My experience at MIT was rather different than Jim's. I certainly shared the shock of having to actually study to get decent grades and I particularly remember the low grade on my very first exam in that context. But I think a few things made a difference in how I handled that:
1) I had had previous exposure to being around other smart people, primarily thanks to the National Science Foundation. I went to Columbia University’s NSF-sponsored Science Honors Program on Saturdays for three years in high school. While SHP did not have exams or grades, it provided both an opportunity to feel lost with material that was over my head and an opportunity to learn that other students felt that way. The summer before my senior year, I went to another NSF program, the Program in Biochemistry at the Loomis-Chaffee School. That was an intense summer of learning biochemistry techniques, killing rats and pureeing their livers for our research, and having to make a reservation to take a nap on the lab couch. But more than pipetting or the ability to tie a knot one-handed, it taught me I could keep up in a competitive environment.
2) I also had the advantage of knowing that there was a fair chance that I’d change my mind about what I wanted to do. I entered MIT thinking I would major in chemistry and do biochemistry, specifically neurochemistry. But my brother was busy setting the Michigan State University record for changing majors. And I knew that there were a lot of other things I was interested in. In fact, one of the reasons I went to MIT was the idea that if I changed my mind, there would be other strong math / science departments to go to, which was potentially an issue at Yale or Dartmouth. A large number of the people I know who had problems at MIT had always known exactly what they wanted to do and didn’t know how to handle it when that didn’t work for them. (For those who don’t know, my degrees are in mechanical engineering.)
3) I grew up in a small town and had the sort of suburban childhood that involved lots of extracurricular activities. The small town aspect is important because one of the ironies of that sort of environment is that you’re forced to be exposed to things you might not realize you’d be interested in. When something was happening in town, everybody went, because there weren’t so many things to choose from. (I suspect this is no longer the case, given the internet.) And the extracurricular activities mattered because it never occurred to me not to get involved in things at MIT, which gave me both balance and community. Freshman year being all pass / fail definitely helped with that. I think that having other things to do forced me to be somewhat more organized about my time and gave me a chance to get some perspective when I was stressed out about school.
Along those lines, I once went to a movie with some friends the night before a final and ran into the TA for that class. He made some snide comment about my going to a movie instead of studying and I pointed out that, if I didn’t know the material then, I wasn’t going to know it much better the next morning. I felt it was more important to be relaxed for the final. (And, yes, I got a good grade in the class.)
4) Somewhere around the middle of my sophomore year, I decided on the consumerist approach to my education. MIT is not exactly a cheap place, so I figured the way to get my (well, my father’s) money’s worth was to take advantage of the resources that were available. It was that attitude that let me get over my psychological barriers to asking for help when I didn’t understand something. I found that professors (at least in the mechanical engineering department) were willing to spend time (either their office hours or an appointment) to help me understand the material.
I do feel lucky that I stumbled into something I liked and was good at fairly early in my college career. Part of 2.02 (Introduction to System Dynamics) clicked with me. People told me that if I liked that, I should take the introductory controls class, 2.14. Control Theory just worked with the way my mind works, so that’s what I ended up doing and what eventually led me to my career (which is much broader). Not everybody does find something that resonates with them the same way, so I appreciate that there is no particular advice I can give on how to do that, beyond being open to it happening.
I’m somewhat hesitant to write this, because it sounds arrogant, but by the time I was a senior, I felt pretty much like I could do anything I wanted. What I hadn’t learned was how to structure my time when I didn’t have anything external to impose structure on me. That became an issue in grad school after I had finished classes and was in the pure research mode. But that’s another story. As are at least three other things I will write about education sooner or later (which, alas, generally means later).