Thursday, December 22, 2005

Writing a final at MIT

For the first (and likely the last) time today, I took a final exam in MIT.

There was four subjects being examined in the same examination hall, which was inside a large indoor basketball court - very much like some exam halls in NTU (Singapore). There, the similarities end.

MIT admin staff probably select the oldest tables that can still be held together for students to give exams on. I must admit though, it was a pretty large table - about the size of a small dining table for six - and there was a table and two chairs per person. The top of my table had hundreds of marks from geometrical figures to a scrawled "JAK SPAROW WUZ 'ERE" (I sure hope he didn't have an English exam). The metal lining on the side of the top of the table was held together by duct tape in some places. They make sure you'll buy the "Estd. 1861" line. And the tables rocked. Rocked, squeaked and creaked as I wrote on them - matching every stroke of my pen. Sure was a good way to mask the nervous shivering while writing the paper!

A 9 AM exam in Singapore means students get in by 8.30 and there is usually pin-drop silence by 8.45 when the papers start being distributed. At 9 AM today, most students were having breakfast on the aforementioned tables. Coffee, yoghurt and bagels were the most popular choices. One guy was sitting surfing on his laptop, the staff (lecturer and TAs) had just about come and settled down. I was already beginning to like the atmosphere (except that I was feeling hungry and had never dreamed of getting breakfast to an exam hall).

One girl walked in to the exam hall dragging one large and one medium trolley suitcase behind her. Someone asks the question that was begging to be asked, "open book exam?" Turns out it was, but the suitcases were because she was flying home about one hour after the exam.

In NTU, before every exam used to come a 15 minute speech, which in my head had earned the nickname "All Students' License Agreement". It went something like, "No paper, book, document, picture or other referral device may be brought into the exam hall unless specified under..." Out here, our lecturer looked left, looked right and yelled, "I guess you guys can start". Then, realizing her mistake, said, "Only for my subject!"

After that, of course, as with all exams, the outside world ceased to exist for a couple of hours. There was one interesting thing in the paper, though. At one point, the lecturer had been kind enough to mention, "The next two questions are very hard. Don't burn your time on them if you can't see the solution." Very kind of you, but did you imagine the rest of the paper was easy?