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Bearded or Well-Shorn, You'll Still Find a Niche at MIT

Column by Anders Hove
Opinion Editor

Earlier this summer, my editor and I were planning The Tech's opinion page strategy for Residence and Orientation Week. "So," said the editor toward the end of the conversation, "are you writing your Don't grow a beard' column again?"

"Oh," I said, "I thought that one was getting a little old at this point."

Needless to say, the editor, who will remain nameless to protect the innocent, disabused me of any notion I had of discontinuing my infamous advice column for incoming students. I had a responsibility, I was informed to my dismay, and I would be expected to perform my duty.

This time, however, it's going to be different. I'm now more than five years older than the average incoming student. It strikes me that I ought to assume a tone more appropriate to the quarter-generational difference between myself and my audience.

Unlike previous columns, therefore, this one will not list 20 or 30 tasty tidbits of insider advice. Instead, I'm going to give the reader three short speeches. Fatherly speeches: intimidating, caustic, and, above all, totally paternal.

And finally, I'm going to abstain from coming straight out with most intimate, hard-hitting piece of advice. Because, as an adult, I know that if I really want to get through to an adolescent, I've got to keep an ace in the whole. The key to my own success will remain hidden, to be inferred, guessed at, like a juicy and powerful secret. Enough said.

My first piece of advice involves the friendships. Incoming students, read this carefully: You will have friends. It almost doesn't matter what you do, because you will. So don't get stressed out that the wrong activity or the wrong choice of major or the wrong living group will ruin your life. Rather the opposite: If that were a big risk, they wouldn't let you go through this R/O thing.

Now, the guys among you must be wondering, "What if I, say, went way out on a limb and grew a beard?"

Let's just put that question aside. You will have friends no matter what. Some decisions (especially rash and unsightly decisions) may brand you as a freak until you finally break down and shave. But you will still have friends. Different friends. But most decisions won't have this effect, so don't sweat it. And, as a side note, keep with the hygiene and grooming thing, okay?

My second fatherly speech involves the freshman year. It's pass/no record. Now, let me say that I've heard of very few people who enjoy their first year at MIT, academically. You don't have a major; you have a freshman adviser instead of a trusted academic administrator; you don't get much choice about which subjects to take; and almost all your classes are filled with hundreds of people. At that rate, most freshmen are willing to take pass/no record as a gift, one of the few special favors the Institute will ever give you.

So my advice is this: Don't knock it. Don't make an absolute fool out of yourself by sanctimoniously claiming that pass/no record is somehow holding you back. I hear this so often from freshmen that I can tell you it never has any effect other than to convince others that you are exceedingly pompous and conceited. If you do this, nobody will believe you and nothing will change.

The freshman experience is intentionally designed to allow you to explore your interests. If classes seem easy, join an activity, make some friends, or visit the library. Develop your character in a positive way.

Why not use your first year to try some non-academic activities? Whatever you came here believing, I'm telling you now that in real life MIT styles itself a university, and that means it will become a total life experience whether you want it to or not. An MIT education is not about how many problem sets you complete or whether you get top marks. It's about whether you come out of here a well-rounded, tolerant, wise, and, lastly, intelligent individual.

Pass/no record isn't just designed to bring people up to speed with the academic curriculum. It's second and equally important purpose is to prevent freshmen from getting so wrapped up in academics that they forget to learn the life lessons, lessons that can't be learned in class or from books. If you really want to be an overachiever at MIT, you have to look beyond classes.

The last piece of advice I want to pass on is even more staid and serious than the first two: Start thinking about your post-MIT life from day one.

Now I know that you've just arrived and you are eager to explore this place and find out where you belong. That's great. But I speak from experience when I say the MIT grind can lead to a short-term mentality. By short-term I mean everything from writing papers to figuring out how to graduate. We are only here for four, five, or sometimes eight, years, and then we're gone. MIT will not be your life forever.

How can you prepare yourself for your life to come? First, be yourself and don't agonize over short-term decisions like your choice of major or living group.

Second, start thinking about your MIT exit strategy. What sort of life do you want to build for yourself? Where do you want to live and what type of people do you want to find yourself working with? What classes will give you the real-world skills like the ability to communicate well and work in groups? Who will you talk to about your career? When? Answering these questions earlier can help you prepare for the day when you depart, and it may well speed up that day.

That's about it for my advice to incoming students. Groom yourself properly, live a good, diverse life, don't overstress, and think early about your long-term life plans.