MIT vs HKU— Studying Abroad and Failing Tests in My Freshman Year of College

MIT vs HKU— Studying Abroad and Failing Tests in My Freshman Year of College

It’s summer vacation! I can’t believe that it’s already been a year since I graduated high school, but that’s not to say that my first year of college was easy— I know that a lot of people say that freshman year is difficult because of the transition from high school to university, but of course there’s the added fact that we’re all living in the time of zoom university which makes it a lot harder to stay focused on work and to get out of the house (or dorm room). I spent the first semester in Hong Kong with my family studying at a local university there, HKU (Hong Kong University), and I spent the second half of the year in Boston living in the dorms at MIT, so it was interesting to see how the teaching styles and my degree of struggle in getting my assignments done differed at the two schools.

 

Traditionally, the first semester of freshman year at MIT is entirely graded on pass/fail to give you a buffer period to adjust to college life without worrying too much about your grades, so I wanted to take advantage of that to get some of my hardest graduation requirement classes out of the way (like chemistry and physics >:( ). Luckily study abroad is also graded on pass/fail, so I just had to get at least a C in each of the four classes I took at HKU to get credit for them. The entire credit approval process was honestly so tedious and frustrating at times, especially when I was just constantly waiting for email replies about my application or transfer credit approval status, but it somehow all worked out in the end. (At the time that I was trying to get courses approved I hadn’t even been accepted to HKU’s visiting student program yet… :x)

I ended up taking four classes that semester, two computer science courses and a chemistry and math class that fulfilled graduation requirements. If you take a look at this little class tier list I created, you’ll see that most of the HKU classes I took are solidly in the bottom tier… oops. I think that my main issue with the classes at HKU was that it was pretty much impossible to get individual help from professors or TAs because of the size of classes and the general culture of asking for help = selfish monopolization of the class’ time/you are dumb, and the fact that I wasn’t able to move into the dorms so I didn’t make many friends who I could study and do homework with didn’t help matters. Theoretically I should have been used to this kind of hands-off teaching style that I had grown up with living in Hong Kong, but I struggled a lot trying to teach myself content that I found to be super difficult, and some of the exam and homework questions made me feel like I was a mindless sheep jumping through unnecessary hoops going through the motions of learning without actually understanding how anything worked. One of my computer science classes was taught entirely in c++, which was a programming language that I didn’t know and had to pick up within a week in time for the first assignment. In the first week of class, I remember staring at the code in one of the powerpoint files we were sent to study ourselves and thinking that I had a whole lot of catching up to do, and while the class did get better once I actually learned how to code and found a study group, boy am I glad that I don’t have to take those classes again. 

 

I could go on forever about how much University Mathematics II aka Math 1013 destroyed me, and at the end of the semester I had barely recovered from the whiplash of going from learning about basic integrals and derivatives (yay I know how to do this) to matrices and linear algebra (okay, this isn’t too bad) to differential equations (?????????). I was taking the class to get credit for calculus 1, single-variable calculus, so needless to say I felt like the syllabus was a little too broad in covering so many topics in one semester. I had originally planned on taking the class at the same time as University Mathematics III aka multivariable calculus to mimic the class at MIT that let you take single and multivariable calculus in the same semester, but I felt like I had dodged a bullet when MIT didn’t approve the second math class because I barely survived HKU’s “single-variable calculus” so multivariable probably would have finished me off completely. The class was weighted 90% on tests, which made me especially mad about the impossibly difficult homework assignments that I would spend forever doing for only 10% of my grade, and also mad about the fact that the tests that I did so terribly on were such a huge part of my grade. Going into college I wasn’t expecting to maintain straight As, but after taking the first test and getting a 30/100 I knew that I’d struggle to even get a C if my tragic streak continued. I later found out from a rather strongly worded email from the professor that a 30/100 was, in fact, average, and that all of us had better shape up fast if we wanted to survive the slaughterhouse that was his class. He also expected us to write a full justification when using any of the calculus identities (such as L’Hopital’s rule), which was just another time sink in such a short time frame during tests. Our class’ whatsapp group chat complained and moaned nonstop. Tears were shed. 😭😢😣Many crying emojis were sent.😓😪😵 But there was nothing that any of us could do— email the professor? We’d probably just get accused of not studying hard enough. And so I resigned myself to my fate of struggling through the class, grinding practice problems on the daily in the hopes of getting a C. One of the friends that I made was a lifesaver for helping me understand differential equations during the last week of class, and miracle of miracles, when I finally emerged from the trainwreck at the end of the semester I proudly brandished my B like it was an olympic gold medal in religiously watching decade old youtube tutorial videos on asymptotes and partial differential equations. (I tried to make myself feel better with the thought that this information will help me when I take differential equations next semester, but I knew that I probably would have forgotten the little information that was crammed into my short term memory as soon as finals season was over. And what do you know, all I can tell you about differential equations now is that they’re related to derivatives and there are lots of different ways to solve them, of which I remember exactly 0 🙂 Sorry ODEs, I have to make more space in my brain for song lyrics somehow.)

