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MIT From a Different Perspective

By Jennifer de Capitani 
and Alexander Rudyk

Ever wondered what life at other universities around the world looks like? We did, and as students at Eidgen ssische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zurich, a technical university in Switzerland, we went to MIT to find out. For two weeks we went to classes, took part in student activities, explored the campus, experienced dorm life, and met with the MIT administration. We learned a lot.

Everything started on Sept. 1, 10:45 a.m. in Lobby 7. Together with a few aspiring high school students and their parents, we were anxiously waiting for our tour guide. After she arrived, we soon realized why ETH Zurich does not offer campus tours. Most things shown to us do not even exist at ETH. The MIT campus is a place to live. There are student dorms, a chapel, 24/7 shops, a campus police force, and even an MIT ambulance. The ETH campus is a place for studying and research; it is deserted after office hours. Students live off-campus, many still with their parents, while others stay in the few student dorms that exist in Zurich or in their own flats (apartments) or flat shares. We found such differences were ubiquitous during our stay.

Later that day we went to the Activities Midway and were stunned by the variety of student activities. We have a film club, an arts club, a student magazine and the other “usual stuff” as well. What we do not have is a student group for each and every imaginable out-of-class activity! Our student groups are more independent, however: they can take care of their own money - no restrictions from or meddling with ETH’s Finance Office. When it was time to find a place to sleep we realized where all these crazy ideas that grew into student groups were born: in the dormitory system. We looked at quite a few dorms and now we know why Residence Exploration is so important: Each MIT dorm really is unique. While that is probably most obvious for East Campus (your illuminated dance floor is so cool, folks), all the other dorms have their own different culture as well. Having most students live on campus, in a dorm that just fits their style, is probably more important than offering the world’s best lectures. At 2:00 a.m. we have seen both parties and study groups solving problem sets together. At ETH the exchange of ideas and the interaction between students in general are much less intense.

Probably the different role of the university contributes to the atmosphere of campus life: Parents seem to look at MIT as both a place that educates their kids and takes care of them — watching over their security, their behavior, and their general well-being. Security was one of the big topics during the campus tour and MIT is apparently held liable if things go wrong. ETH is just a teaching institution — at ETH there’s no one looking after us except ourselves.

After we had thoroughly explored the fun parts of student life we started attending lectures — and again things were quite different. MIT students in general take fewer classes with less lecture time than we do at ETH: a freshman at ETH attends about 30 hours of lectures and recitations per week. However, MIT puts more emphasis on reading assignments and problem sets, meaning more work at home. Problem sets at ETH are almost never graded and are therefore often neglected. The final grade for almost all of our classes is completely determined by a single exam that is not held at the end of the term but immediately after the subsequent break. This necessitates a lot of studying during both summer and spring break.

Our system has advantages: learning between terms means you have already been introduced to the subjects you are studying beforehand. This gives you a better view of how different topics connect. But the drawbacks are more serious: many students work very little for their classes during the term — which is a problem, because if you don’t catch up at home it is very hard to follow the lectures, leading to frustration and diminishing attentiveness. (You would notice immediately in Zurich that students are far more noisy during lectures.) Also, an internship requires you to take time off from university since you can’t do one during the summer.

Oddly enough, probably the most significant differences were not very visible during our stay: While MIT is one of the most selective universities in the world, ETH is government-funded and required by law to admit every student with a Swiss secondary school diploma. And while MIT is also very expensive, ETH is almost free (as most European universities are). That should matter a lot. And for most numbers, it does: for example, the dropout rate is about 50% at ETH. But in daily student life, other things matter far more: the campus, the dormitory system, the way lectures are structured, how grades are composed. In most of these fields also, you can be happy about being at MIT.