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Exploration in the MIT First-Year


In August of 2018 the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) agreed to move forward with an experiment to investigate ways to promote greater exploration in the first-year undergraduate experience. The proposal was made possible through a marvelous collaboration between students, faculty, staff and administrators over the last year and incorporates some specific recommendations from the Designing the First Year at MIT course.

What does this mean for MIT students?

  • First-year students entering during the Fall of 2018 will be eligible to designate up to three Science, Mathematics, and Engineering General Institute Requirements (i.e., 3.091, 5.111, or 5.112; 7.01n; 8.01n; 8.02n; 18.01n; or 18.02n) to be graded on a Pass or No Record basis (P/NR) after their first term. The first semester will still be graded P/NR, and the second semester ABC/NR. This added flexibility should encourage students to move some of their SME GIRs out of the first-year, providing more opportunities for students to take classes that enable them to explore majors and minors early in their time at MIT.
  • For all other current undergraduates, there will be no changes. Our goal with keeping all students in the loop has been to ensure transparency and to keep students informed about how we are implementing the ideas of many of your peers. We recognize the importance of upper-level student advice for first-year students, and we hope you will work with us to promote a more exploration-focused experience for the next generation of MIT students.
  • As part of ongoing community discussions this year, the CUP will solicit input and deliberate about possible additional experiments for first-year students entering during the Fall of 2019.

Why is exploration important / valuable? And how can students pursue multiple interests while at MIT? Consider these points of reference…

  • A thorough needs analysis conducted by over 50 students in the Designing the First Year at MIT course determined that flexibility to explore was one of the top needs expressed by students.
  • 30% of students will change their major and ~ 7% of seniors will say that if they had the opportunity to do it all again, they would have picked a different major.
  • Within five years of graduating, 75% of MIT undergrad alums are working in a field not directly related to the major they studied at MIT.
  • 100% of students complete a HASS concentration. Many HASS concentrations are only 2 classes away from a minor.
  • 16% of students double major. 27% of students complete at least 1 minor, 3% complete 2. 23% of students who double major also earn at least 1 minor.
  • MIT offers composite majors (e.g. 5-7), flexible majors (e.g. 2A), and interdisciplinary HASS majors (e.g. 21E) that allow students to pursue multiple interests without the challenge of completing two full majors.

Won’t this “water down” the GIRs / MIT “hard”?

  • While the experiment gives students more flexibility regarding the GIRs, all students will still need to pass the 6 core SME requirements. The experiment gives students the ability to modify the pacing of the GIRs and to remove some of the grade-related pressure, but it does not make the GIRs easier or less important.
  • Added flexibility in the first-year will also enable students to spend more time exploring fields of interest and could lead to more (or better) UROPs, project classes, and theses later on in their undergraduate experience. These types of experiences truly bring “mens et manus” to life and are often the most rigorous and informative experiences students have. Exploring majors earlier has the potential to lead to more satisfaction and more energy to pursue challenging projects.

What are the potential benefits to students?

  • Far less pressure to take 3-4 GIRs in the first semester: SME GIRs can still be P/NR later, so students could use the time in the fall to explore.
  • GIRs that won’t bring down GPAs: This might lead to more opportunities for students to focus on learning new things instead of stressing about grades.
  • Freedom to challenge themselves: Students will be able to take advanced versions like 5.112 or 8.022 without fear of impact on their GPA.

What can first-year students do with this added flexibility? How can they better imagine what their first-year at MIT might be / could be like?

Students can …

  1. Talk with people. They can start with the Academic Expo. First-year students should reach out to Undergraduate Administrators in each department to ask questions and find out about opportunities in that department.
  2. Participate in an advising seminar.
  3. Do a UROP in a department that interests them.
  4. Do an Internship/Externship.
  5. Try out non-credit activities.
  6. Take exploration classes.

Given the experiment, what is a sensible model for a first-year fall schedule?

  • In the past, the classic model that most MIT first-years have followed for the fall has been: 3 SME GIRs + 1 CI-H. The CUP experiment allows more opportunities for exploration, so one sound approach is for students to take 2 SME GIRs + 1 HASS (not necessarily CI-H) + 12 units of academic exploration.

Are there any risks / advice students should be aware of?

  1. Many majors have GIRs as prerequisites. Students should explore the roadmaps for the majors they are considering and take the necessary GIRs during their first-year.
  2. Take at least two classes on grades in the spring of the first-year. As sophomore coursework may be significantly harder, it is important for students to prepare in their first-year to meet this new challenge in their second year.
  3. Not all major classes are suitable for first-year students. Note, if students choose to go off-list, remember that professors can and will enforce pre-reqs.
  4. To be considered for Early Sophomore Standing, students need to take CI subjects during the Fall semester.

How will this affect pre-health students?

  • For pre-health/pre-med students, keep in mind that medical schools traditionally require all of the SME GIRs and ask to see a student’s grades in those subjects. MIT draws a hard line with fall P/NR and medical schools know that they cannot see those grades.
  • Certain medical schools, however, may look less favorably on students who opt to take the SME GIRs on P/NR instead of grades. With that in mind, the pre-health advising community generally recommends that students not use their three P/NR slots. For more information, contact Career Advising & Professional Development.


  1. For general advice, especially for students and advisors, please refer to the Office of the First Year major exploration content. Soon we will post comprehensive “roadmaps” on this page that will be useful for students to understand their prerequisites (GIRs) for particular majors that interest them.
  2. This “Guide to Grading and Credit Limits for First-Year Students”, part of the revised advisors’ handbook, offers a quick snapshot of how the experiment for the students entering during the Fall of 2018 will play out.
  3. You can find updates on the implementation process for the experiment and other outcomes from the Designing the First Year course on the OVC website

Special Grading and Credit Limits for First Year Students