 

The only class that I took at MIT that was even close to the tortue of that math class was 8.011, intro to physics. My physics class in high school consisted of launching socks in the parking lot and learning the pythagorean theorem, so my first week in class surrounded by classmates who had already taken AP physics or other classes of the like was really intimidating, especially when I got a 30 on the weekly quiz… yikes. What made this class 10x better than Math 1013 at HKU was the fact that I was able to get so much personalized support from my professors during class and office hours held five times a week. Most freshmen took physics I in the fall semester so there weren’t even 20 kids in my class, meaning that I would often be the only student at office hours which made for a really great opportunity for me to get the answers to my questions (and problem sets) broken down into bite sized pieces and spoon fed to me which I definitely needed, my physics knowledge comparable to that of an infant and all. There was something due in my physics class every other day, so it felt like I was constantly being simmered in a pot of boiling water rather than being intermittently scalded by a weekly assignment like those of my other classes. There were also quizzes every Friday which was pretty stressful— especially since the professors in every single one of my classes conspired to have all of their assignments due on Friday every week as well— but I joined the physics department’s peer tutoring program and got paired with an amazing tutor who helped me a lot with both the academic content of the class and my stress level by listening to me rant. There really was an amazing support system built into the class if you wanted it, and even though I still am not the best at physics by a long shot, at least I know how F=ma works now! Hopefully I’ll make it through Physics 2 next semester relatively unscalded as well.

 

Even though the content of most of my classes at MIT was harder than that of HKU, I thought that the teaching staff seemed much more approachable and accessible so it was easier to get help when needed, which was much more efficient and effective to me than scouring the internet for a solution like I was used to doing. I learned at least 80% of the chemistry material for my intro to chem class at HKU from Organic Chemistry Tutor on youtube (definitely recommended!!) which worked, and even though I continued to watch their videos to help me understand concepts at MIT, it was nice to have a professor or TA to talk to, especially when the problems got less general to the point where you couldn’t easily find an explanation online. Being able to work with classmates or get help made my life much easier, but I still think that it’s important to be able to teach yourself and to learn on your own. There’s also the issue of relying too much on other people and not actually learning the material yourself, but just knowing that there were people willing to help me if I needed it made me feel a lot better when verging on a crisis staring at a worksheet that I didn’t even know how to start.

 

Sometimes I wonder if the reason that I struggled at HKU was because I lacked proper study habits and the ability to structure and follow a schedule for myself (and I know what you’re thinking… you’re reading this on a study blog?? I try to have a good daily schedule and healthy work habits and such, but try is definitely the key word there). At HKU we were expected to learn most of the class material ourselves outside of lecture and recitation, which wasn’t something that I was used to after going to high school in the US, and everyone around me seemed to have the attitude of this sucks but business as usual which made me feel like I had grown too spoiled by my high school’s lax grading and hand holding to be able to succeed on my own. I think that my semester at HKU, as hard as it was, definitely helped me to become a more self-sufficient learner, which in turn helped me to handle my work better in my second semester at MIT. I got mostly Bs in my first semester at HKU but somehow managed straight As in my second semester, probably because the covid restrictions meant that I spent most of my time in my dorm room studying (or falling down youtube rabbit holes. Sometimes both at the same time). I haven’t thought about what classes I’m taking next semester yet, but no matter how hard any of them get I’ll always be able to compare them to the dumpster fire that was my HKU math class and feel better about my ability to make it out alive. For now, the plan is just to enjoy my summer with family and friends, to spend more time on my hobbies— like writing and re-reading the hundreds of books in the Warrior Cats series and working on improving my cooking skills and maybe updating my blog more often 🙂 Thank you for reading all 2000 words of me ranting about my struggles, and even though this post probably isn’t helpful, I hope you found it to be a little entertaining! As always, let me know if there’s anything that you want me to write about and I hope you’re enjoying your summer 😎☀️

Until next time!

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