A freshman’s guide to thriving at MIT

Meet new friends, don’t overwork yourself, and embrace your classes.

At this point, you’ve settled into your temporary room, semi-unpacked and probably eaten lots and lots of free food. If you’re hungry or have paid for food, you’re doing something wrong. Maybe you’ve gone to some “mandatory” Orientation events or you’re doing an FPOP. You’re meeting lots of people, staying up all night, and generally having a great time. And slowly, you might even be starting to believe that this is what MIT is like all of the time.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s not.

In a feeble attempt to prepare you for what is coming, I put together some tips on how to make the most of your freshman year. Some of this is based on personal experience, some on the advice of my classmates, and some on things that I witnessed during my first year.

Go to class. This might seem rather obvious to some people, but when you’ve gone to bed at 5 a.m. and woken up at 8 a.m., this concept might evade your logic. Borrowing class notes from classmates or trying to learn the material online is no substitute for actually attending lecture and recitation. Some classes, such as 3.091, record lectures and put them online later that day; in this case, there is really no difference as to whether you attend the class or watch it online, as long as you really do watch it if that’s what you choose. However, I would advise against relying on MIT’s Open CoursWare (OCW) lectures from previous years, since some content may differ or the class may proceed at a different rate. OCW is a great resource, but it won’t get you a degree.

Study and organize your time. Many of you glided through high school without opening a book. MIT is not high school; you will need to study, sometimes quite a lot. If you haven’t studied in high school, I would recommend starting right away, even if the classes you’re taking start off with easier material that you are familiar with. Organize your time by ensuring that you set blocks of time aside for each subject that has an exam or a problem set due. Tests and problem sets from previous years are some of your best studying tools, and they can be easily found on OCW.

Work in groups. This is another thing that some of you might scoff at, since many of you did not need help in high school. Yet this is another change that you will need to adjust to. The problem sets that are issued are not easy and I am not exaggerating when I say that virtually everyone at MIT works in groups, especially in GIR’s that they are not majoring in. They are not high school homework assignments that you can either finish in class or do in 5 minutes before the bell rings the day it’s due. But in this case, you need to do more than just set aside what you think is enough time to work on it; oftentimes, there will be problems that you just cannot do. But chances are, if you are in a group of 3-5 people, one of you will know how to do it. Your classmates at MIT are perhaps your greatest resource, so use them! However, one pitfall to avoid is to take down an answer that you don’t understand. Make sure that if you’re working with others, you understand everything your groupmates do.

That’s some of my advice, but what do other ex-frosh have to say? Sophomore Shannon Taylor stressed the importance of taking chances and stepping outside your comfort zone. You hear that phrase a lot, but it’s extremely applicapble at MIT. You’re going to find out that there are a plethora of groups and clubs to join, and you should definitely use part of your freshman year to do this. Shannon pointed out that after freshman year, you only get busier, so your first year is your chance to try different things and find something you really enjoy.

But this doesn’t just apply to extracurriculars! Shannon and many other upperclassmen recommend taking advantage of Pass/No Record and ABC/No Record. What this means is that during your freshman year, you literally cannot receive a D or an F, at least not that will be recorded in your record or affect your GPA. This is a huge opportunity that I think a lot of freshmen under-utilize. With No Record, you can try any class you want and explore the many different majors without too much risk. Even if you’ve come in with a strong idea of what you want to major in, it’s still a great idea to take some classes outside of your major. You won’t be the first freshman to decide that your passion coming in is not your passion coming out. Even if you keep your major, you can use freshman year to get a taste for an entirely different field of study to broaden your horizons.

Another sophomore, Russell Cohen, had more to say about taking advantage of all MIT has to offer. “Meet other freshmen. And don’t date seniors,” he added. As I mentioned earlier, the student body is a major resource at MIT, and not just for homework. MIT is an extremely diverse body of people from all over the world who may have entirely different viewpoints and experiences than you. You might never again get the chance to meet so many different people from so many different walks of life.

The different groups of friends I’ve gained at MIT has been fantastic. I’ve got one group of friends from my floor, one group I met during Orientation, a few different friends from different groups I’ve joined, and even friends from other schools in Boston who I’ve met. The more people you know and befriend, the richer your MIT experience will be.

My final words of advice: don’t take on too much. I’ve stressed repeatedly that high school is very different than MIT. You cannot expect to take all the hardest classes and get all A’s while also joining every group and club that comes your way. Freshman year is a year to explore and find out how much you can handle. Join one or two groups and take one or two more challenging “flavors” of classes at the very most. If you find that you can handle the commitments you make and the workload you’ve got and still have time to spare, then you can make the decision to do more. You have four years at this place; you don’t need to cram it all into your freshman year. Many people have made the mistake of taking on way too much first semester and, as a result, digging themselves into a hole they couldn’t get out of until second semester.

If you take all of this advice, I can virtually guarantee that you will do more than just fine; you will excel. Everyone is capable of doing the work, it just takes time management, teamwork, and lots of studying. And when you’ve got that down, take advantage of the rich variety of opportunities available to you here. You have four years. Make the most of it.