What I Do to Thrive at MIT

One of the first acronyms you learn at MIT is IHTFP. On a good day, it means “I Have Truly Found Paradise”. On a not so good day, it means the complete opposite: “I Hate This Fucking Place!”

That accurately captures how you’d feel in a place like MIT. It is extremely challenging and rewarding at the same time. Practically 99.9% of student that get admitted are top of the class in high school. At MIT, 50% of them find themselves below average—which now is a much higher bar to surpass. MIT is also college time, and you learn to become independent. You have to make new friends, improve your habits, live with up to 3 roommates, succeed academically, sometimes cook, and still be happy. Doing all of that with the challenge and pressure of MIT is not easy!

After being here for over 2 years, I have learned a few tricks that have made my time at MIT more enjoyable. I want to share with you some of the things I do that have improved my experience here. The tips I share below help me with:

  • Reducing the stress I have in my daily life
  • Balancing out the activities I do
  • Being content with myself

In sharing this will you, I hope that you will have a better time at MIT and enjoy these benefits as well. So, let’s start this off!

1. Understand YOUR Grades

Someone asked on Quora, “Do grades (GPA) really matter?”, and Allen Lobo, a corporate finance executive, responded with a very enthusiastic yes. Allen made the insightful point that good grades are not as good of an indicator of success as much as bad grades are a good indicator of failure in the workplace. I brought this to your attention because that was enough to change my perspective on wether grades matter or not. Yes, grades do matter, at the same time, asking the question “do grades (GPA) really matter” is not really helpful because it’s not personal to the person asking. What you really have to ask yourself is, “do grades/GPA really matter for me?

As much as I can agree with Allen, I have yet to experience an employer asking me about my grades—perhaps because I am a Computer Science student which means my experience, expertise, and ability to learn quickly matters waaaay more than my grades. None of these employers’ knew about my grades to determine wether I’d be a failure in the workplace. That is why understanding where you stand with your grades is important. Figure out what works for you: Is it OK for you to get a B or C and still pass? X being whatever you want to achieve in the near future, does getting lower than an A hinder your chances to get X? The main idea is that given the answer to that question, figure out how to minimize the amount of pressure you put to yourself with respect to getting good grades because MIT is difficult and it may not be worth it to add more pressure to yourself—getting good grades is difficult. To that end, I suggest the following instead…

Focus on Understanding

When you set your mindset to focus on understanding the material from the class, you will be a less stressed out about making the A cutoff. The outcome will be better in the long term because you will actually be able to apply what you learned and understand it. In addition, understanding the material is correlated to getting a good grade. So, this can indirectly help you achieve a good grade without having to directly aim for it.

Here are some of the decisions that helped me better focus on understanding:

  • Taking at most 4 classes: this seems to be a good number such that you are not completely overwhelmed and have time to internalize the material learned. This semester, I am taking 3 classes.
  • Balance out technical vs. non-technical classes: I recommend taking two technicals and two non-technicals at the same time. Shifting your mind from technical to non-technical material can be a form of “taking a break” from the technical or non-technical materials.
  • Space out your study and PSET times for any given subject: It’s better to finish your homework over a 3 days span than doing all of it in one day. the material will stick longer and better.
  • Go to lecture and recitation, and take good notes: I suggest actively thinking about and analyzing the process through which you take notes and figure out what works and what doesn’t. For instance, writing everything the professor says or write on the board may not be the best solution because the important details will be cluttered with the noise coming from the unnecessary content the professor produces. Finally, go back to your notes a couple of days after you write them. 1–2 days is enough to let your mind be ready to internalize the notes when you go back to it. Also, this step is crucial because otherwise what’s the point of taking notes if you don’t use them? What has worked for me is jotting down only things that I have understood or that I think I can understand when I go back to it and asking questions when I do not understand what the professor says.
  • Collaborate: MIT as a whole encourages students to collaborate. Discuss your approaches methods with classmates. Have someone explain to you how they thought about the problem. You could gain some insights into how to think about the problem differently.
  • Find a way to make the class interesting: You will probably have to take a class that you do not really want to take due to the institute’s requirements. That will make it difficult to study because it’s “boring”. In that case, try to make it not-boring: find what in that class can spark some interests and curiosity in you because it’s much easier to do something you like or are interested in than it is to do something you don’t like. One way to do this is to look for materials beyond what you’re expected to know to pass the class. For instance, I found out why the Y chromosomes in males is very much shorter than the X chromosomes in both males and females by reading the Wikipedia page about it this semester taking Introduction to Biology (7.012)—by the way, I thought Biology sucked but MIT very quickly changed that for me!

