Student’s ‘Meltdown’ Generates Stress Survey, Important Discussion

by Amy Marcott on December 11, 2012 · 4 comments

in Campus Culture, Classroom, Remember When..., Student Life

There’s been a lot of talk about meltdowns on campus this semester, prompted by a student blogger for the Admissions Office, Lydia A. Krasilnikova ’14, who offered a moving account of dealing with the stress of being an MIT student in a post called “Meltdown.” It sparked a letter to the editor in the Tech by President Reif, who remarked on the outpouring of support the post received.

Admissions blogger Lydia A. Krasilnikova ’14, whose Oct. 29 blog post “Meltdown” netted over 4,000 likes on Facebook and coverage by NPR's Boston branch—in addition to sparking a campus-wide discussion of stress at MIT.

Admissions blogger Lydia A. Krasilnikova ’14, whose Oct. 29 blog post “Meltdown” was covered by NPR’s Boston branch and sparked a campus-wide discussion of stress at MIT. Two weeks following the post, walk-in visits to Student Support Services had tripled over the previous year. Read an interview with her.

Recently, the Tech surveyed the student body about stress, and 3,191—about 29% of all students (35% of undergrads)—responded. The result is Under Pressure, a feature containing compelling—and interactive—infographics (you can filter results by a number of variables) as well as a list of supporting multimedia, such as videos, letters to the editor, a talk with the director of mental health at the Institute, profiles of student support groups, playlists for de-stressing, and more. A few of the survey results are highlighted below.

According to the editor’s note to Under Pressure, 52% of students have, at one point, felt like they don’t belong at the Institute. There’s a nice interview with Dean of Admissions Stu Schmill ’86 assuring students their admission to MIT was not a fluke.

The work that went into Under Pressure is impressive as is the MIT community’s support of this important topic. The Tech and the chancellor’s office will cosponsor a forum for students during IAP to discuss issues surrounding pressure and stress at MIT, and the Institute recently launched MIT Together, a portal to support resources for students.

Classes that stress students out the most. Click image to go to the interactive graphic.

Classes that stress students out the most. Click image to go to the interactive graphic.

Under Pressure Snapshot
Just a few of the findings are below, but you have to check out the interactive graphics, which  break down stress by dorm, year, major, gender, and age; reveal how students split their time among sleep, work, and play as well as when they sleep; and show the single most stressful class by year or major. For freshmen, it’s 8.01 (physics, classical mechanics) and 7.012 (introductory biology). Sound familiar?

  • Grad students living in Edgerton House spend the most hours per week doing homework on average: 50.12.
  • Among undergrad dorms, McCormick works the hardest with 33.71 hours.
  • Residents of Next House spend the least amount of time on average, 23.04 hours.
  • The happiest residence is Baker House.
  • On average, students have four close friends.

The following are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being not stressed at all and 7 being extremely stressed.
Courses with the highest levels of stress  (5.3 or 5.4 on the scale)

  • 4 (architecture)
  • 17 (political science)
  • 11 (urban studies and planning)
  • 22 (nuclear science and engineering)

Courses with the lowest levels of stress  (4 on the scale)

  • 18 (mathematics)
  • 24 (linguistics and philosophy)
  • 15 (management)

Some of the most poignant parts of the survey were the comments generated when students were asked to share any stories or thoughts they had about pressure at MIT. Tech editors published some of the 500+ responses:

  • “I don’t feel good when I’m over-committed and over-worked, but I don’t feel good about myself if I’m not like that.”
  • “I don’t feel like I’m learning anymore. Instead, I feel like I’m living from p-set to p-set.”
  • “MIT has done a wonderful job of discouraging competition among peers, but has not done anything about competition with one’s self.”

The editors said that themes emerged among the comments: feelings of insecurity, of not fitting in, and of concern about research, to name a few, but that a sense of optimism was present as well. Says the Tech, “Tying together the dozens of stories about how MIT can be hell was the thread of hope; MIT is a shared experience—we are all in this together….You might have a love-hate relationship with the Institute, but you are not alone.”

Alumni, add your voices. What advice do you have for stressed-out students?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian Neltner December 12, 2012 at 1:05 am

Be willing to say, “It’s 2am, and I’m not done with this pset. This pset is not going to be finished, and I am okay with that. If I get a bad grade in my class because of it, so be it. I am here to learn, not get good grades, and if I don’t sleep I won’t learn well.”

Find a way to get enough sleep. It makes everything better.


Gill Abrams December 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm

That’s so true, Brian – it’s almost all about getting enough sleep. Most students don’t realize how crucial this is.

Great post Amy, thanks!


Erik Trimble December 12, 2012 at 2:19 am

As someone who actually dropped out of MIT, partially due to stress, I can say that now, when I look back, I don’t fault the academic environment at all. The vast quantity of work and the rigorous challenges were indeed daunting, but, in my opinion, entirely warranted, and I think it would be a great disservice to MIT students to change the academics.

That said, MIT when I was there (early 90s) was a fundamentally cold place. Students who matriculate are generally the best and brightest from where they come. While most adapt quite well to the concept that they are no longer the top 1% of the class, it comes as much more of a shock to many (and I speak for myself and several of my closer friends there) that not only are they challenged sorely, but there are academics that, for the first time, are beyond their abilities to excel in. That is, many undergraduates are finally faced with their intellectual limits – they simply *can’t* excel at certain things, even if they work hard and apply themselves. For me, it was 8.02 and recognizing that I just can’t really understand E&M physics. Others, it was 14.0[12] and not grokking economics. A couple of others, 18.03 and Diff Eq.

I think the biggest issue I faced, and one which I *know* is still a challenge for MIT, is to be able to reach out to students feeling stress. MIT needs not only world-class stress and social advisers (I don’t like the word “therapist”, but certainly someone with advanced training is required), it needs a culture where students are not only encouraged to ask for help, but are included in an environment where help is *offered* to them, regularly. Many students will never seek out the help they need, even if such help is clearly available (which, at my time at MIT, was NOT well-advertised). Rather, what is needed is advisers, tutors, TAs, and even upperclass students willing to say “You looked stressed. How about we go see so you can get some help reducing it.” Why is it that so many students form self-help groups to work on problem sets, yet none of them think to consider outside help for things NOT of an academic nature?

It’s about creating a culture which doesn’t coddle the workload, but which also helps students recognize their limits and helps them deal with the consequences of those limits. It’s about realizing that we’re NOT Supermen (or Superwomen), even with all our abilities, that asking for help is NOT failure, getting help is a normal part of any human being’s life, and that other people are both able to help and are available to help. Frankly, the average MIT student isn’t the most well-socialized example of humanity, and it is this lack of socialization – and a community which somewhat indifferent to its importance – which frequently leads to the destructive ends that stress overload can have.


Former MITer December 21, 2012 at 12:37 pm

I agree with the comments by both Brian Nelter & Erik Trimble. As a former MIT grad student, I was willing to give up at 2AM. I did not have that perspective as an undergrad,nor did I want it. I think many current students feel the same way. Having relentless drive to work on problems that seem too hard is an extremely useful quality to have in life, and MIT should continue to encourage and foster it.


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