Over the next 12 months, I’m going to learn the entire 4-year MIT curriculum for computer science, without taking any classes.
UPDATE: The MIT Challenge is now complete. I finished on September 26, 2012, just under 12 months after beginning October 1st, 2011. Click on “See More…” for any class to access my exams, official solutions or code I wrote.
Answers to some common questions:
- How much did I work during the challenge? In the beginning roughly 60 hours/week. Later more like 35.
- Did you get a degree from MIT? No. See the talk above for my motivation to do the entire education without credit.
- Did you do everything an MIT student does? No. I did the exams and programming projects for a curriculum that is very similar to MIT’s own (I had to swap some lab classes and humanities requirements for other classes). The number of credit hours is the same though. Check here for MIT’s actual 4-year CS curriculum as a comparison to my own. (Note: This link has been updated as the old one was dead, however I haven’t checked whether there were changes made to the CS curriculum since I did the MIT Challenge)
- Did you use textbooks or lecture videos? Everything is in the “See More…” pane for each class. Please check it out if you’re unsure for each class.
- What order did you do the classes in? In the order listed below. Except some were taken at the same time. However if you followed this order serially you wouldn’t miss any prerequisites.
- Did you grade the work yourself? Yes. Admittedly, this introduces some degree of error over having a professor grade my work. However, most of the exams are quantitative with solution sets that have grading rubrics, so it limits the error somewhat. I encourage anyone to check out my actual exam results and compare them against the solutions. In many of the exams that had lengthy calculations required, I allowed for part marks provided the concepts taught in the course were applied correctly. I believe the provided grading is arguably a fair one, but if you wanted to take the strong position that any mistake (such as forgetting to carry a minus sign) invalidates an entire question, this would reduce some of my grades. I’ve gone through and recalculated under these more severe restrictions and it would put the final exams for 18.01, 5.111, 18.03, 6.002 and 6.013 below the passing threshold (the other 28 classes were either unaffected or stayed above passing). I believe the original grading was fair, if imperfect, but these later calculations show the impact of my decision to use part marks.
- Do you believe everyone shouldn’t go to university and do this instead? Of course not. I did my undergrad in university and I don’t regret it. My goal for this project was to see if it would be possible–to push the expectations for how long, how costly and how conventionally an education must be obtained.
Computers have always fascinated me. From finance to Facebook, algorithms are the hidden language that underlies most of our life. The largest transformations of our world are being written in code, and advancements in artificial intelligence allow us to use computers to understand what it means to be human.
Beyond the poetry of the machine, computer science is also immensely practical. Fortunes have been made and revolutions sparked on lines of code.
I’ve always wanted to speak that language. But, I didn’t want to invest four years of my life and hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn it.
I’m embarking on this experiment because I want to show that learning doesn’t require acceptance boards and SAT tests, thousands of dollars in debt, or even the 4-year pace most students assume is necessary to learn a subject.
Will I fail? It’s definitely a possibility—people a lot smarter than myself struggle through immense workloads at institutions like MIT, and I’m attempting to learn the same material at 4x the speed, without the benefit of instructors.
All I can promise is to share what I find with you. Listed below are all 33 classes I’ll be covering. For each of them, I’ll write the final exam and you can compare my answers to the MIT official solutions. I’ll also post any failures, so you can be sure I’m not omitting my mistakes.
Post-MIT Challenge Update
Since the challenge was completed, I’m using this space to share some of the new courses I complete or programs I’ve finished related to computer science.
- WordSmith – This is an AI I built that plays Scrabble. Free and open-source.
LEARNING PROGRESS (33/33):
Click to the titles to view videos, access the courses and see my results
6.01: Introduction to EE and CS I – COMPLETED
This is a good class, but I don’t recommend taking it if you have no programming background, since it dives right into object-orientation with relatively little explanation. I really enjoyed the blending of more advanced concepts from AI and state machines into the core course. The course notes are free and excellent, although a lot of the focus is on robotics which use specialized equipment I don’t have access to. (As a side note, many people have pointed out that the final exam I wrote wasn’t fully comprehensive, you can read my in-depth reply here) Note: The original course I took has been switched by MIT. Here is a replacement.
