Applying to a Tech? Why being quirky can be just as important as acing AP Calc.

Many students are under the impression that if they take a lot of Math and Science classes in high school, they’ll automatically be shoe-ins for premier engineering schools like MIT, Caltech, or Harvey Mudd. They think that getting good grades in AP Calc is enough to be a successful scientist. But there’s more to being an engineer, or doctor than being good at math or memorizing the bones of the human body.

One quality common among all famous scientists is a deep curiosity for how the world works. This desire for discovering why things are they way they are has led to some of the most important discoveries in science. These men and women weren’t all always considered ‘geniuses’ but they did have an unrelenting desire to better understand the universe.

This story from Richard Feynman, former Caltech Professor and Nobel Prize winner, perfectly illustrates the kind of curiosity the Tech schools are looking for.

One question that I wondered about was why the ant trails look so straight and nice. The ants look as if they know what they’re doing, as if they have a good sense of geometry. Yet the experiments that I did to try to demonstrate their sense of geometry didn’t work. Many years later, when I was at Caltech and lived in a little house on Alameda Street, some ants came out around the bathtub. I thought, “This is a great opportunity.” I put some sugar on the other end of the bathtub, and sat there the whole afternoon until an ant finally found the sugar. It’s only a question of patience.

The moment the ant found the sugar, I picked up a colored pencil that I had ready (I had previously done experiments indicating that the ants don’t give a damn about pencil marks – they walk right over them – so I knew I wasn’t disturbing anything), and behind where the ant went I drew a line so I could tell where his trail was. The ant wandered a little bit wrong to get back to the hole, so the line was quite wiggly, unlike a typical ant trail.

When the next ant to find the sugar began to go back, I marked his trail with another color. (By the way, he followed the first ant’s return trail back, rather than his own incoming trail. My theory is that when an ant has found some food, he leaves a much stronger trail than when he’s just wandering around.)

This second ant was in a great hurry and followed, pretty much, the original trail. But because he was going so fast he would go straight out, as if he were coasting, when the trail was wiggly. Often, as the ant was “coasting,” he would find the trail again. Already it was apparent that the second ant’s return was slightly straighter. With successive ants the same “improvement” of the trail by hurriedly and carelessly “following” it occurred.

I followed eight or ten ants with my pencil until their trails became a neat line right along the bathtub. It’s something like sketching: You draw a lousy line at first; then you go over it a few times and it makes a nice line after a while.

Feynman wondered how ants seemed to always follow the shortest path from their nest to a food source. So he set out to figure out why, and rather than spend the afternoon browsing Instagram (or its 1960s equivalent), he spent it observing ants and making discoveries about their actions. This need to understand things is what is going to drive you when you’re on the 400th petri dish trying to nail down which mutated gene is responsible for granting immunity to some disease.

60,000 students received a 5 on the AP Calculus BC exam last year, but the freshman class at MIT is only about 1,000. Think getting an 800 on the SAT Math Level 2 test guarantees you a spot at Harvey Mudd? There are 90,000 other perfect scorers who are also vying to be one of the 235 freshmen. Colleges want students who will graduate and make important discoveries so they can brag about their alumni to donors. Showing these colleges that you have that special spark of curiosity – in addition to strong grades and test scores – is an important part of your application.

That homemade burglar alarm you built to stop your sister from ‘borrowing’ your iPad for the hundredth time? The chainmail vest you painstakingly made one summer, link by link, to make your Renaissance Fair costume as authentic as possible? Those are the kinds of things that will set you apart from the crowd.