The arrogance of freshmen

There’s more to MIT than earning your degree

Playing pingpong reveals a lot about the players at the table. I was involved in an intense game with a group of freshmen when we lost track of whose turn it was to serve. After some arithmetic to clear up the confusion, one freshman declared, “I am a math major,” with a haughty smirk sprawled across his face.

I was quite puzzled as to why this person would use simple addition to brag about his aptitude in mathematics. Too many times on campus I have heard fellow students say, “We are MIT students,” followed by some absurdly arrogant statement about their supernatural intelligence or abilities. I’ve noticed airs of superiority hidden in subtle comments from many freshmen — it seems to be a recurring pattern.

In reality, being admitted as an undergraduate at MIT, or at any other top school for that matter, by itself does not mean much. The admittance surely indicates stellar grades, glowing recommendations, extracurricular activities, and insightful essays. But such features are offered by thousands of other applicants in the pool.

What it really means is that you are extremely lucky to be here. In its rejection letters and on online blogs, the admissions office indicates that it could have filled several equally talented classes with its applicant pool, but did not simply because of the lack of space.

Either the admissions office is lying to rejected applicants, which is unlikely, or admitted students are here in a large part due to a stroke of luck. The fine line between “in” and “out” ends up depending on factors nobody really understands.

The point is not to downplay the merits of our undergraduates, but rather to highlight what genuinely does matter: how MIT students make use of the remarkable facilities at their disposal. It is not the academic material, but the distinct undergraduate programs that set this school apart from its rival institutions.

Maybe what older students recognize is that taking four classes a semester and getting A’s in everything is not much to brag about, but taking the initiative to research with professors or intern in industry certainly is.

There is a wilderness of opportunities to explore beyond the realm of the classroom, but it is this constant obsession with grades and coursework that leaves many students blind to their surroundings and simply content with the fact that “they are here.” A significant proportion of students never venture beyond their comfort zone out of fear of compromising their academic performance.

The freshman mindset should be that leaving with a mere diploma is not the goal, but rather the bare minimum. One can take four classes a semester and cruise through an MIT degree by junior year. But those who embrace risk and adventure are the ones who will ultimately shine outside the bubble of our little school.

It may just be that studying here for a while is in itself a humbling experience. I have met the most outstanding and impressive people at this school, and what is most surprising is that it is these very people who are least aware of their sheer brilliance.

While being a student at MIT may not say much alone, taking advantage of the remarkable opportunities this university has to offer is what ultimately makes a world of difference.

cqi over 5 years ago

What i often see is freshmen who come into MIT bragging about being 2 majors and 2 minors and doing every activity out there. It's great that we have high ambitions, but many of us haven't accomplished much yet in terms of MIT academics and activities - and yet some of them speak arrogantly about registering for 18.022 and 5.112. That's amazing and many of them will go on to ace those classes. But it's more about what we DO with our education than just the grades itself.

However, i can understand why a lot of freshmen come in with the mindset of getting perfect grades but no goals yet after that. Many people here still don't know what they want to do after graduation, and many don't know what they want to major in. A lot of us grew up in an environment where grades were everything, so it's both refreshing and confusing to students when colleges like MIT encourage students to think outside of the box for once.

What i don't understand is the discrimination against any specific course - any major can be easy or difficult depending on how you approach it. It's sad that, after only 4 weeks, many freshmen already know common stereotypes for some majors (how Course 15 is the easy Plan-B and thus to not declare it unless they fail out of their first-choice majors, etc). I have some friends who are truly interested in going into high finance, but refuse to declare 15 (they declared 14 instead, which is not as useful for quants as 6 and 15 imo) on the basis that 15 is not a challenge/gets a lot of crap from others at MIT. Once again, any major can be easy or difficult depending on the classes you take, the research and jobs you have, etc.

Outside of MIT is a very different world where people won't judge your entire character for being one major or another. They only care that you made it - and hopefully graduated from - MIT. :)

Anonymous over 5 years ago

The title and much of the article generalizes freshman and judges every freshman's character for simply being a freshman. Everyone was once a freshman, and getting the impression that a few people who happen to be freshmen are arrogant suggests nothing about the entire class. Your article would have been much more powerful if you had framed this as an argument to not be arrogant rather than a criticism of freshmen, some of whom you have seen act arrogantly; although you only mention freshman twice in your article, it's prominent in the title and you illogically assume that only freshman can be arrogant. This is the kind of thinking that divides entire groups based on a few people.