Scott’s rating: 4/5
- Access the course material for free
- Download Code
- Project: State-Machine Library
- Project: Bayesian State Estimator
- Project: A* Pathfinding Algorithm
- My exam results
- Actual MIT Solutions
6.006: Introduction to Algorithms – COMPLETED
An introduction to algorithms and complexity theory. The course provides a good opportunity to apply algorithmic design concepts (dynamic programming, greedy algorithms, etc.) to actual programming problems, giving this class a concreteness that was missing in 6.042J. Unfortunately, I did not realize the final exam wasn’t comprehensive before writing it, so I’ve also included my quizzes I had done for practice. I completed most of the assignments, however as there were no solutions, I have left them ungraded.
Scott’s rating: 4/5
6.002: Circuits and Electronics – COMPLETED
This course covers the basics of digital and analog circuits. The exam was quite challenging and it marked the first exam where I actually ran out of time running it. Unfortunately the official solutions are MIT-access only, so I can’t upload them here as a comparison. This class serves as a basis for many of the later EE classes, so I’m sure I’ll get another chance to really be tested on the core concepts.
Scott’s rating: 4/5
6.046J: Design and Analysis of Algorithms – COMPLETED
One of my favorite courses thus far! The class explores some of the more advanced concepts in algorithms not found in 6.006 such as proving particular problems are NP-Complete, approximation algorithms, encryption, sublinear algorithms and parallel processing. I had to be careful though since the OCW version of this course is prior to MIT’s curriculum change where 6.006 was added, so it covers substantially easier material than the current versions.
Scott’s rating: 5/5
6.034: Artificial Intelligence – COMPLETED
Great class that covered a survey of different AI techniques including search, constraint propagation, neural networks, kernel machines, concept learning and natural language processing. I also completed 6 assignments for this class which required me to learn the programming language Scheme. One of the challenges with writing exams for this class was the variety in the syllabi, since so many different techniques were covered and the specifics differed from class to class.
Scott’s rating: 5/5
6.003: Signals and Systems – COMPLETED
This class teaches the basics of signal and systems analysis, extending the mathematical techniques first discussed in 18.03. While useful for more than just circuits, the class is particularly important for understanding things like frequency modulation, audio filters, noise reduction and even serves as a basis for image analysis and manipulation. This also was the first exam which I failed initially, luckily I improved and scored a 69% on my second attempt. Note: The original course I took isn’t available anymore. Here is a replacement.
Scott’s rating: 4/5
24.241: Logic I – COMPLETED
Intro to sentential and predicate calculus, their derivation systems and metatheoretical proofs. I found the class rather dry and technical, but the class did offer good practice into more rigorous proof methods, as opposed to the more informal styles taught in computer science classes. Unfortunately, the exam answers I used to correct my paper aren’t public, so I can’t post them here.
Scott’s rating: 3/5
14.01: Principles of Microeconomics – COMPLETED
I had already taken microeconomics when doing my business degree, so the vast majority of this course was a recap. However, since MIT has a much stronger math basis than my alma mater, it was refreshing to see more rigorous technical definitions of many of the concepts. I spent a little under four days on this course, so most of my errors were from forgetting technical definitions and formulas since none were provided on the exam.
Scott’s rating: 3/5
6.013: Electromagnetics and Applications – COMPLETED
Without a doubt, the hardest class I’ve taken in the program thus far. The class makes heavy use of vector calculus, transforms and complex notation in addition to generally extending the principles of electromagnetism taught in 8.02. A strong foundation in the topics of 6.003, 6.002, 18.02, 18.03 and 8.02 is a good idea if you want to attempt this class. I only passed the exam just barely, so it’s definitely a topic I’d like to revisit and refine at some point in the future, since it expressed a lot of interesting ideas.
Scott’s rating: 3/5
14.20: Industrial Organization – COMPLETED
Intro economics courses typically simplify analysis by assuming perfect competition or monopoly. This class removes that assumption and considers how firms compete strategically against one another. This class really sparked my interest in learning more about game theory. Unfortunately I didn’t realize the sample final exam was fairly limited as a coverage of the content, but it was the best I could do.
Scott’s rating: 3/5
14.48J: Economics of Education – COMPLETED
Given the nature of my challenge, this was a fun class since it explored the various theories of education. Most of the class felt like a discussion in basic econometrics, as it appears the literature is inconclusive on many core ideas (are smaller classes better? do voucher programs work?). The class also explored the differences between the standard human-capital theory of education versus the signaling explanation, although, once again, the literature presented was mostly inconclusive.
