Campus Life

Surviving the first year at the Institute

Sage advice for eager freshmen

Starting at any college can be nerve-wracking for freshman, and MIT is no different. Freshmen are in a new environment and worried about academics and managing their lives — all without the familiar comfort of home and their parents. With so many things to do, from registering for classes to living alone for the first time to doing laundry, students can feel overwhelmed. Luckily, there are a number of encouraging support systems around campus.

According to Julie B. Norman, senior associate dean and director of the Office of Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming (UAAP), new students are challenged in two ways: academics and time management. She says that most students are used to being the brightest kids in their high school classes, but when they arrive at the Institute, everyone else is just as bright. For the first time in their lives, many students are average, or even below average (although that average is still very high). Norman explains that “students need to recalibrate where they fit” in school. The GIR classes are intense with p-sets and tests, so students need to adjust to the pace of an MIT education.

Students also face a big transition from being at home to becoming independent and having to take care of their own laundry, medical issues, and food. Freshmen can easily reach out to several different resources if they are struggling in any way. Apart from the freshmen advisors and associate advisors, Student Support Services (S3) is another resource for students to take advantage of. S3 is designed to be an easily accessible support system for students’ needs. David Randall, associate dean of S3, encourages students to reach out, even though “students are very independent so it is hard for them to ask for help.” Students who visit S3 are treated based on their needs, but Randall’s first piece of advice? “Start with the basics — get a good night’s sleep, eat well, exercise.”

Some MIT students, not just freshmen, seem to think that they are the only ones who seek help at S3, but they are not alone. Based on the Class of 2012, about 56 percent of students had visited S3 at least once during their four years, and those who use S3 visit three times on average.

In addition, an early warning system called the fifth week flag captures students’ attentions in case they are struggling with a class. Last year, about 20 percent of the Class of 2015 received fifth week flags, though 80 percent of those students ended up passing the class. These statistics are encouraging and show that students can succeed even if they struggle.

Apart from academics, some freshmen are worried about signing up for too many activities and not having the time to do everything. Time management is a valuable, necessary skill for a successful year at MIT. With over 600 clubs and organizations offered to students, it’s easy to join several, but it’s impossible to keep up academics and sleep with too many. Freshmen need to watch for balance and avoid overextending themselves. Upperclassmen often find that their priorities are clearer, so they are involved with only two or three, rather than six, organizations. Don’t do everything in the first semester, because there’s still plenty of time remaining. Choose what you can do rather than everything you want to do, and “pace yourself,” as Norman emphasizes.

All in all, freshmen should stay open-minded, and explore everything they can — academics, clubs and organizations, Cambridge and Boston, IAP, UROP, etc. A fun resource is the list of 101 things to do before graduation. Some people really try to attempt all 101, while some who don’t regret the experiences they might have missed in their four years. The point of all this is, explore the fabulous place that is MIT!

“Enjoy the journey; this is a phenomenal place, an amazing place to be part of,” Norman said, “You can’t be too focused on the end goal to finish your degree — it’s what happens along the way.”

Finally, Randall stresses the importance of self-confidence for all incoming freshmen. “Try not to let MIT rattle your self-confidence. No matter how you do on that first exam or p-set, you are still an MIT student. You belong here and got in for a reason — the Admissions Office doesn’t make mistakes.”

Norman agrees, “We all believe that the freshmen belong here. We believe that you all have the potential to be successful here.”

1 Comment
Anonymous almost 12 years ago

I am a P '15 and I agree with everything that is written in this article but students not only have a hard time reaching out for help...they DON'T reach out for help. It is important that they get to know their GRT and to make sure they make good friends that will help them. My son got very depressed and if it wasn't for his frat brothers he would have never gotten the help that he needed.