You’re 18, But You Aren’t Invincible by Anthony R. '09
Impressions of my first month at MIT -- both sobering and exciting.
I’ve been at MIT for just over a month now. It hasn’t quite sunk in yet.
College is supposed to be about freedom. Discovering yourself is supposed to be a priority, somewhere up there with getting good grades and calling home once in a while. There are things to do at all hours, particularly where I live… I have not known boredom since moving here. There are concrete octagons, steel bars, soda machines that you log into to operate, events with free Bertucci’s, hallway colloquies at four in the morning, and strolls through rows of dark offices. And there are the “crust” — graduates of years past that still hang around the hall — which reveal all sorts of things of interest when you poke them.
But along with all the action and fun, certain things along the way make you think. It seems like after the first week, half of the freshman class has been romantically engaged with the other half. Chalk it up to being the first time in most students’ lives that they’ve been around like-minded peers. And yes, the brightest young talent in mathematics, science, and engineering consumes things in red cups just like the rest of the nation’s college students. The great thing about MIT is the incredible amount of personal choice you are given. Mildly disappointing is how some choose to take advantage of it.
“Oh my gosh! I’m in college now! I can do whatever I want! Heehee, my parents will NEVER know!”
I get the feeling that a lot of people were under tremendous pressure back home, from their teachers, from their parents — whatever … and when they get here, they feel an immense need to release that pressure. Think about it: if a student is academically well-qualified enough to get into a top university, chances are he or she worked pretty darn hard for it. And I’m willing to bet that more than a few students had their parents as a major factor in the decision to work that hard. So they get here, and let loose. It’s to be expected, right?
The rumors are true about this place. It’s not easy. But from what I’ve found, it’s not the sheer difficulty of the work that poses a problem for freshmen. It’s a little something that most have never quite had to hone: time management. I am sure that many of you can start your homework the night before it’s due in high school, and still get a good night’s sleep and an A on the assignment — heck, I could. But if you try to do that for all of your classes here, you’ll turn into a sleep-deprived wreck who wakes up at 6pm one day and realizes it’s not a weekend, and that, oh yeah, something was due earlier. *crash*
Part of being a freshman is learning how to balance your time commitment to schoolwork with all of the fun things that you feel obligated to run off and explore. Certainly, what is defined by “fun” depends on who you are, but I promise that it’s all available here. MIT recognizes the adjustment period of coming into a tough school and finding your place, and that’s why we have pass/no record grades in the first semester. If you pass a class, it simply shows up as “pass.” If you fail a class, it doesn’t show up at all. You might think this is a bad thing because if you get an “A”, you don’t get recognition for it, but it’s actually quite a useful insurance policy. The upperclassmen try to tell you that you don’t have to do any work because “you’re on pass/no record!” They secretly wish they could have such protection in the tough classes in their major. :-) Your advisors still see your grades, and besides, it doesn’t feel very good to be failing stuff if you can help it. So while it’s insurance, it’s not something you should use as an excuse to goof off all semester.
A lot of people I know failed their first math exams. And yes, for many it’s the first exam they’ve ever failed in their lives. When you’ve got first-year MIT classes demanding your time, you might tend to study for one more than another because you think you know the material well enough from before. Maybe you’ve already had calculus, biology, or chemistry in high school, so you think the intro class here will be a cinch. Not so. The problem sets and exams present challenging applications in questions that have little to do with the concrete knowledge you picked up from the book. And no, attendance isn’t mandatory in lecture, recitation, or really anything, and as a result, the burden rests completely on your shoulders to make sure that you are passing and learning. The good thing is that plenty of help is available if you need it. Professors and instructors make themselves very accessible through office hours and study sessions, even on weekends. There are multiple review and study sessions days before exams in each freshman class. They really want you to do well, and if you were admitted to MIT, you certainly can do well.
Through the workload and the challenges and everything else, you tend to join forces with other people on your hall to get things done. Two people working on a problem set together usually figure things out faster than one person working alone. Once you do this enough with the same people, you find special bonds begin to develop. Friendship through endurance. You’re getting through some tough spots together and it makes you stronger in the end. Stronger managers of time. Stronger students. And it’s so, so rewarding when you finally figure out the answer to a tough question. A friend taking 8.012 (a more rigorous intro physics class) showed me the multiple pages upon pages of work for her next problem set. She expressed that while the work is tough, once you have an answer you can circle, you feel incredibly elated and proud, and that’s what makes the course worth it. :-)
I’m not trying to scare you with this entry. I just think it would be unfair to not balance all of the fun stuff that happens here with a little bit of freshman reality. Incredible things happen here on a daily basis. You pass Nobel laureates walking down the corridor to your next class. MIT is an amazing place and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. And I think you’ll find that though everyone is a bit exhausted at the end of the day, they too would rather be nowhere else. Upperclassmen say that while they’ve never worked so hard, they truly feel that once they graduate, they’ll be able to solve anything. Indeed, you get every ounce of what you put into your education out of your education. :-)