Scott’s rating: 3/5
6.005: Elements of Software Construction – COMPLETED
This is MIT’s required software development class. It was a tough one, not because it is too intellectually demanding, but because of the amount of work. It consists of 3 team projects, 3 individual projects and several labs (assignments, in their own right). I was hesitant about taking this class on because the time constraints of the challenge make it difficult to take on classes like this, however, in the end I figured the only way was simply to do all the work.
I managed to finish the class in about 3 weeks, spread over around two months. It was one of the most rewarding classes, even if it was also the most time consuming. I would have liked to stay longer with each project, particularly the final instant messaging application I built from scratch, to embellish it with more features. The class is an excellent choice if you’re already a novice programmer, but want to learn more high-level design ideas for not just writing working code, but well-designed code.
I’ve posted all of the projects I wrote here, although you’ll need Java installed to run them. I also included the write-ups for the three design projects (sorry for the lack of contrast in the scans!)
Scott’s rating: 5/5
- Access the course material for free
- All Code
- Project Write-Ups
- MIT Provided Material and Assignment Specs
6.801: Machine Vision – COMPLETED
This class teaches the basics of how to use computer algorithms to see, primarily under the context of guiding a robot to perform actions based on those images. Topics include binary image processing, edge detection, Gaussian extended surfaces, orientation and photogrammetry. The course was evaluated by two take home quizzes and counted as one of two graduate-level classes I took in the challenge.
Overall, the class was challenging, using techniques of Fourier analysis, vector calculus, linear algebra, quadratic programming and calculus of variations, so it was likely the most challenging class I’ve taken in applying mathematics. Unfortunately there were no programming assignments, which would have been interesting.
Scott’s rating: 5/5
- Access the course material for free
- My Exams
- MIT Official Solutions (and Questions)
6.837: Computer Graphics – COMPLETED
This class teaches the basics of computer graphics, primarily ray tracing, although scanline methods are taught. The evaluation was based entirely on assignments (there were two minor quizzes, but they had no solutions so I didn’t use them). Starting with a basic ray caster and flat shading, the assignments progressively built up the ray tracer to include matte shading, glossy reflections, cast shadows, transparent surfaces with indices of refraction, mirror reflection and procedural texturing. A project was also done on creating a grid acceleration data structure, which has no visual effect but greatly speeds up the relatively slow ray tracing approach to graphics.
Details on the programming environment used are included in the README.rtf for the code. The file is quite large, but it also includes all the images rendered so that you can take a look at the output even if you don’t compile/run the specific scenes in question. (For comparison, MITs official outputs are included as sample_res.pdf for each assignment, so you can see how my raytracer compares). Note: The original course I took changed. Here is a replacement.
Scott’s rating: 5/5
- Access the course material for free
- My Code
- MIT Supplied Code (and Sample Answers)
COSC 545: Theory of Computation – COMPLETED
This class wasn’t an MIT course but a graduate class in the theory of computation taught by Cal Newport at Georgetown University. This was a topic I had really wanted to study after enjoying both of MITs algorithm courses, but the MIT complexity theory course lacked any evaluation tools I could use. Some interesting ideas from the course are which types of problems can be solved by algorithms (meaning there is a process for solving any instance of the problem) and the restrictions on the speed and memory required to solve certain classes.
It also includes an extensive discussion on one of the most important and unsolved problems in mathematics, whether P=NP, which would have profound implications for society depending on its answer and despite decades of work and a one million dollar prize for its solution, nobody has been able to answer it.
There were two exams which I wrote and graded because they were non-cumulative.
Scott’s rating: 5/5
- Access the course material for free
- My Exams
My MIT Challenge TEDx Talk
FAQ for the MIT Challenge
- What rules are you following?
- Are you doing all the assignments, papers and projects?
- Does your curriculum differ from MIT’s?
- What happens if you fail a class?
- Why are you doing this? Do you just love studying?
- Will you get a diploma for doing this?
- You’re doing classes serially, isn’t that just cramming for tests?
- What kind of past experience do you have with the subject?
