Intellectual Vitality Essay

Advice from Current Students: Essay Specific

Article Type: Quick and Dirty

Want to know what some actual students had to say? It’s nice to hear straight from the horse’s mouth. (Note: None of the following students were horses, despite one of them having larger than average teeth.)

Student from Northwestern University:

My three college essays:

  • “What constitutes good leadership? Describe a situation where you learned how to be a better leader.” My response: Working as a swimming instructor taught me the value of level-headedness and compassion when trying to lead others.
  • “Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.” My response: Being a musician helped me to grapple with conflicting viewpoints on religion.
  • “What are the unique qualities of Northwestern - and of the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying - that make you want to attend the University? In what ways do you hope to take advantage of the qualities you have identified?” My response: Northwestern’s campus architecture reflects diversity, tradition, and modernity; the engineering school curriculum allows me to pursue my non-technical interests.

A good college essay makes the admissions officer reading it believe they know something about you that only a close friend would know.

This “something” can be whatever you want - the trick is to find something that reveals your character AND impresses the reader with your skills and intelligence.

In my case, I wrote about my experiences with religion - a deeply personal topic that I didn’t discuss casually - in the context of my musical training, which was one of the most impressive aspects of my resume.

Student admitted to Stanford University, currently at Harvard University:

  • "What matters to you, and why?" I wrote about my daily walks home from school.
  • "Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development." I wrote about not being able to read Chinese.

You'll notice that my first example describes an commonplace experience, and my second one even highlights a weakness. These are, of course, highly simplistic summaries, but I've presented them this way to make a point: your topics don't have to be remarkable. In fact, it might even be better if they aren't.

To see why, let's take a closer look at what the prompts are really asking. Although only one explicitly mentions it, it seems to me that both of those questions ask whether you have "intellectual vitality." So, uh... what exactly does that mean?

At least to me, it means that they are looking for people who can't help but be excited by and engaged with the world around them. The things they see get them thinking, even when there isn't any homework asking then to do so, even when those things that aren't necessarily recognized intellectual topics, and even when there aren't people to impress. Life simply stirs their minds into motion.

(Disclaimer: I make no claim to embody this romantic ideal. I am quite far from it. But I guess I exhibited some of these qualities enough for the Stanford admissions committee...)

If you can successfully take an ordinary topic and illuminate what makes it extraordinary, then you have demonstrated some amount of this intellectual vitality. You've shown that you search for meaning in your everyday life.

This is important because the way you handle the little things speak a lot about your character (this is true in life in general, not just for college essays). It's easy enough to pretend when it comes to big things because you're more likely to consciously mind the way you act, and there are well-known patterns to follow. However, it's harder to pretend for the little things because you're more likely to forget to pay attention.

You probably don't want to hear this, but I think it would be misguided for me to share the text of my essays. I don't really have anything against it; I just truly don't think it would be helpful.

I remember reading dozens of other people's essays in college prep books when I was a senior. I convinced myself that they were helping me, but at best they gave me an idea of the tone I should aspire to. Reading other people's stories couldn't help me find my own story to tell. I was most productive once I stopped worshipping those models.

I encourage you to think about the little details that penetrate your everyday life. There are things that define you; you just have to notice them.

     My life is a series of intense fascinations, which I dive into headfirst.

    Age ten. My dad shows me a family tree, and genealogy piques my interest. I collect data about my own family, interviewing relatives whenever I can, and construct a tree spanning hundreds of people stretching back centuries.

    Age twelve: I discover I can program my graphing calculator. I’m hooked, and explore the limits of what other people think is a mere calculator. I write games and a Mandelbrot fractal renderer. The calculator is banned from family dinner, but my head is still filled with “if” statements and matrix transformations while my mouth is filled with spaghetti and meatballs.

    Age thirteen. I compete in an engineering challenge to build a tower out of one sheet of paper. I place second, but I keep designing improved towers and eventually produce one nine feet tall.

    Age fifteen. I create my largest web application yet, EVTripPlanner, which helps people all over the world plan road trips in electric vehicles. A woman in Italy emails me about an issue with the charger database. Hours pass as I hunt down the problem. At four a.m., I find and fix it, and go to sleep satisfied. That night, I dream of code. Later I respond to the Italian woman. She replies “EVTripPlanner is amazing. Keep up the good work!”

    I thrive when immersed in new subjects as I explore what can be done with each piece of newfound knowledge and acquired skill.


Anonymous Student. "Intellectual Vitality" Study Notes, LLC., 16 Dec. 2014. Web. 13 Mar. 2018. <>.

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