8. Ask Questions In Class

I had this initially as part of the mini tips above, but I quickly realized asking questions deserves its own sections.

A brave student raising his hand and helping others in the process. WOW. Photo Credits: William Stitt on unsplash.com/@willpower

During freshman fall I was taking Multivariable Vector Calculus (18.022) of 100–150 people, and there was this guy who asked questions literally every 5 minutes — it was getting borderline annoying to be honest. In the class’s final, I scored 134/200; he scored 198/200. Again, the point is not to focus on grades of course, but this is just a way to illustrate that if you understand the material (which I think he did very well by asking questions every time he was confused), your grades will follow.

During fall 2017, I was taking Introduction to Inference (6.008). This class was DIFFICULT — hardest class so far for me. I would usually get confused halfway through the lecture as the professors were going to fast, so sometimes I’d go ask questions after class (a class of 100+ students). One of these times Polina Golland, the professor at the time, told me to ask questions during class. Why? She said that if I have a question, chances are someone else has that question too. So despite delaying the class material a bit, asking the question during class will help more people than just me.

Professors in general appreciate students asking questions because they know it helps way more people than just the person asking the question. Professors aren’t there to just give give lectures—I think that’s just a mean to an end. Truly, professors want you to learn, and you asking a question is both a way of helping them achieve their goal and a feedback to them to pay more attention to the topic you asked about next time they are teaching. So, ask questions in class when you are confused; you are helping your fellow students out when you do it!

But this doesn’t apply to just in class. You can ask for help from your classmates or upperclassmen as well. Essentially, you want to ask for help if you’re stuck. You can choose one of two paths: ask for help and get yourself unstuck in 5–30min (depending on how hard this question is), or don’t ask for help and get stay stuck for a non-deterministically long time—which could go up to 5 hours (speaking from experience!). Now you tell me, what is the more efficient choice?

What’s a good time to start asking for help? My rule of thumb is that if I feel like I am not improving anymore by trying to figure it out by myself, then that’s when I should ask for help. I also like to keep it at a minimum of 10–15 minutes of not improving before I asking or moving on to something else and getting back to trying this problem again.

5. Make Use of the Following Resources

At MIT, it is important to learn to work not only hard but also smart. MIT put out a lot of resources to help you work smart. You should use them:

Upperclassmen

By the time one becomes an upperclassmen, they have gone through a lot about being an MIT student. Ask them questions whenever needed or are curious about what to do when making big decisions—for example, decisions related to your major or concentration. Rarely will they not have an answer for you: either they know the answer or know someone or a resource that can get you closer to the answer you are looking for. Also speaking from experience, many MIT students enjoy helping others as long as the other genuinely wants to understand the material (in opposition to just getting the answer).

PSET & Friend Groups

Work collaboration is is extremely common at MIT. Meet up with people to work on PSETs together. They can be your friends or maybe just people you met in a class—who can later become your friend. A lot of great friendships are born simply out of working together with other people. This is also great because explaining the problem to someone else helps you learn better. You get to do that a lot in these groups.

Piazza

Piazza is an online forum platform that helps students help each other and/or get help from class instructors.

Piazza for the Fundamentals of Computer Science (6.009) class

Students can ask questions, and instructors can both respond to questions and post class announcements. Other students can respond to questions as well. Piazza is great for large classes because, as mentioned earlier, multiple people often have the same question.