- I’m a blogger/reporter/journalist–how can I contact you to share the story?
Q) What rules are you following?
Because I’m not enrolled in MIT (or affiliated with them in any way) I’ve had to construct my own rules to make the challenge fair, yet feasible. The basic rules are simple:
- I consider a class successfully completed if I can pass the final exam (which typically means getting a grade of at least 50% although I aim for much higher).
- I write the exam under the same constraints of a student: no looking at the questions or solutions beforehand, no notes or forbidden material, same time constraints (the default is 3 hours if not specified).
- I grade the papers myself, comparing them to the actual MIT solutions. I’ll post both, so anyone can double-check my grading methods.
Keep in mind these are only the minimum requirements of my challenge. For classes which have a significant programming component, I try to do representative programming assignments, to the extent that this is possible.
Q)Are you doing all the assignments, papers and projects?
For theory or math-based classes, final exams are generally a comprehensive basis of evaluation, so I’ll use those as my evaluation. I still end up doing most or parts of the assignments and quizzes as preparation, but since I can’t maintain consistency with this criteria over the entire challenge (many assignments are either unavailable or impossible to evaluate objectively) I’m doing them in an informal manner.
For classes with a significant amount of programming work or practical design problems, I’ll try to complete most the assignments. However, since these are harder to evaluate, I’m still relying on final exams as the major criterion for these classes.
Q) Does your curriculum differ from MIT’s?
I spent nearly a month trying to piece together the closest mirror of MIT’s actual computer science curriculum to follow. Unfortunately, I can’t do this perfectly since some classes are impossible to evaluate (including labs and research classes), and others didn’t have any access online.
I am taking the same number of credit hours as an actual MIT degree, so where I couldn’t take one class, I replaced it with a similar alternative. In terms of volume of knowledge to learn, therefore, my curriculum is similar to the one suggested by MIT to its students.
The only other exception with MIT has to do with electives. I’m taking various non-computer science classes, to best mimic the HASS requirements for MIT students. These aren’t a perfect match, as the online courseware for arts is considerably weaker than for sciences at MIT.
You can see the actual MIT curriculum for computer science here.
Q) What happens if you fail a class?
Given the pace I’m attempting, I think it’s inevitable that I’ll fail a class. My main requirement is that I pass a final exam, so if I fail one, I’m allowing myself to take a different exam after.
My strategy is to take a fail-first approach, to be more efficient with my time on classes where I have several final exams I can use as the basis of evaluation. This is very different from university where a failure can be a real setback. That’s a benefit of self-education over rigid formal institutions.
Q) Why are you doing this? Do you just love studying?
Nobody likes studying, but everyone wants to be smart. Learning, getting to those insights and feeling smarter about a subject are immensely rewarding. Too bad many of us have forgotten this after years of punitive formal education.
I’ll admit, I may be a bit crazy, or arrogant, for wanting to complete a 4-year program in only 12 months. However, my real motivation is to show people that learning faster is possible and that it can be more fun at the same time.
Q) Will you get a diploma for doing this?
No, and that’s exactly the point. Our society incorrectly equates knowledge with accreditation. Getting a piece of paper is great, and for many lines of work, it’s completely necessary. But the equation is made so strongly that people forget the two things are different.
I already have a career as a writer and small business owner. I never want to work for a large corporation, where HR might scrutinize over my lack of a diploma. For me, I just want to learn computer science in case I want to start a new business or work for a start-up.
I have nothing against college. University was an amazing and worthwhile experience for me, and it could be for you as well. All I hope is that by showing an alternative, people who feel the current system doesn’t work for them can find another path.
Q) Isn’t this just cramming for tests?
No, but the difference is subtle. Most the classes build on past concepts, so my goal with each is to develop a deep understanding that I can leverage. Cramming is typically a resort to memorization to quickly pass a test then forget it. Understanding is harder, but not necessarily more time consuming (and a requirement if each class builds on the one before it).
As an update, Since the first four classes, I’ve been proceeding 3-4 classes in parallel at a time. Although this involves reviewing over a much shorter time span than is typical (1 month instead of 1 semester), it increases the benefits of spaced repetition.
Ultimately, my ability to comprehend and perform adequately on higher level classes will be the test of my method, since most freshman classes serve primarily as grounding for more difficult senior classes.
