US Education System

First of all, MIT and other higher education institutions in the United States use email as the primary mode of communication. Please read your emails! In particular from your professors and from the ISO, since you are here as international students and you don’t want to miss any important immigration updates or reminders.

History-shaped US education ideals (even if these are not in reality obtainable for everyone)

  1. To encourage citizens to seek higher status in life
  2. To provide “equal opportunity for all,” regardless of background or religion
  3. To include practical content, including vocational skills and civics (duties of citizenship)
  4. To develop social and interpersonal skills; self-reliance
  5. To reflect decentralized federal system: state-based; no national curriculum (= ‘choice’)

History-shaped US college system

  • Liberal Arts education for exploration
    • Mix of arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences
  • Individual choice for self-reliance
    • “Good fit”
  • Institutional autonomy
  • Academic freedom
    • Free speech (especially if you have tenure as a professor)

MIT reflects US cultural values

  1. Enormous class, religious, and ethnic diversity
  2. Enormous diversity in base knowledge among undergraduates due to lack of standardization
  3. Expectations of students to “build” and “make”
  4. Expectations of students to self-advocate

MIT students are expected to:

  1. Discover knowledge using many resources
  2. Play by the same rules as everyone else
  3. Challenge and ask for clarification
  4. Learn to deal with
    1. More than one answer
    1. Ambiguous answers
    1. No answers (“failure”)

MIT professors are expected to:

  1. Guide, facilitate and learn from students
  2. Apply the same ‘rules’ to everyone
  3. Consider exploration as important as facts and answers
  4. Evaluate students on how well they develop informed arguments

Interaction with professors

Professors and TAs usually offer office hours, a few hours each week that you can ‘drop in’ and chat about anything you would like. It is recommended to utilize these office hours; visit your professor/TA to ask questions, clarify an assignment, and to just get to know them! This is great networking, and if you’re thinking about doing grad school, this is how you eventually will get recommendation letters, since the professors will know you even better.

Communicating with professors and administrators by email

Be clear about what you are asking and be concise. Choose a clear subject in the email subject title section. For a request, using the phrase “Could you please” is more polite than “I need” or “can you” or “will you”? If you haven’t heard back in a day or two, it is fine to send a follow-up. Do not send multiple emails the same day. We are all busy and may not be able to respond before one or two business days.

Source: Jane Dunphy, MIT English Language Studies (ELS)