The Firehose, Part I

Adapting to College, Halfway Across the World

October 29, 2020

Getting an education from MIT is like taking a drink from a firehose.

- Jerome Weisner, MIT President 1971-80

I wake up. It is 6:30 AM.

No, it is 1:30 AM.

No, it is 2 PM, and my parents are waking me up to have lunch.

No, it is 11:30 PM, and I woke up from my one hour nap to make it through one more recitation where I feel overwhelmed by the fact that I haven’t had time to review the material before the class.

I barely got the last pset due on time, and I collapse onto my bed at 2:00 AM on Friday night, exhausted from my deadlines and how pressing they feel.

I certainly have had mixed feelings about this semester - although I had many ideas about how my first semester would look like (even as a virtual semester), this was certainly not among the things I had expected.

So what does a typical day look like? It is hard to say when you are nine and a half hours (now ten and a half - thanks to daylight savings time) away from where a large number of your classmates or professors are. So instead of breaking down my day by schedule, I thought I would break it down by the components that stay constant instead and describe my initial feelings about them.


Sometime over the summer, I switched over my schedule completely to EST because I knew a large number of activities would be taking place in evenings in EST which I would want to attend.

It certainly has been more difficult than I expected. Early in the semester, I went to be at 7 or 8 AM and woke up anywhere between 1 and 3 PM. On the bright side, I was working almost totally on an EST schedule so I did manage to get everything done when I was supposed to. On the negative side, I missed a lot of the sunlight I otherwise wished I got to experience - I am typically most productive in the mornings or extremely late at night.

One day, when I felt more tired than usual, I slept the night, deciding I didn’t really fancy staying awake that night, and since then I have shifted into this weird IST-EST hybrid where I sometimes sleep ~3 hours in the night, ~3 hours in the afternoon, and 1 hour naps in the evening whenever I feel too tired to function. While this hybrid feels good, as I get to spend a bit more time around my family when they are awake, it does leave me pretty groggy and half-asleep during some of my classes and lectures, especially since they start at around 8:30 PM and last all the way until 12:30 AM (and some days, until 2AM and 6:30 AM).

Yeah, it is rough, I know. All the internationally-located students developed their own methods to cope - some vary their sleep schedule day-by-day as I do; others stick to normal schedules in their timezone and prefer watching recorded classes and doing stuff asynchronously.

For me, I enjoy balancing out my academics by meeting new people and participating in different club activities, so I didn’t really have an option other than picking the former. While my interactions with others have often made up for the difficulties I had in adjusting, it really doesn’t feel sustainable to maintain this in the long run.


So what are classes at MIT like?

- someone, somewhere, probably

They are certainly different from what I am used to, I must say.

Most of the classes I have taken in my life, in a wide variety of contexts, have been lecture-style classes, which for me has primarily worked in this way - professors/instructors come and talk about the topic, take questions at the end, and then depart.

At MIT, the classes I am taking this fall, for the most part, follow a lecture and recitation format - live lectures are pretty similar to what I am used to, except professors check Zoom chats and answer questions as they go. A couple of my classes have pre-recorded lectures, so I didn’t get to interact much with the instructors themselves, but I like the material so much that I don’t mind as much.

Recitations are new to me - for any prospective international students not used to them, these are smaller groups that meet once or twice weekly to go over the week’s content together under the supervision of an instructor or teaching assistant. Different classes operate recitations differently, although most are typically a hybrid of solving problems and going over the theory discussed in lectures. The exact ratio between the two varies from class to class, and even instructor to instructor, so it isn’t really easy to describe exactly how they work, but that is in essence what happens during recitation.

We also have office hours for most of my classes, where we can either drop in (or schedule an appointment beforehand) and get any queries answered one-on-one by our instructors.

Every week, we have homework (called problem sets or psets for short) that we need to submit. For me, most of these deadlines fall on Friday, and they are by far the most time-consuming activity of the week - psets at MIT are hard!

Other than 12-unit lecture-recitation-pset classes, I am also taking a few discovery classes. Discovery classes are designed to help us explore and take a look at different majors. Again, these differ in structure. Some invite different professors (and sometimes alumni) to talk about the work they are doing right now, and the things they are involved in, to help give us a clearer picture of the kind of work you can do after pursuing coursework in that field. Others facilitate discussion with guest lecturers and help us learn a bit more about different aspects of the subject. There was a very nice MIT Admissions blog post about one of the discovery classes I am taking - I’ll let it describe what we are learning about. For my discovery classes, I typically need to write a brief commentary or reflection on that week’s discussion or some readings covering the same topic. I enjoy them a lot - given that all my 12-unit classes are mathematical in nature, they do provide a lovely break from working on solving pset problems.

Speaking of breaks, it is 2 PM now, and I need to go have lunch. I’ll be back soon with another post on freshman life at MIT.

© 2021 Sagnik Anupam
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