Q) What kind of past experience do you have with the subject?
When I was still in high-school I did a fair bit of programming, mostly creating small computer games. In addition, I’ve taken 4 university-level computer science classes, when I attended the University of Manitoba for my business degree. Yes, I do have some prior experience with programming which will give me an advantage in the challenge. That being said, my prior level of skill isn’t probably far from many of the CS students actually attending MIT and for whom the curriculum is based.
In addition, I completed the first course 8.01 Classical Mechanics as a pilot experiment for this main challenge in July of 2011. Therefore the number of classes I’m attempting in the 12 month period is officially 32.
Q) I’m a blogger/reporter/journalist–how can I contact you to share the story?
You can contact me at email@example.com or use the form here. I’m going to be fairly busy (for obvious reasons) so apologies in advance if it takes me awhile to get through my emails, as I usually go offline when I’m working through a course.
My high school was this tiny sort of dinky-looking building on the campus of a community college, forty-five minutes from my house. It was a public science and engineering magnet high school that runs an annual admission exam and accepts the top scoring kid(s) from each town in our suburban New Jersey county. I applied mostly because a friend was applying, but I got in, and he didn’t.
When MIT hopefuls ask what an MIT student did in high school, they tend to mean “what went on their application.” There is obviously a lot of your high school self that is conveyed when you apply to college, but that filtered projection of an imperfect person isn’t nearly representative of “what you did in high school,” so it’s not what I wanted to write about.
Instead, here’s a genuine account of one way to be a living human person in high school and end up at MIT. Maybe I’ll write about my application some other day so we can like compare the two for fun. But anyway!
During high school, I:
- Didn’t always consider that college was a thing.
I remember sometime during freshman year a classmate was whining about his grades. He mentioned something about colleges, which confused me, because I was under the impression that your college application was literally entirely based on your junior year.
On another freshmany occasion, a classmate was whining about having to do community service, which confused me because our school didn’t have any such requirement. When I asked why he was doing it, he said it was to get service hours to qualify for National Honor Society come our junior year. I think I teasingly called him a nerd, because I still didn’t understand.
It took a bit of time for me to start working as hard as I did in the end. I was never a bad student, but initially more the type to go hard learning things I wanted to and leave Algebra II studying for the lunch period before the test. I sometimes got Bs, and I sometimes got Cs, and it wasn’t the end of the world.
- Learned that college Was in Fact a Thing
I think it’s somewhat silly to contend that there are teenagers who innately want to learn about everything they study in high school - kids who simultaneously care about titrations and ancient civilizations and every important historical figure and his cousin. I mean, maybe they’re out there, but I won’t pretend to be one of them, and I doubt most MIT hopefuls are either. I started getting serious about studying these things when I learned you need good grades for college.
My GPA jumped from a lowish A to a solid A to an even more solid A from my freshman to junior year. It felt good to me to get good grades because good grades are pretty important. But please don’t believe for a second that they’re the most important thing.
- Made “”“art”””
What I did spend a lot of time doing that first year of high school (and all of the other years too) was messing around with my totally legal copy of Adobe Creative Suite to make ridiculous creations for fun.
Here is the first GIF I ever made, feat. Robby circa early 2011. wow. Amazing
(at that point I hadn’t yet figured out how to infinitely loop GIFs, so to preserve the historical integrity of the piece, you’ll have to reload the page if you want to watch it over and over again.)
Eventually I got somewhat better at the design software I was using and procrastinated on my schoolwork by making these single-afternoon art projects. Most of them are sitting away on my old computer, but I started uploading a few on YouTube in junior year for the world to see.
random stuff like this:
- Spent an ungodly amount of time on Tumblr
In hindsight, I am positive that signing up for a Tumblr account was actually a terrible idea. I don’t know if I can think of any other activity that’s so consistently effective for distraction. On the flip side, I now have an Internet archive of rambly thoughts and writings (and teenage angst) from my high school days, which I think is maybe worth something.
