How to survive MIT with your sanity intact
Well, it’s that time again. All you hordes of freshman are pouring onto campus, bright and unsullied. Some of you fancy yourselves engineers, scientists, the bright minds of the future. All so innocent, easy prey for the dangers lurking behind the institute’s marble columns. Right now, you probably think “p-set” is a dirty word.
People break down here. They burn the candle on both ends until they go up in smoke. I have personally born witness to one mental dissolution and have heard stories of many more.
I am fortunate in that I’ve not suffered as much as my comrades. My disposition remains cheerful, though weary. I’m middle-aged in my MIT career, having survived freshman year and seen another class do the same. Here are some tips I’ve gathered to cushion your freefall through the academic abyss.
You can’t do everything
At the Activities Midway, you will see an entire stadium full of clubs, all vying for your attention. Add in sports, UROPs, fraternities/sororities, not to mention classes, all which will nag at you throughout the year. But, there’s only 168 hours in a week, less if you sleep. It’s easy to burn yourself out, rushing from crew practice to 8.02 to debate club. If you get too caught up in your extracurriculars, your grades will suffer — and vice versa. Even on pass-no record, you don’t want to see a big fat 5th week flag in your inbox because you were too busy machining in MITERS to study for 18.01. It’s important to determine your priorities, and base your schedule around that.
Maybe someone can juggle 7 classes, a UROP, and sports. That person is probably not you.
Half the value of an MIT education is meeting people who were also accepted to MIT. Upperclassmen can help you choose classes, and fellow freshmen can be study buddies. Just talking to people in your dorm will expose you to new areas of knowledge, as many experts walk among us. Personally, I would never have majored in 6-7 had I not met a certain someone in computer security. Plus, the best part of college is hanging out with like-minded people. The friendships you make here will stick with you for the rest of your life.
You need sleep
MIT students like to say “sleep is for the weak.” They cut sleep first when juggling a lot of activities, but a lack of sleep decreases concentration and efficiency. It’s a vicious cycle, staying up late to finish your work, but having to take longer to finish your work because of it. Even if you sleep nearly enough, the sleep debt will build until it’s just as bad as missing a night of sleep.
Caffeine is a common salve, but eventually, your tolerance builds to snorting lines of pure anhydrous caffeine. That kind of wakefulness just doesn’t feel good.
Get some sleep. Otherwise, you’ll start hallucinating, and it’s no good to turn in your p-set to an illusory box.
Don’t fall into the free food trap
Because of MIT’s reputation, there are a lot conferences and talks around here. And after each Nobel Prize speech is a catered spread, with brownies, cookies, sandwiches, fruit — but mostly pizza. There’s even a mailing list dedicated to free food. With all these calories floating around, it might be tempting to forgo the meal plan and become an urban forager, living on leftovers. Even though there may be salads and fruit plates, most of the time pizza will be the only pickings left, which isn’t the healthiest option for 24/7 consumption. Eating a stale cookie for dinner is only fun the first time. Plus, you’ll be at the mercy of the events, having to rush from place to place just to get ahead of the other students racing for the bounty. Be smart and learn to cook. It’s a skill that will serve you better in the long run.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
MIT will get you down, whether from a lack of sunlight, a failed test, relationship woes, etc. It’s natural to feel stressed out. You shouldn’t get caught up in the “macho” MIT culture and think you have to be self-sufficient. If you need help academically, tutoring services exist especially for freshmen. The Office of Minority Education offers night-time tutoring in all the freshman subjects, and you don’t have to be a minority to go. The math department also has general office hours. Fellow students can be your best resource; I certainly remember study groups in which only one person knew the information and taught the rest of us. Professors allow you to collaborate on p-sets for a reason. Student Support Services provides academic counseling and will negotiate with professors if you’re too sick to take a test.
For emotional woes, you can begin with talking to the friends I told you to make earlier. GRTs are your friends and are willing to listen to your problems and help you find solutions. MIT Medical has mental health resources and therapists for serious depression.
Whatever you do, don’t rely on self-medicated chemicals to make yourself feel good. The buzz might make you feel better for the moment, but the crash will be all the worse. That path is a sure-fire way to chemical dependency.
Use common sense
I obviously can’t enumerate all the exciting and dangerous activities you might get into. I really can’t, because I don’t want to be arrested. If you must try something risky, think about the dangers beforehand and plan accordingly. Having a partner nearby is useful for a lot of reasons, and they can call for help if you’re in a dangerous situation. More important than your project, your pride, or your criminal record is your life.