To foster curiosity, note the gaps in your understanding of the things that interest you, and pose questions that contain words like “why,” “what if,” and “how.” COURTESY EMILY MORTER ON UNSPLASH

For Montclair Local

Pat Berry is a writer, editor, and college application essay coach. Check out the archives for her tips on writing meaningful essays, finding financial aid, acing the college interview, and


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“High school isn’t always conducive to curiosity.” 

That’s not my insight — it belongs to one of my students who wrote eloquently in one of her college application essays about pushing back on the advice of high school counselors. The counselors’ suggestion: identify two or three clubs and/or activities and dive in with intention. That way you’ll increase your chances of earning leadership positions that put you in a great light with application readers.

That’s all well and good, my client thought (she did commit throughout high school to two activities she feels strongly about), but she wanted more. Her school offers too many engaging organizations and discussion groups to limit herself. And so she didn’t. Instead of nailing down a third activity, she kept that extra extracurricular block in her schedule open to what she calls “opportunities.” One week she would attend a Spanish Club meeting for a discussion on the Catalan independence movement and another week she’d hear a talk on fast fashion offered by the Environmental Club. Not surprisingly, this student values her curious nature and knows it will serve her well in college, not to mention throughout her life.

I believe she’s on to something really important about learning, and I took to Google to find out how students — heck, how all of us — can build and nurture curiosity. 





It turns out that curiosity is just as important as hard work and intelligence in determining academic performance. So says a study out of the University of California, Davis, which also found that curiosity prepares the brain for learning and makes learning more rewarding and, therefore, fun. 

Googling led me to several resources on the topic of developing curiosity, and I advise anyone interested in the subject to pose questions, pull on those internet threads, and see where they take you. (See what I did there?) One article I found, aptly titled “Curiosity: The Force Within a Hungry Mind,” lists several ways to stimulate that force, beginning with, not surprisingly, valuing your inquiring mind. Here are several others:  

  • • Formulate good questions. Queries that include “why,” “what if,” and “how” often lead to meaningful answers.
  • • Tinker. It’s a lot like play. You can tinker with ideas, science experiments, art materials, and what have you. Begin by saying to yourself, What if I try ______ (fill in the blank)? 
  • • Read up on current events, and note the gaps in your understanding of what’s happening in the world. This is when it’s useful to remind yourself “there are no dumb questions” when you don’t know the answers. 
  • • Be skeptical of what you read or hear. Are the sources reliable? How do you know? What about conventional wisdom? Is something that’s been accepted as truth in the past still true?
  • • Try to understand differences between societies and cultures. How do they contrast? How are they similar? What more would you like to know about them?

Last month, I attended a lecture presented by Montclair State English professor Jeffrey Alan Miller, winner of a 2019 MacArthur Fellowship (often referred to as the “genius grant”) for his huge discovery of the earliest known draft of the King James Bible. In his talk, Professor Miller described how probing a fleeting reference in one scholar’s papers began a journey that led, in a roundabout way, to a trove of information among the journals of another scholar. I don’t know Dr. Miller, but as he lectured he seemed to be telling his lay audience that asking questions, along with a healthy dose of determination to get at the answers — and not genius per se — were the most important factors in his research. He also seemed to suggest that curiosity is in all of us to cultivate. I’m quite comfortable believing that.