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Life at Caltech: Our Quirky Sense of Humor

While at Caltech, I was lucky enough to be a student admissions reader. I got to read applications, discuss them with admissions staff, and ultimately vote on whether to accept or reject an applicant. My favorite part was reading the “quirky sense of humor” response, because it was almost pure entertainment – I’m pretty sure no one ever got rejected because their jokes weren’t funny enough. So, because this answer was just bonus points, I could relax and laugh at the ridiculous antics applicants described.


My Favorite “Quirky Sense of Humor” Essay Responses


Out of all the applications I read, three quirky responses really stuck with me. The first was from an applicant whose chemistry teacher liked to play a prank on new students: the teacher would ask the student to open a certain book, and when they did, the book would erupt in flames. Once the book was closed, it went back to looking like a perfectly normal book. This was already a pretty great story, but the applicant took things a step further and made her own burning book!


The second memorable response was from a student who happened to read about supercooled liquids and realized the potential for practical jokes. He filled a water bottle with a solution that looked like water, but would turn into a weird slush when shaken. Then, he told his friends that he’d been hiding magic powers this whole time, and ‘proved’ it by freezing his water bottle.


The third response was a little unusual; the applicant simply wrote about writing and performing humorous speeches for competitions. He also mentioned that one of his best performances was on Youtube. I generally didn’t investigate an applicant past their application, but after two of the student’s recommenders also mentioned this Youtube video, I made an exception. The speech was a parody infomercial, and it was pretty great.


(For the sake of fairness, I’m also including my own “quirky sense of humor” response. Sadly, it really doesn’t hold a candle to the rest: my sophomore year, my Pre-calculus teacher was extremely strict about graph axes needing to be labeled on homework assignments. “If you don’t label the axes, how will I know which way is which? I can’t just assume it’s a conventional graph.” Thinking my teacher needed to lighten up, I got the majority of the students in my class to all draw their graphs with the x-axis and y-axis switched – and labeled accordingly.)


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Caltech Pranks


There’s no way to tell for sure, but I suspect that the quirky sense of humor prompt primed Caltech students to be more open to pranks – both giving and receiving. In no particular order, some of the amazing pranks I witnessed:


  • Every year, a group of students turns Caltech’s tallest building into a giant Christmas tree. And every year, the rest of campus is expected to try to prank it. My freshman year, I lent my multitool to one of the tree-builders and promptly forgot about it. Later that night, my roommates and I hosted a prank planning session in our room, complete with detailed diagrams on our whiteboard. Just as we were getting ready to put our amazing plan (turning the tree upside-down) into action, a student walked in to return my multitool. Fortunately, the student was willing to keep quiet so long as we let her in on the prank. Double-agent!


  • My dorm had just gotten a new RA, and he hadn’t moved in yet. A bunch of residents decided to fill his entire living room with balloons as a welcome present – and a few of us also swapped out his living room light switch with a blank panel. He noticed the balloons just fine, but it took him at least a week to realize he was supposed to be able to turn his lights off.


  • After that RA graduated, people decided to do something more low-key for the next one: they took his door off its hinges and strung it up in the courtyard with a welcome message written on the whiteboard. This prank actually worked better than expected; the new RA didn’t realize he was supposed to have a front door until a few hours after moving in (I guess obliviousness was one of the job requirements).


  • Speaking of doors… a student was out of town for a few weeks over the summer, so his friends took the hinges off the side of his door and put them along the top, effectively creating a giant doggie door.


  • Some of my friends hid a speaker on an elevator in one of the dorms, set to make a random noise every 5 minutes or so. Since this wasn’t a very tall dorm, there was maybe a 10% chance you’d actually hear anything while using the elevator. This led to some great e-mails, such as “Did anyone notice that our elevator is haunted??” and “It makes the elevator rides more interesting :D”


  • One more door prank! My dorm was playing a game that involved trying to surprise certain targets. One target was so determined to win that he completely moved out of his room and went into hiding. In retaliation, some of his opponents walled off his room and painted the fake wall to look like the rest of the hallway (dark grey with flames – not an easy pattern to match). They did such a good job that, when the head of Housing gave a tour of our dorm, he didn’t notice the missing room.


Like I said, I’m not positive Caltech’s application contributed to our shenanigans…but I’m guessing it was related.


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