First, watch this.
The reason MIT is so hard is because you are not just given knowledge–you have to earn it. I’m going to guess that at your high school–just as in many high schools–the days you spend in class go something like this:
1. Introduce a specific concept (let’s use integrals as an example). Your teacher talks about integrals for a little bit, maybe where they came from and gives some background on the theory behind them.
2. Work on Examples. Your teacher might do some simple integral problems on the board a couple times, and one of these times they might write a problem and have you solve it in class.
3. Homework. The homework you receive on integrals starts out easy and gradually becomes harder. Generally speaking, the homework will line up with what is taught in class (or, it should).
4. Tests. The tests might be a bit harder than the homework, but often they still line up pretty well. If you study, there are not usually many surprises. Most people get B’s. Some get A’s. Sometimes a lot get A’s. Some get C’s–and the C people often drop down a class if it happens consistently.
In this method, even if your teacher is terrible and you don’t understand the homework, the pace is forced to be slow enough that you can still do it, or work with friends and piece together your bits of knowledge. Also, in most high school subjects there’s a lot of information available on the internet, whereas in college, sometimes what we’re studying is basically hot off the academic presses, and so you can’t find much outside information to help you. Of course high school can still be hard–I thought it was hard–and there are a lot of benefits to this teaching philosophy. It enables students to actually feel like they know what’s going on, and gives them confidence that if they study and work hard, they can at least do okay. I don’t like it when college/high school/middle school teachers say things like “WELL, I know your high/middle/elementary school teachers did not teach you blah blah blah and that whole time of your life was basically a waste of time and I’m going to actually teach you things now/get you closer to the “real world”/etc./etc.”
This mentality is terrible. Everyone needs different types of education at different levels. And I especially don’t understand when public school teachers said things like that. Being teachers themselves, they should understand the difficulty of their own jobs. To say phrases like that hugely disrespects the teachers that prepared the students before they got into that current teacher’s classrooms. I lose a little respect for teachers or professors who do that.
ANYWAY, after that brief tangent, here is how MIT teaches, a method many people call “the fire hose”:
1. Introduce a General Concept. If you’re supposed to be learning integrals, an MIT professor might start off with the foundation of calculus and talking about summations. In my experience, a lot of the professors really like to tell “stories”, like, “let’s say we have a moving car, and we don’t know how far it’s traveled, but we know it’s velocity…..” and you don’t really know where they are going with this until they explain that the integral of velocity is distance. I like this because it gets you excited. Until you have to do homework.
2. Go over one example. Expectations are higher at MIT. You are expected to do a lot on your own–particularly in math. If you want more examples, you have to read them on your own time. In class, we might do one or two examples, and often the professor will skip a lot of the intermediate steps. Everyone hates the phrase “and the rest is just algebra” or “…and then I’m sure you guys can do the algebra, so in the end the answer is 5″. Sometimes “just algebra” takes me two hours.
3. Collaborate on homework. MIT has one very important philosophy: no competition. What I mean is, if, hypothetically speaking, everyone in a class got an A, then everyone would get an A. There is never a curve or weird grade cutoff thing that works against you, it can only ever work for you. This means everyone is encouraged to work with and help each other all the time. In classes with multiple sections, professors joke “you all need to work together so we can beat Professor ____’s section!” This is great, because if you tried to do everything yourself here, you would be absolutely miserable. My biggest regret this semester is not working with other people on our math homework–I really should have done that more.
The homework at MIT has a much greater gap with what was taught in class. There might be a few “confidence boosting” problems that are short, and similar to in-class examples, but most of them are completely different. You might have done a velocity/distance integral problem in class, and then all of a sudden all your homework problems are about heat dissipation. The math is the same–but I’m sure you know how much more confusing things can be when taken out of context. And when the math wasn’t all that clear in the first place, it’s exponentially more confusing. You are expected to make the connection between the general concept and the specific problem on your own. The professor does not reveal this connection to you. You MUST ASK FOR HELP, from somewhere–TAs, office hours, the professor, your friends. The average set of homework problems here can take anywhere between 4-8 hours, depending on what you yourself are better/worse at (math takes me forever, but physics is usually ok). In high school, I think my homework usually took two hours, except for AP Physics C (which was the most college-like high school class I ever took, take it!!). And, that 4-8 hours is even when you are working with other people. If there’s something you really don’t understand and you are stubbornly working by yourself, you can work on it for a whole day and end up with not much more than a pool of tears and eraser shavings (definitely have done this a couple times). We need each other to survive at MIT.
