essay (“world you came from”) .. I’m finalizing and will hopefully submit tonight. Wish me luck

  21. Harrison says:

    Anonymous: No, I DEFINITELY mean the 22 suite

  22. Snively says:


    How to pick between 7, 20, 5, 10, and 9?

    I usually do random math and crazy conversions to figure out my answers. For instance, here’s what I did for this one:

    (1) Add the numbers
    (2) Subtract the median
    (3) Convert to hex

    Ta-da! That’s what major you should take, it’s practically a sign from the gods.

  23. Hunter '11 says:

    I’m afraid to, Snively. What if it tells me that I should be Course 8? I don’t think I could handle the truth if that be it =P

  24. Hunter '11 says:

    Isshak is right. *IF* you BS your way into MIT (and I have faith that admissions can read right through it, but *if*), then you’re not going to thrive here – and what’s the point of that?


    How does one decide between 7, 20, 5, 10, and 9?

  25. Dizzle '09 says:

    So, Snively, I totally wanted to poke fun at you a bit and prove to you that if you do silly things like convert to hex, you will likely get something that’s not a real major.

    But, lo and behold, if you perform your operations on the given set of majors, you end up with…

    You guessed it…

    … 2A.

    I mean, this is Laura’s blog, after all. It’s only fair.

    *going back to writing lab reports instead of wasting brain space on hex conversions*