Anonymous over 5 years ago

Perhaps the title should be'the ignorance,' of freshman who have not yet been at MIT long enough to realize how much they don't know! Afraid to step out of their comfort zone, they stay with the familiar, math and grades...

Anonymous over 5 years ago

To Seek what is sought is in the eye of the chosen.

Anonymous over 5 years ago

The first word in your header, Feras, is the key to this article. It is your opinion, which may not may not be viewed the same way by me or others. But, that would be opinion as well.

After determining whose turn to serve in a friendly ping pong game if someone says "I am a math major" I would sense a subtle humor rather than arrogance. If a MIT student would brag about being a math major only to show that he knows what two plus two is he would not be at MIT, would he?

When you are hearing your fellow students say "We are MIT students", one, I believe there is a truth to that, and two, that is definitely something to brag on - it shows their love, pride and loyalty to MIT. Arrogance? I would question if bragging about being an MIT student should qualify as a sign of arrogance.

You said, "being admitted as an undergraduate at MIT ... by itself does not mean much". I am socked to read that opinion from you as this IS a big deal to the world. In the new student welcome speech this year President Reif said to every student that they are at MIT not by accident. I think I would undermine President's comment if I think otherwise. While I agree that there is a luck factor that plays a role at the very end of the selection process, every student in the final pool of selection are truly hand-picked. And those who made the final cut should indeed be proud.

A freshman, not just at MIT, is a student entering into a new environment, a new life that is away from their family and away from everything that were familiar to them for these many years. The behavior you are pointing out seems somewhat normal at the age where they are close to graduate from being a teenager. Statistically speaking, how many MIT students have we seen that do not success only for being arrogant? Sometimes confidence is also mistaken as arrogance so I would also be careful about the selection of my word.

Which brings a very good point that the smell of newly experiencing freedom sometimes may throw some students into a recklessness of overconfidence, which in turn may hurt them. But that is only ignorance, which eventually will go away, as some people learn through mistakes.

While I disagree with part of your statement "being a student at MIT may not say much alone", I completely agree with the later part: "taking advantage of the remarkable opportunities this university has to offer is what ultimately makes a world of difference".

- From a parent of a freshman

Anthony over 5 years ago

I couldn't agree more on the hyper-focus on grades that seems to increase as the new classes come in. Part of what makes MIT great is the extra work with professors/internships/outside groups.

Yet as competition for limited spots increases, causing an extreme focus on grades and classes, new students don't adjust accordingly and are not prepared to completely shift their thinking. Some may, over time, but would we ever see, for example, the revolts against war on campus today that we saw, for example, in Chomsky's era? I doubt it - god forbid you miss a class.

David over 5 years ago

"""After some arithmetic to clear up the confusion, one freshman declared, I am a math major, with a haughty smirk sprawled across his face."""

None of my course 18 friends (including me!) have been capable of arithmetic since approximately when they first took calculus, so this seems like a dubious claim.

Anonymous over 5 years ago

Pleading ignorance and humility, will someone who knows, please clear up for all of us...is it "If a MIT student would brag about being a math major," or "bragging about being an MIT student..."

Thank you in advance--I never know and go to great and cumbersome lengths to avoid this indefinite article in front of MIT, humbling, such as it is, to be so threatened by one little one-letter word.

Were I a freshman, this grammatical error itself would humble me in short time, as I'm certain an upperclassman would soon find it her or his responsibility to correct me. But I'm not. I'm in the most humbling and awe-inspiring role of all--an (or a) MIT mom. You all are totally amazing--prideful freshman to humble seniors (and grad students). I am thoroughly humbled as I think of my daughter and all of you who individually and corporately impact her everyday. Thanks to all.

Anonymous over 5 years ago

It must have taken her hours to find that grammatical error. I thought the article was flawless and very well communicated. Well done. As an upperclassman I agree with it completely. Although the hype dies down after first semester. They will feel the same way about the incoming class and the circle of life goes on.

Anonymous over 5 years ago

In my experience at MIT (class of 2011) I encountered exactly 0 people who used their place at MIT to brag about how awesome they are in a serious manner. So many students are constantly subjected to the "Oh, you go to MIT? You must be really smart!" from strangers that it becomes almost a joke. Solve simple math? "Math major here, no worries, I got this." Screw the top off a jar? "Putting that physics degree to work!"

MIT students are a lot of things - some nice, some not so nice, some arrogant and some humble, but not one that I've ever met has ever tried to use his station at MIT as serious justification in any argument.

Anon \'13 over 5 years ago

This attitude is in no way limited to freshmen.