4. Exams. ……oh jesus.
On my first math exam in college ever, I failed. I’ve never actually failed an exam before. And then my TA was like, “oh, but it was only by a few points” and I was like HOW ARE YOU SO CALM.
I was not the number one kid in high school, but here I felt like I was at the very bottom, even though I wasn’t. The distribution is different. I think most people get B’s in the end in most classes, but C’s are much more common, and sometimes more the norm in other classes. Getting an A is very hard in some classes–though to be fair, not in all of them. C people are not encouraged to drop–they are considered doing well enough, and if they want to do a little better, they talk to their professors and TAs. This distribution is difficult to get used to. Some people think, why not just move all the averages up so more people can get B’s and A’s? (in other words, grade inflation). It might help all the students get better jobs or grad schools or whatever.
The reason is that MIT is designed to keep you uncomfortable. We don’t grow when we are comfortable, because our instincts tell us to stay in our comfort zone. MIT tries its best to make sure there is no comfort zone–which, even with all this rigor, is still hard because of some of the geniuses that come here. And in the end, your job will really not depend on your GPA. MIT has made sure that everyone knows it does not work on the same grading scale as other places. The only time this becomes a significant problem is with scholarships–but don’t ever let that keep you from taking risks. I myself have a GPA dependent scholarship, but I didn’t drop any of my classes, because I know that I could appeal to either MIT (for more financial aid) or to my scholarship provider, and they would actually understand, because it really is that hard.
In general, I think the high school philosophy is to teach knowledge–which makes a lot of sense and is appropriate for high school. Like I said, I hate it when people discount our previous experiences and education. You need a good knowledge foundation, and that will definitely help you at any college you go to, including MIT. But MIT’s philosophy is to teach learning. I didn’t understand this at first. I couldn’t understand how we could pay so much tuition to go to classes where professors didn’t teach us anything (well, it felt that way at the time, and still does in math). You have to really learn in depth concepts fully, and you have to reach an understanding of them that only comes from working with the concept in many different contexts on your own. Sometimes, this is not possible for some people in some classes–I still don’t know what’s going on in math. So, if you work hard, you can still at least get a C even if you don’t fully understand everything (which is what I’m doing in math ^^”). In other words, if you really, actually learn things you can get a B (maybe an A), and if you work really hard, you can get a C.
You also have multiple classes that are all this level of difficulty. The 4-8 hour problem set time I mentioned is for just one class. You’ll have at least four. And on top of all this, despite our “no competition” policy, when it seems like everyone around you is doing just fine, it’s demotivating (although trust me, they’re actually not perfect). This can be more crippling than any of the actual work you have to do. Random external problems (family, social drama, getting sick, etc.) take a greater toll on your time, your life, and your grades than they would in high school. I actually get more sleep in college–but I also feel like I need sleep more. I cannot survive the extremely dense flood of information–the fire hose–that is fired at me in a single day with less than four hours of sleep. I just can’t.
So that’s why MIT is so hard. Success is not getting an A here. Success is not even getting a C here. Success is maintaining your mental and emotional stability in the face of this fire hose. You cannot give up. You cannot fall away. No matter how badly you do, you cannot let academics define who you are. You have to keep working, and keep working really hard, no matter how pointless it seems at times. Success here is finding or creating a group of people that support each other–giving and receiving both academic and emotional/mental support. Don’t ever close yourself off from these people. Success is knowing that it’s okay to feel upset–but you cannot let being upset consume you. Success here is still finding a way to be happy, and separating yourself from your disappointments. Success is failing–and being able to move on.
If you are admitted to MIT, it’s because they know that you have fire. The educational system seems to put every effort into extinguishing that fire, and that feels awful. But actually, you just become really, really good at burning brightly, even in the worst darkness, that you never thought you’d see through.