I can’t speak for other majors, but I know most classes in the electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) department have a piazza. I also know most large classes have one. I suggest checking whether your class has it. If it doesn’t, most professors are actually open to creating one. Shoot them an email! Also, piazza is a good compromise for people who aren’t as good at working with other people or are more introverted or prefer working alone. Most of the time, I am one of those people, so I have used piazza quite a lot.

6. Find Time to Read Books

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” — Isaac Newton

This is probably the hardest tip I am giving on this list. Reading requires you to take time off of your regular schedule to spend it on reading words off of a book. This is especially difficult if you’re not used to reading books. However, books aren’t just plain words! Books contains a wealth of information, experience, and meaning that you would otherwise not find anywhere else. Isaac Newton once said, “if I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” You can, too, grow just by standing upon the shoulders of the giant book authors.

Photo credits: Gaelle Marcel on unsplash.com/@gaellemm

Books, by far, are one of the best ways one can stand upon the shoulders of giants. Books allows you to gain a tremendous amount of experience without physically living these experiences. Most authors spend years writing a single book. Look to yourself a year or two ago, how much have you learned? With a book, you can learn just as much, if not more, in less than a month! What I tell myself is that I am losing a LOT of money and a LOT of social value by not reading a book, and it’s not just motivational. I truly am indirectly losing by not reading at least a little bit every day. The knowledge I could gain from a book can help me secure a job interview, (re)build a badly needed relationship, succeed in a negotiation, find ingenious solutions, and way more!

Here is a couple of suggestions of books that I have personally read, but just as warning, I am more of a non-fictional reader so I do not know a lot of fiction:

  • How An Economy Grows and Why It Crashes by Peter D. Schiff. Here, Schiff essentially describes how the United States’ economy along with the US dollar grew and how it ended up crashing in 2008 (and how it could crash again in the future ? that’s TBD). What makes this book remarkable is that Schiff explained it in very simple terms that you and I can understand.
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Carnegie discusses and illustrates with examples how little actions that you do every day can make you a more likable and nice-to-work-with person. The tips in this book can help you get want you want. I read this book because I wanted to build better relationships with those I meet and know, and I can say that this book truly has taught me things I hadn’t known before and that has improved how I interact with people in my everyday life.
  • Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, and Roger Fisher from the Harvard Negotiation Project (eww Harvard). This talks about something that literally happens every day with people: problems that you have with people. This can be your noisy roommate, your friend that keeps guilt tripping you, the problems you have with your parents, or your supervisor who makes you feel like shit (and of course more). They talk about what to do when you have a problem with someone and more importantly what not to do to make things worse.
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Zusak is a wonderful author, and what he did in this book is truly remarkable. I don’t want to spoil any of it, but all I can say is that it’s probably my favorite book out there. It beats all the wondering non-fiction books I read above.
  • Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Especially if you are male, you must read this book to better understand the feminism movement and how women have it in the workforce (which you probably would never truly understand unless you are a woman). Reading this made me more aware of how I was contributing to the problem, and now I can act upon the problem through this awareness.

But then again, like I said, finding time to read is difficult. Even when you find time, reading still requires you to be concentrated to really grasp what you are reading. Unless you already have the time, you may have to replace other things you do with reading. Here are two suggestions:

  • Shift “social media” time to reading time: for example, you could spend 30 minutes reading a book instead of 30 minutes scrolling through your Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat feed.
  • Watch what you spend your time on: by closely watching what you do on a daily basis, you may figure out how to free up enough time to read. If you are an iPhone user, the new Screen time feature can help with this. I was shocked to see that I spend over a day per week on my phone when I would prefer it to be at most 10 hours and ideally 5. If I could cut 14–19 hours from my phone into reading every week, that would be truly awesome.

4. Eat With Your Friends

College is a time for you to experience, build connections, have fun, discover yourself, and find your calling. You may not achieve all of the above by the time you finish college, but building strong and good connections is extremely important in the long term. This is something that you exclusively have an easier ability to do while in college. With that said, everyone is super busy during college.

Nevertheless, everyone has to eat regardless of how busy they are: we’re human and that’s what we do (otherwise we’d be dead I think). Why not take advantage of the time you eat to strengthen your current relationships or make new ones?

