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Advice to First-year College Students

This advice is most relevant to my alma mater MIT, but probably even applies at Cal. This is the talk I wish someone had given me before my freshman year.

Yes, the year I entered MIT, 1970, is figuratively a million years ago. But everything statistical in this column is an indisputable fact.

You have been the best student in every academic class since Kindergarten. At the very least, you were in the top 1 percent. I am going to tell you something you could easily figure out, but aren’t motivated to think about because you don’t think it applies to you. It does. Even though MIT stopped publishing class rankings shortly before I arrived, you’ll have a pretty good sense of where you stand relative to your peers.

The odds are 1 in 1400 that you will be the top student in your class. They are 1 in 14 that you will be in the top 100 students, and a 1 percent chance of being in the top 1%. (Thanks for the math, Joe Edwards) It’s a simple statistical fact. If your very identity is based on your being the best student (as mine was), you are in for a rude awakening. You have been a big fish in a small pond. You are now a small fish in a big pond. As we used to say, “Getting an MIT education is like trying to get a drink of water from a fire hose.”

This is likely to generate anxiety and perhaps even depression. Even 50 years ago, MIT had mental health resources I never thought to tap.  Today you can and should tap them if you need to. Yes, you can motor through mild anxiety and depression by yourself, or with the help of your friends. But they are not trained mental health professionals, and if either your anxiety or depression is severe, get free help from a counselor.

Here are several things I was told that made my MIT education go better, and might smooth yours:

* “Statistically, someone has to be in the bottom percentile.”

* “We wouldn’t have admitted you if you couldn’t do the work. You can do the work.”

* “Do you know what they call the person who came in last in their class in medical school? Doctor.”

This does not mean you should not work hard and strive for the best grades possible. You should. You will be amply rewarded if you graduate, no matter what your GPA. Admittedly I never worked in science or engineering, where the situation is different, but I was never asked for my transcript until I applied to be a teacher (turns out you need a C average to be a teacher in California. I just made it.). Still, except for my job teaching 8th grade U.S. history, every job I ever had stemmed from the fact that I graduated from MIT. (Ask an upperclass student about “ring tapping.”)

In conclusion let me say that my four years at the ‘Tute would have gone better had someone told me this all at once before I arrived, rather than dribbling it out over four years.


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