Passionate curiosity may be the key

By: College Goals

Recently I traveled back home to South Africa with a small group of graduate students on a study trip. It was wonderful because they were wonderful – smart, funny, and interesting. But in addition to amusing conversations about the etymology of words and debates about the addictive qualities of desserts, we also participated in hard, serious conversations about challenging subjects, from government corruption to the state of conservation.

What struck me most in these conversations, though, was the passionate curiosity, as Einstein described it, that these young people—by any measure some of the highest achievers in their respective fields in the world—could bring to almost any subject. Whether the conversation was about democracy or economic policy or historical injustice, and regardless of their field, they could ask thoughtful questions. I realized that what set them apart, and probably did even when they first applied to college, was a driving desire to know—what Stanford, in an earlier iteration of its application, called “intellectual vitality.”

I have often thought about this quality in my previous life as an admission officer for Brown. In that capacity, I read close to two thousand applications each season. I think it hard for someone who has not participated in the process of evaluating applications at a super-selective college to understand just how exceptionally deep its applicant pool is in talent. It is a pool in which a college can admit a completely different group of students without shifting the markers of excellence of its admitted class.

That excellence is oddly comforting—it’s nice to know there are so many smart, accomplished, and interesting young people in the world! It is also the most challenging aspect of selective admission: when you have such a huge number of outstanding applicants and you only have space for a small, fixed number of them, how do you make meaningful decisions? Sometimes the choice is led by an institutional agenda. A selective school can meet its specific needs—in a given year it might be for students in particular fields of study; students underrepresented by race or ethnicity; or those with particular skills, such as oboists or sculptors—without ever dipping far into an accomplished pool of applicants. If, at a very selective school, great academic results unlock the door, it is this dollop of something extra that propels an applicant through it and into the class.

For some students, the bit of extra that they bring to the table might be intellectual curiosity. Thinking of this reminds me of a conversation with an admission officer at MIT about the kinds of students that they prefer to admit. He said that they liked to see “students who were building a rocket in their garage.” I don’t think he meant it literally – though perhaps doing so would actually win you points at MIT! Instead, I took it to mean that he was really describing students who were so excited about an idea, so driven by curiosity, that they were willing to invest and participate in any opportunity to learn more and to explore.

All of which brings me back to where I started. Many parents want to know how to put their child on the path to an Ivy or a school of similar brand (scarily enough, even parents of elementary school students!). Should they invest in yet another expensive summer program at a brand-name school? Should their child seek out a summer research internship with a local professor, or found a club at school to do what three other clubs already do? In truth, their children should do whatever will encourage them to develop a voracious curiosity, a drive to know and understand aspects of their world, a desire to have their lovely young minds blown by something interesting. Those students may or may not make it to their parents’ dream school in the end, but they will have the capacity to wring an extraordinary education from any school that is lucky enough to have them.

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