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The Curiosity Instinct by Emad T. '14

Every MIT applicant should ask a question - but not necessarily just "How can I get in?"

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.

14 responses to “The Curiosity Instinct”

  1. smile
    This post was as elegant as Louis Armstrong’s ‘La vie en rose’

  2. Unhappy Human Being :( says:

    I just scored 600in SAT Math and 620 in SAT Physics :(( Hence, I am not applying to MIT :(( Good Bye MIT :((

  3. Alex Wong says:

    Dilly! Eager to read more from you!

  4. Amelia Bateman says:

    I, too, love aimlessly browsing information on almost any topic, which is why I love Stumbleupon so much! I have one log-in for the arts, one for math and psychology, and one for general “stumbling.” For anyone who loves discovering new information and has a wide variety of interests but a short attention span, you should really try stumbleupon out.
    Great post, by the way!

  5. Zachary says:

    How about ‘why not’, ‘how can I not get into MIT’, and ‘should i reassess my values if applying to MIT is causing me too much stress’? Coming from a charter school I found that asking questions in a different light can sometimes make all the difference. I once asked my adviser why I should apply to MIT (we were having a discussion of what meaning ‘is’), and he simply replied ‘why not’.

    Ever since my motto has not been to try to fit the mold, but instead to find a mold that fits me… if there really even is a mold(enter dramatizing da-da-da sound effect here).

  6. carfeak gauve says:

    despite being all the way different i.e. wat u mean to be or wish to convey through is article i am still left in doubt that like how will the mit recognize my burning desires the intensity of my passions going against the very thing from where they begin their judgeent ..the sats…so i feel it is very improbable to find such a mold easily that fits me and provides me ample warmth as i can expect only from mit to make my passion turn into a reality…ofcourse mit in all this is an element that would make the journey to the aim smoother ..may/maynot be easier..but i always like to take the most unconventional and the hardest courses..

  7. Pete says:

    http://xkcd.com/609/

    Wikipedia’s addictivity has nothing on TV Tropes smile

  8. Bobby says:

    Here’s a challenge, randomly choose two things that are completely unrelated. Start at one page and by clicking the links try and get to the other page you choose.

  9. Anonymous says:

    @ Unhappy Human being : Why dont u study hard and re take the test?
    Dont get discouraged . This was just ur first attempt. Good luck!!

  10. Emad T. '14 says:

    Zachary: I agree, and that’s sort of the idea too, right? Colleges aren’t meant to be assembly lines, sculpting and engineering hunks of raw material to accord with a blueprint – they’d be fortunate to capture the essence of your creativity and passion, no matter what form it takes.

    Pete: Oh goodness no. TV Tropes is a major time sink. If the rest of you value your productivity, you would do well to avoid that site until it’s summer break.

  11. Well I like to think that the question “What can I do to land up at xxxx?”(xxxx being the place you want to be at) is misguidedly approached.

    Instead of first looking at the nature of the place and then trying to fit in, we must look at ourselves, do the things that we love and then finding a place whose qualities match with ours. It shouldn’t be the other way round.

    smile

  12. barrymaswan says:

    @ Unhappy Human Being, I’m Kenyan and we’re pretty much sailing in the same boat (we both have mediocre SAT scores). However, I’m not scared nor am I going to give up. I’ll still forge ahead with my applications, after all, what do I have to lose? If things don’t work out I’ll simply study harder and re-take the tests next year. Keeping hope alive is what really matters!

    If I’ll be able to write as well as Emad after just two years at MIT, I must get into MIT!

  13. Unhappy Human Being :( says:

    @anonymous and @barrymaswan:
    Thank you for your encouraging words.
    I really don’t know how anonymous knew that it was actually my first attempt! smile
    And barrymaswan, keep going man. I appreciate your confidence. I will be writing for the second time in 2012 I have not lost hope. The only thing is, I am not applying this year because I don’t wanna risk my money for the application process. Next year I will study nicely and write SAT again and will gain good confidence to apply to MIT unlike this year.
    Good luck anonymous and barrymaswan smile