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A Simple Technique to Avoid Heart Attack Semesters

MIT SyndromePanic!

I’ve noticed an interesting behavior common among undergraduates here at MIT. These students are used to being overachievers. This got them into MIT. It’s part of their identity. Having trouble with schoolwork is a problem faced by “other” people. The typical MIT student is used to impressing everyone with his overwhelming course load; shrugging off gape-mouthed wonderment with carefully calculated modesty.

Then they get to college.

Following their instinct, they sign up for the toughest possible schedule. (“Double majors are for Cal Tech wimps, I’m going to triple major!”) To do any less would be foreign to their sensibilities. Soon after, however, reality sets in. These courses are hard! The work is too much! They panic. Insecurity grows. Stress. Burn out. A common cycle.

Beyond MIT

This problem is not unique to MIT students. College admissions has reached such a level of selectivity that a surprisingly large percentage of students, nationwide, are arriving on campus as overachievers. To them, anything less than a hard schedule would be considered slacking. Even more students just ignore their schedule all together. They think: a schedule is a schedule is a schedule. And just throw together whatever courses seems relevant.

Here’s the problem: this is a terrible way to run your student life.

What Smart Students Do

Here’s a simple rule: Avoid hard schedules at all costs. I give you permission. This doesn’t make you a slacker. It doesn’t mean you’re not smart. On the contrary, it shows remarkable self-awareness.

Hard schedules are heartbreaking. Literally. The stress can feel like your about to have a heart attack. Why bring this upon yourself? Your goal as a student should be to learn everything you set out to learn with a minimum of stress or pain.

The 1 – 5 System

Notice, this doesn’t give you permission to seek out only gut courses. Instead, you need to map out, in advance, all of the courses you need to take for your major and core requirements. Try to assess the difficulty of each. To do so:

  1. Look up online course reviews.
  2. Talk to your UGA or RA.
  3. Talk to friends who have taken the course before.
  4. E-mail the professor and ask what the workload is like.

Using this information, rank each course on a scale of 1 – 5, where 1 is “trivially easy” and 5 is “killer hard.”

The Master Plan

Create a master chart of your remaining semesters. Using your course guide to determine when each major and requirement course is offered, try to spread them out so that there is no more than one course with a ranking of 4 or 5 assigned to any one semester.

The Rule of 3 for Adding Elective Courses

Of course, there are more courses to take than just those that are required by your school or major. I’m talking about the electives that fill in your schedule and let you explore interesting new intellectual horizons.

Here is a simple rule for choosing these. At the beginning of each semester, look over the elective courses that interest you. Using the sources listed above, rank them on the same 1 to 5 scale.

When deciding on which courses to take, keep in mind the following rule: the average hardness score for the semester can be no greater than 3.

For example, if you already have a hard 5 course and an easy 1 course scheduled for the semester, you can add an elective of up to difficulty to 3. If you have just an easy 2 course for a semester, you might add a hard 5 elective and another easy 2 elective. And so on.


This system uses advance planning to prevent you from overloading your schedule with an impossible course load. By avoiding ever having two or more 4 or 5 courses in a single semester, you can eliminate a lot of pain from your student career. Best of all, your planning allows you to achieve this goal without having to severely reduce your course options. By looking ahead, you can have your academic cake and eat it to.

5 thoughts on “A Simple Technique to Avoid Heart Attack Semesters”

  1. Being an MIT graduate (double major in physics and electrical engineering, graduated in 2003), it’s not possible to pull off the plan you mentioned at MIT. Even if I hadn’t double majored, there are just very few easy classes at MIT (although biology is rumored to be “easy”). Most classes are around a 4 for the average MIT student (there are a few super geniuses around who find everything easy and triple-major). And there are a few killer lab classes that I would call 6+.

  2. @Terri:

    I think the best you can do is make your rating system relative to the difficulty of the school you’re you attend. Even though it’s true that an “easy” class at MIT might be harder than an easy class at another school, there are still different degrees of difficulty with MIT itself. Some classes have lab so do not. Some have notoriously hard problem sets, some do not. Some professors like to stick it to the students, others will let you get away with murder. Etc…

  3. I think this is a drastic misrepresentation of the MIT undergraduate student body. As a member of it, I did come here as an overachiever. You have to be to get in, but at the same time, I know that the effort I put into my classes now will reward me later. I don’t seek out the hardest classes just to pad my resume. I seek out the classes that interest me the most. I am passionate about my major and I will take whatever I need to take to become what I want. At the same time, I don’t seek out the easiest classes either. I choose based on my passion and nothing else. I got in because I have the drive to achieve whatever I set my mind to. I also particpate in a varsity sport, a club sport, am affiliated, and in a musical ensemble. I am not a freshman and I have made A’s here. MIT has taught me a wonderful lesson in how to manage my time properly and has reinforced the idea that you get what you work for. If I work hard, it will pay off.


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