All posts by sunshine

How Can a Math Idiot Major in Math

If you don’t want to read the whole blog, the story can be summarized in one sentence: Be positive and believe in yourself, don’t give up hope too soon, and be open to different perspectives and ideas as they may inspire you.

If you think you are bad at math, you will feel so much more confident from me. I remember crying in bed for not understanding why negative one minus one equals negative two instead of two, struggling to figure out what “absolute value” was (and why it needed those two vertical lines) for 3 months, and staring at a decimal and wondering what that little dot was for…while my peers already moved on for much harder concepts. In junior high, I basically failed all math tests, and one time I got a 61.5%, which was the only time I got over 60%, and my family was so happy that they took me out for dinner (they were not even sarcastic—they were sincerely celebrating).
Hence my childhood was buried in mountains of workbooks and new assignments from tutors, and my favorite art classes were substituted by math tutoring. You probably guessed how much I hated math, which made my life so miserable.

Even worse, life presented a bigger challenge: in ninth grade, I immigrated to America with my parents, so I had to face a totally different math curriculum—in English, which I was poor at. When I arrived, my math teacher told me three weeks later I would take the final exam, covering 400 pages of materials others had learned in one semester.
What….!!?? Is that your reaction? That was mine too.
So, imagine this: a girl who is incredibly bad at math, with the language barrier and final exam pressure, has to teach her self 400 pages of unfamiliar math materials in three weeks, while also keeping up the other coursework. She either failed miserably or committed suicide from stress, right?

Actually… Not only did I get a 98% (without cheating!) in the final, I also got into honors classes the next year. Later, I excelled at AP Calc BC and AP Stats. This March, I got notified that I was accepted to a prestigious math program in one of the most selective universities in the U.S.

How is this possible? How can she major in math? That’s what my junior high math teacher said as well.
So what happened in those three weeks, which changed her life forever?

Holding that 1.5 inch-thick textbook, I felt intimidated, yet I soon realized that, if I quit trying, I would definitely get a zero, but if I tried, I might still get a 50%, so I started to organize my thoughts: first, I need to understand the terms in English, then analyze how to approach each chapter. Therefore, I wrote all the math terms from the text on a notebook, including the basic ones like “add” and “subtract” (my English was just that bad…), and looked over them as frequently as possible. Then, scrutinizing each chapter, I realized that learning math was like building a ladder: if the lower rung is secured, then it will be easier to build the ladder higher, so I needed to build my foundation strong—getting all the basics down. As I tried to solve my problems, I learned to utilize different sources: books from the library, online interactive programs, Khan Academy, Oh, and my teachers (although I couldn’t speak that much English back then). Gradually I found math more fun then before: each topic is linked yet somehow different, and you don’t know why some theories make sense but they eventually do (I’m being irrational here…).

Those three weeks were indeed challenging but not miserable at all, because I learned to have more control over my academic life such as setting schedule, organizing materials, and seeking help when needed…these skills helped me a lot in life as well. My failure with math before stemmed from the fact that I tried to understand everything in my teachers’ way, but I never innovated new methods.
The more I studied math in my own ways, the easier I thought it was, and the more I appreciated its beauty. Hence this was my journey to eventually majoring in math.

I’m not trying to brag how smart I am or how much progress I’ve made. The only important lesson I learned, and I want to share, is that if you firmly believe you are innately bad at something and there is no cure, think twice. Your talent may be hidden, but it is still there. Change your way of approach and keep the hope open, you will see it.