Here’s an analogy: friends and relationships are like plants. If you don’t water them regularly, they wither and die. A way to “water your relationships” is to eat and catch up with your friends and family. Talk over breakfast, lunch, brunch, or dinner. In addition, you can once in a while eat out. Since everyone has to eat, they will rarely refuse to eat with you unless the times they eat just don’t match up with yours. Another way you can get your friend to have lunch with you is to actually schedule meals with your friends; then it’s guaranteed that it’ll happen. I think often enough we feel guilty to spend our free time doing “non-academic” stuffs (like hanging out with friends), but when we do it coupled with something we have to do (i.e. eating), we feel a lot less guilty about it.

So, text those friends you haven’t seen in a while and ask them to eat with you!

2. Take the Stairs, Walk, Bike

Photo Credits: Photo by Erik Witsoe on unsplash.com/@ewitsoe

When you get to MIT and College in general, you will become extremely busy. You are so busy that you become very inactive. The times you are active will often only involve walking to class or to places, and it’s not your fault! It just gets harder to find that 30 min to 1 hour window in which you can go to the gym, for a run, or play a sport.

Sports and working out are great for you; however, they take time. Taking the stairs is sort of a happy medium between doing nothing and working out. It’s a way to do sports without having to go to the gym — especially when going up to those 5th or more floor locations! Taking the stairs is better than nothing when you really just don’t have time to go to the gym.

In addition to this, I would also suggest walking as much as possible or getting a bike! Bikes are really fun to ride, and they will give you the extra motivation to go a little bit further outside of MIT.

3. Get Outside of Campus

MIT is a bubble:

  • People talk about classes a lot
  • People love their acronyms and numbers (Stud, ASA, 006, Z, S3, ISO, PNR, EC, 036, GIR, IAP, etc.). There’s a website with many (not all) of the MIT acronyms.
  • Everyone is so nerdy and weird, and we freaking love it!

MIT is truly great. At the same time, there’s just so much out there. MIT gives students a “101 Things to Do before You Graduate” poster to every freshmen, which helps you explore what’s outside of campus. I lost mine (#sad), but I’d encourage you to use it. This can help you cool off from midterms and PSETs, and you may have some interesting encounters, especially visiting other schools.

My brother goes to Berklee College of Music, which is conveniently about 10 minutes away from MIT. Once when I visited him, we were in the elevator and some people were just meeting each other. After getting each others’ names, the first question asked was, “what do you play?” When I heard that, I found it super odd. The first questions people ask at MIT after meeting each other are usually, “what course are you?” or “what classes are you taking?”. This made me realize just how different things can be somewhere else.

7. Take a Break Whenever You Can & Do What You Love

Before you got here, you probably had some form of “passion” or hobby that you enjoyed doing. Mine were and are playing soccer, drawing, and photography. I didn’t do much of the last two in the last two years I had at MIT, and I barely did any soccer during that time. However, I am changing that this semester. I have been playing intramural soccer regularly with my fraternity’s team and got a camera last summer to be more involved with photography.

A photo of the MIT “Outfinite” I took earlier this semester. Follow my Facebook Page!

I feel really happy that I am doing more of these this semester. At the same time, it’s easy for me to say it now because I am only taking three classes (most people usually do 4–5). However, had I never made this decision to take less classes so that I can breathe a little, I would have never realized how much I missed doing the things I love and how much they make me happy. I’d hate to spend all my time studying and going to class, and I believe I am not the only one to share this strong feeling. Of course, I will get busy again next semester and the ones to come, but now that I am taking this break now, I am able to be more self aware about the things I enjoy and that make me happy. So, I will definitely make more time for it in the semesters to come.

I really encourage you to do the same. If you can, take a slow, three classes semester and reflect on your life: (Re)discover the things you love doing and do them! It also may not be taking three classes: you could reflect over the summer or over IAP as well. It’s all about taking some time off from whatever you usually do to reflect and think about the things you do vs. the things you wish you could be doing.

THAT’S IT

Those are my 8 tips to you, and I hope they are useful to you! What has made your time at MIT or in college in general easier or less stressful? Please share in the comments!