- Worked at a daycare my sophomore summer
My mom told me she heard about a daycare in the town next to ours that had job openings for teenagers. I super love little kids and I thought that sounded like fun, plus a good opportunity to practice my Spanish, since that’s what most of the staff and kids spoke. I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to physically melting into a puddle than when I made a two-year-old stop crying by sitting her on my lap and reading to her. Or more intimidated by another human being than by the belligerent five-year-old Carla… like, I was just trying to be nice and help the kids with their game when she told me I was too old to play with them. :(
Basically I’m horrible at any skill potentially related to being in a play (speaking loudly, memorizing lines, not being terrified of the audience, acting) which totally didn’t stop me from being in a play in sophomore year. I think I was pretty awful, but I got to play the granddaughter of this girl I thought was really cute and our characters hugged at the end. Also a girl who I think realized I was feeling nervous told me afterwards that her mom commented that my character was very believable, which made me feel a bit less unconfident. After the last show, the upperclassmen who gave funny superlatives to the participants sarcastically named me “loudest.”
One thing that was great about my high school was that we had to take classes about how to do research and then each do a project ourselves. My project was about the effect of acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) on the drought stress of Solanum Lycopersicum (tomato) plants, which I grew from seeds then deprived of water then chopped up at the stems like the sadistic maniac I am. Heh heh. Anyway, it was a pretty basic high school thing without any fancy equipment, but I landed first place in my category at the tristate level science fair. “Great project,” said the judges on the scoring sheet, “but work on your presentation skills.” (I was also super nervous to present.)
I definitely enjoyed doing research that year, though I was never invested in it enough to go to ISEF or anything. The following summer I arranged a research internship at Rutgers University, for which I pretty much functioned as a data analysis slave. I was okay with grunt work, though, since I could listen to music and hang out with the cool big college kids at lunchtime and my professor was really cute and old.
- “Creatively interpreted” school projects
Another thing I did for fun in high school was filming dumb movies and then putting bad special effects on them. I would also usually try to find ways to make school assignments more interesting by incorporating the things I enjoyed. As a result, my teachers were often confused.
A lovely gem I put together for an English project. If you want just a few seconds to summarize it, I suggest 1:33 or 0:40 when I wave to a ten-year-old kid in the park laughing at us from afar.
For Digital Electronics literally I just had to submit a raw video of the thing working, but I noticed that the unedited videos didn’t have a satisfactory amount of flying CGI skeletons in them, which resulted in masterpieces like this.
- Hung out with Robby and his family
You might be asking “who exactly is this Robby fellow?” which might then prompt descriptions of a boisterous, fluffy-haired boy who talks about neuroscience and has a good/crazy/confusing sense of humor, depending on who you’re asking. Robby and I have been dating for four years now and we’re both rising sophomores at MIT and I think we’re maybe cute.
We used to walk to the Dunkin Donuts after school to hang out before going home. Gradually that turned into us usually both going to his home, where we watched like every episode of The Office and I got to know his family. Robby’s dad went to MIT, and he talks about it sometimes. They still have the McCormick Hall sign that he stole as an undergrad as a decoration in their house.
Robby and I and a couple of other friends got to know our janitor after school, who was cool and funny and occasionally gave wise life advice. Robby would do a screechy voice and yell “BILL!” and Bill would yell “wahhhsahhhhp” and I would laugh at them for their antics. One day after school he said he needed a haircut, so Robby helped shave his head.
Somehow my friends and I got it in our heads that terrible puns should be made as often as possible (of course not to imply that I have at all stopped believing this). We used to amuse/enrage each other by thinking of some garbage wordplay for every situation.
Occasionally we would utilize these “skills” in our classes. In perhaps my proudest moment, I presented a project in chemistry class about the family of elements we were assigned - carbon, silicon, germanium, tin, lead. Gertrude Germanium was the mother in the family who loved instrumental music. There was this compelling back story I wrote about her: she was a stay-at-home mom who was finally following her passion by taking music classes at our local community college, and training to lead an orchestra one day. But as she wasn’t yet a full conductor, she was only a semi-conductor. (ba dum tish. sorry.)
- Played a lot of League and Minecraft
On League of Legends, my favorite role was top lane and my favorite champion was a mad chemist who poisoned enemies and wore bandages for pants. On Minecraft I would stay up till 5 a.m. on school nights building tunnels and a sponge-dungeon and an Omar Hotel on my friend Omar’s server Omarville. My mom is really sweet and would come into my room like “here, I poured you a cup of coffee, you’ve been in your room so long… you must have a lot of work today.” ._. Not exactly.
