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Enhancing the First Year at MIT


Why is exploration important / valuable? And how can students pursue multiple interests while at MIT? Consider these points of reference…

  • A thorough needs analysis conducted by over 50 students in the Designing the First Year at MIT course (Spring ’18) determined that flexibility to explore was one of the top needs expressed by students.
  • 30% of students will change their major and ~ 7% of seniors will say that if they had the opportunity to do it all again, they would have picked a different major.
  • Within five years of graduating, 75% of MIT undergrad alums are working in a field not directly related to the major they studied at MIT.
  • 100% of students complete a HASS concentration. Many HASS concentrations are only 2 classes away from a minor.
  • 16% of students double major. 27% of students complete at least 1 minor, 3%complete 2. 23% of students who double major also earn at least 1 minor.
  • MIT offers composite majors (e.g. 5-7), flexible majors (e.g. 2A), and interdisciplinary HASS majors (e.g. 21E) that allow students to pursue multiple interests without the challenge of completing two full majors.

Won’t this “water down” the GIRs or make MIT “easy”?

  • While the experiment gives students more flexibility regarding the GIRs, all students will still need to pass all 6 required science core subjects. The experiment gives students the ability to modify the pacing of the GIRs and to remove some of the grade-related pressure, but it does not make the GIRs easier or less important.
  • Added flexibility in the first-year will also enable students to spend more time exploring fields of interest and could lead to more (or better) UROPs, project classes, and theses later on in their undergraduate experience. These types of experiences truly bring “mens et manus” to life and are often the most rigorous and informative experiences students have. Exploring majors earlier has the potential to lead to more satisfaction and more energy to pursue challenging projects.

What are the potential benefits to students?

  • Less pressure to take 3-4 GIRs in the first semester: Science core GIRs can still be P/NR later, so students could use the time in the fall to explore.
  • GIRs that won’t bring down GPAs: This might lead to more opportunities for students to focus on learning new things instead of stressing about grades.
  • Freedom to challenge themselves: Students will be able to take advanced versions like 18.022 or 8.022 without fear of impact on their GPA.

What can first-year students do with this added flexibility? How can they better imagine what their first-year at MIT could be like?

Students can …

  1. Talk with people. They can start with the Academic Expo. First-year students should reach out to Undergraduate Administrators in each department to ask questions and find out about opportunities in that department.
  2. Participate in an advising seminar.
  3. Do a UROP in a department that interests them.
  4. Do an Internship/Externship.
  5. Try out non-credit activities.
  6. Take exploration or discovery subjects.

Given the experiment, what is a sensible model for a first-year fall schedule?

  • In the past, the classic model that most MIT first-years have followed for the fall has been: 3 science core GIRs + 1 CI-H. The CUP experiment allows more opportunities for exploration, so one sound approach is for students to take 2 science core GIRs + 1 HASS (not necessarily CI-H) + 12 units of academic exploration + 9 units of discovery, advising seminars, etc.

Are there any risks students should be aware of?

  1. Many majors have GIRs as prerequisites. Students should explore the roadmaps for the majors they are considering and take the necessary GIRs during their first-year.
  2. Take at least two classes on grades in the spring of the first-year. As sophomore coursework may be significantly harder, it is important for students to prepare in their first-year to meet this new challenge in their second year.
  3. Not all major classes are suitable for first-year students. Remember that professors can and will enforce pre-reqs. Even if they have the prerequisites, students should talk with their advisor about how to balance deeper exploration with adjusting to college life and building the foundations necessary to be successful later.

How will this affect pre-health students?

  • For pre-health/pre-med students, keep in mind that medical schools traditionally require all of the science core GIRs and ask to see a student’s grades in those subjects. MIT draws a hard line with fall P/NR and medical schools know that they cannot see those grades.
  • Certain medical schools, however, may look less favorably on students who opt to take the science core GIRs on P/NR instead of grades. With that in mind, the pre-health advising community generally recommends that students not use their three P/NR slots. For more information, contact Career Advising & Professional Development.

What about students who still do not know what they want to major in by the end of their first year?

  • One option for undecided students is to become an “Undesignated Sophomore”, which allows them to wait until mid-way through their sophomore year to declare a major.
  • Many students also choose to declare a major in the first-year, but continue to explore other majors, minors, and concentrations of interest. Majors at MIT are designed to be completed in two years or less, so it’s very easy to switch throughout the sophomore and sometimes even junior year.
  • Choosing a major is not the same as choosing a career. Many graduates have multiple (sometimes unrelated) careers throughout their life. Those careers are also often unrelated or only loosely related to the graduate’s undergraduate major. Students should just pick something that they feel curious and excited about now and know that they can always pivot later.

Is 60 units (plus 9 discovery units) in the Spring considered “normal” for a first-year student?

  • 60 units is higher than normal and should be viewed as an upper bound, not a target. A normal schedule for most students is 48 units. In fact, MIT degrees are structured to allow students to take 48 units per semester and graduate in four years.
  • If a student is interested in taking 60 units, they should work with their advisor to build an appropriately balanced schedule and re-evaluate their schedule after a few weeks to make sure it is still reasonable.
  • Note: In past years, a small number of students have chosen to exceed 60 units using Early Sophomore Standing (ESS). ESS will not be offered to students entering in Fall 2019 and students may not petition to exceed 60 units of standard (non-discovery) subjects. We encourage students who wish to take on more to consider alternative activities such as UROP, extracurriculars, personal projects, or reading to supplement their coursework.