Crack the Code to MIT Conversation
Dec 2020
Mechanical Engineering

“Are you a first-year grad student?”

“Yes, I am! What are you studying?”

“Oh, I’m a Course 2, working on my SM – I’m taking my last 24 Units this semester. What Course are you?”

“… ah, well, I’m taking statistics this semester?”

To fresh recruits to the graduate community at MIT, this conversation may sound eerily familiar. Surely, a “Course” must refer to a semester class, right? Or is it supposed to be a major? What’s a Unit, is it synonymous with a credit from my alma mater? If so, why would they be taking so many classes? Within a few days into the semester, exchanges such as the one above illustrate that certain unique aspects about MIT vernacular can cause new students to have a hard time following conversation between more senior students. A few of these specialized lexicons assert themselves before you even set foot on campus. 

This short list of references can help you feel you “speak the language” immediately upon arriving at MIT.

What’s the first thing you do when you decide to either apply to or attend MIT? For many of us, the answer is clear: map out prospective classes and degree requirements. Unfortunately, decoding the class listings can be likened to unscrambling a murky numerical soup. 

Let’s start out with an easy one: MIT uses a 5.0 grading scale, rather than the standard 4.0. A slightly different grading scale does not significantly impact your academic experience, but it may make degree requirements confusing upon first glance (e.g., if your degree requirements state “a grade point average of 4.5 must be maintained for successful degree completion”).

Next up, class “units”. Units are not directly comparable to traditional “credits hours” common among other schools. A standard MIT class is usually 12 Units, rather than 3 credit hours. It’s no wonder that when another student told me they were taking 24 units, I was shocked – that translates ~8 classes at my undergraduate institution! However, at MIT, 24 units is a reasonable two courses. The Unit system can also be confusing for incoming students browsing the course catalog.

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The format follows a A-B-C number format, where A corresponds to the number of hours that will be spent in class, B reflects any hours spent in a lab or rectation, and C designates the estimated hours required to complete coursework outside of class time. In the sample course subject listing here (Aerospace Biomedical and Life Support Engineering), there are 3 hours of lecture and nine estimated hours of work outside of the classroom per week. 

While investigating your prospective program requirements, unknown abbreviations may leap out at you. When I applied for admission at MIT to pursue both my master’s and doctorate degrees, I was surprised to find that my master’s degree had an abbreviation of S.M., rather than M.S. Similarly, Sc.D. (Doctor of Science) can be found as a doctorate designation, rather than Ph.D. It should be noted that these discrepancies in degree designations are not uniform across MIT – rather, some departments use M.S./Ph.D., while others use Sc.D. To be fair, MIT is not the only school that uses these degree abbreviations (e.g., Harvard:). The original Latin name for a Master of Science is “scientiae magister”, hence the “SM” abbreviation. Though it can be mildly confusing at first glance, it certainly does make it easier to spot another MIT alum out in the wild, just from a degree abbreviation!

Finally, let’s dissect my favorite MIT-ism – the Course Number. One of the first conversations to occur with other students upon arrival to MIT is, “what are you studying?” If you happen to find yourself having such a conversation with an individual fluent MIT vernacular, they may respond with an excited, “Course 2!”. For those of us brand new to campus, this answer will cause uncertainty. What is Course 2? Is that a major? MIT uses a system of “Course Numbers” to identify many fields of study (or “Course” of study). Course 1 is Civil and Environmental Engineering, Course 24 is Linguistics and Probability (though there is no Course 23 for some reason).

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Though “Courses” can also include other departments that do not follow the Course # format:

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MIT and its engineers have a renowned love for numbers, so it’s only natural that numerical distinction is used for as many nouns as possible. For more advice in navigating such a “Forest of Numbers”, see this blog post by Hyunjin P.

Certain unique aspects of MIT vernacular can cause new students to have a hard time following conversation between more senior students. Keep this short list of references handy to help you “speak the language” immediately upon arriving at MIT. Don’t worry, you’ll soon love the idiosyncrasies as much as you’ll love MIT!