- Took AP tests without taking the classes
AP self-study was a surprisingly big thing at my school, where we had the option to sign up to take any AP test we wanted. Robby and I saw it as a way to motivate ourselves to learn material for interesting classes (economics, psychology, comparative government..) that weren’t offered in our limited curriculum. I self-studied ten of them in total, and got mostly 5s and some 4s. Robby is I guess more hardcore than I am and self-studied 16 (?) and got 5s on all but two… that nerd.
- Entered like, a ton of random contests & competitions
Here’s a friendly step-by-step guide to being Junior Year Michelle, i.e. a high school kid with some interests that were not even vaguely touched upon by anything in her high school’s class offerings, but who wanted some formal way to practice them.
Sooo step one, you go on to Google dot com and type in “animation for high schoolers.” When nothing relevant comes up, you get sort of discouraged, but you keep going - “animation contests for high schoolers,” “video contests December 2012,” etc, etc. Eventually, you’ll find something along the lines of “NASA Aura Communications Contest” or “High School Video Contest - Explain any neuroscience concept in a viewer-friendly format.” It’s due in two weeks, and you know some people who like biology, so you team up with them and decide to give it a go. You do the animating, your friend does the script-writing and audio, and two weeks later you’ve got a super adorable new animation in which smiling neuroglia tell you what they do for the brain.
Another science visualization contest, starring… stars. Baby ones:
(If you want to make me happy you can watch this video and exaggeratedly comment about how much you liked it because I honestly spent like 10 hours getting the stupid gas cloud to spin properly and we only got 2nd place and I need validation from the Internet for my efforts.)
Uhh. But yeah! I entered 15 or 20 of these over the span of a year and won at least some award or mention (or $$$$) in I think 11 of them. I had a lot of fun making cool videos and pursuing a passion and crushing the brittle skulls of the competition between my hands. (☉‿☉✿)
Also there was one video contest held by the United States Treasury and the grand prize was getting to meet Treasurer Rosa Rios, whose signature you’ll find on any recent US paper money and who seems to be up to some interesting stuff now re: women on currency. We had this 40 minute conversation in which she told me about her job and life. She also told me that her family calls money with her signature on it “Rosie bucks.”
One day I was sitting in class when my friend sitting next to me drew a little rectangle on a piece of graph paper and made an “o” in a cell at the bottom. She asked if I knew how to play Connect Four, to which I responded with a countermove, which ended with the graph paper being covered in rectangle "game boards" after we’d played like 10 times that period. Soon I started playing the game with whomever was sitting next to me and they started playing the game with whomever was sitting next to them and before long it infected a reasonably sized group of students, which culminated in a Connect Four club meeting after school with every member as the co-president. We wrote up an elaborate set of by-laws and devised a ranking system and I made an advertisement (see below) for new members that we mass-mailed out to the school.
- Quit the National Honor Society
I joined NHS because someone told me colleges liked that kind of thing, and I quit for a similar reason.
If you come from a high school where a lot of students are interested in going to top colleges, you’ll know what I mean when I say that often high school involvement in service activities can be bull..uh…stuff. Not all of it, of course. But maybe you know at least one or two people who are half-heartedly volunteering so they can write their college essay about the glimpse in the poor child’s eyes that changed their entire perspective on life, and how they’re a really, really good person, like seriously. How could MIT reject someone who definitely totally cares about poor people? Does MIT hate poor people?… should we anonymously troll the blogs with this accusation? I think yes.
And okay, you might point out that even apathetic volunteering can have positive effects on communities, which is true, but beside the point. I got volunteer hours for NHS through school club participation and counting my Rutgers internship (I didn’t get paid so.. sort of counts?) and by volunteering at this community-funded thrift shop where I cleaned and organized clothing. I even sometimes exaggerated the number of hours I spent cleaning so I could uphold my membership in an organization for students who were honest, morally upright, examples for their peers… which I thought would help me get into MIT. eugh. I never wanted to be that person, and cleaning never felt so dirty.
But then… cawwwlege. But dreams. But ends, not means. It doesn’t seem like an easy dilemma when you’re standing right in the midst of the mania, where so many of my peers in NHS were standing alongside me. There’s this crazy culture of 8% acceptance rates and SAT prep and CollegeConfidential that compels high-achieving kids to feel like this superficial stuff is necessary, and so I don’t think it’s their fault for having this misconception. But let me repeat that it is a misconception.
