Even though I'm now two years out of high school, I still keep in touch with one of my favorite English teachers - indeed, one of the best teachers I've ever had the privilege of taking classes with - from time to time. Two of her kids are old enough to be in school now, but she's already going long on the overall process. Early one morning, I saw a message from her asking if I had ever attended any classes at the Russian School of Mathematics, which looks to be a rigorous afterschool program meant to give you uber math skills. The first thing my eyes wandered to was the alumni page, which boasts an impressive list of schools where past students of RSM are now studying.
I've never been in a program quite exactly like that, let alone any academic enrichment program that you have to pay for. When I told her that, she mulled it over and then just chalked up my high school record (and my college choice) to natural brilliance.
As flattered as I was by that, I'm not sure if that's completely true. The nature-nurture debate still inspires debate among academics; far be it from me to weigh in on it with empirical evidence. But what I can say is that there's a lot in the environment, the way that I grew up, to which I ought to ascribe any ostensible brilliance (after all, it's hard to accept brilliance at face value when, well, sub-A level grades on tests at MIT would beg to differ).
In fact, as far as innate ability goes, I think Neil deGrasse Tyson nailed this one when he did an AMA on Reddit (which the MIT Admissions Facebook fan page advertised): When it comes to curiosity and the receptiveness of kids to new ideas and the scientific process, kids are never the problem. As he said, "They are born scientists." I think that fits in with my experience, or even the prototypical experience of a kid. I think we all had those days when we asked why the sky was blue, and then pressed further with a neverending string of whys and what-is-thats until our parents lost their patience, or they simply didn't know the answer beyond that.
(That said, maybe I'm an extreme example. I'm that kid who stuck his finger in a candle flame to verify that, yes, fire is hot. What you call stupidity, I call valuing a posteriori knowledge highly.)
Maybe it takes root easiest in youth, just like a language of any sort would. After all, there's definitely a vocabulary that I find associated with curiosity. Most of its words are punctuated with question marks. Some are occasionally infixed with ellipses that, as a matter of law, cannot terminate a sentence, or else our thoughts would obsessively hang on them, much as they do when someone's words trail off.
But as with any language, curiosity is most easily reinforced through exposure. When you ask questions, and when your parents or teachers - as many of mine did - encourage you to seek out the answers for yourself, sending you off on a journey to stumble along the pages of a dictionary or encyclopedia, you derive a sense of value from it. No algorithm or studying heuristic, I think, could ever hope to emulate pure, genuine interest. That's why I really like Wikipedia, even for all of its supposed flaws - it's a launching point to continue that investigation and learn many things that you didn't know before. Half the fun of aimlessly browsing through it is seeing the deep connections between topics, or simply getting lost in all sorts of facts about things.
(I tell myself that last bit over and over again to justify my Wikipedia-based procrastination.)
Where am I going with this? A common question that emerges on the blogs, to be answered by both admissions officers and student bloggers alike, is "How can I get into MIT?"
One thing you learn about knowledge and learning is that a good portion of it involves asking the right questions. Maybe "How can I get into MIT?" takes the wrong approach. I like to think you'll find the answer to that one when you answer another question: "What are the things that burn and itch in my mind, the things that I can't seem to get enough of?" By aiming to answer that - and having it show in everything you do - you might find that you'll already be well on your way.