I had a friend whom I told I was going to quit NHS. He’s this friendly absent-minded genius type who does physics and is MIT ’17. He was never eligible to join NHS in the first place because I think he had the record for the most lates and/or detentions (from accidentally breaking silly rules) out of anyone in our high school. The first time I saw him he was actually sitting diagonal from me in detention and working on some math thing. I don’t remember exactly what he said when I told him I was quitting NHS, but it was something like “Congratulations, man.” He was so against the institution of kids feigning interest in community service (and recognized that it wasn’t actually necessary for college) that he was at one point trying to talk to as many underclassmen as possible about it to start a mini-revolution in the way people think about admissions. Do something if it’s meaningful to you, essentially, and don’t do it if it’s not.
Here, I dug this up for you guys.
- Helped classmates with homework
I have always been somewhat uneasy with individualist attitudes. For me it’s utilitarian: if someone is struggling with something you can do, you help them out, save them some struggle, and feel happier yourself knowing that.
I often tried to find little ways to steer classmates in the right directions. In junior year a close friend was dealing with hard things that made it more difficult for them to work than for me, so I would say like “I’ll do half of this English homework for you if you do the other half.” I think maybe a lot of people would view that as a bad thing, but I personally didn’t agree.
Robby loved his French class. In addition to purely enjoying the class, he thought the French teacher (called Madame) was a cool and wonderful person. I never personally took French, but I ended up getting to know her because Robby would always bring me along when he went to her room during lunch and after school to hang out and talk about random stuff.
- Had mixed relationships with my teachers
I think I overall had positive relationships with my teachers. I mean, I was a good student in most classes, didn’t talk too much, and often had fun with their projects. I definitely wasn’t like a “favorite student,” but I was rarely troublemaking either. Rarely, as in, not never.
There were a few teachers who I wasn’t on great terms with. The one that comes to mind is this teacher who I guess I found to be arrogant, and would express old-fashioned opinions that really upset me on principle. I didn’t like him, and I didn’t care whether he liked me either.
I once was sitting in the first row of his class drawing a cute picture of my friend Joanna (MIT ’18, actually) when he started talking about how if you start a company, you have to make sure that all your employees are working and there aren’t any lazy “bad apples” drawing pictures all the time. Tee hee. I would sometimes write dumb stuff on my homework assignments and he would write “not funny.” I was, on one occasion, defiant. People have different opinions about how important respect for authority is; most people believe it’s a good idea to respect the authority of your teachers, even if you don’t much respect the teacher themself. But I don’t know. I’m presenting without comment the fact that I occasionally didn’t.
On the other hand, I had notably positive relationships with some of the teachers that I liked. For example, I remember in sophomore year there were two physics teachers who I thought were the coolest ever. One of them would write and sing silly physics songs in class which made me sooooo happy, so my friend Matt had her record one of them for me over an instrumental track as a gift for my birthday. The song was called “Delta P” to the tune of “Let it be.”
~When I find myself in a collision, Isaac Newton comes to me…. speaking words of wisdom, Delta P, Delta P. ~
The next year, as per a friend’s (probably joking) suggestion, I asked this same teacher if she thought it would be a good idea if I threw a surprise 70th birthday party for the other physics teacher, whom I had the previous year for my engineering class. She said (enthusiastically) yes, so I invited the whole school and organized food and decorations and everyone yelled “surprise” then sang a cute birthday song written by my Biology teacher for the event.
*obligatory party horn noise*
- Was clearly the best dressed at my senior prom
One thing that I tried to never do in high school was to take anything too seriously, and to follow the wisdom of (my crush) Aubrey Plaza to “Make all your decisions based on how hilarious it would be if you did it.” Here are some cute pictures of Robby and me at prom.
- Co-wrote a graduation speech
..about how important it is to collaborate with peers, to mutually believe in outlandish goals, to do instead of think about doing. To be a bit crazy, and a little bit silly; to always go out of your way.
A lot has changed in my life since then, and I think that I’ve learned a lot too. But I hope I never learn to do things that I don't find meaningful or enjoyable. I think that’s the bottom line.