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Understanding Intellectual Vitality: Why Is It So Important For College Admissions?

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The college admissions process is often complex and riddled with difficult choices.

Students have to make decisions about colleges to apply to, how to pay for school, and which offer letter to accept.

However, at the other side of the table, college admissions committees have to decide between thousands of applicants vying for a select number of spots at their university.

This decision is particularly difficult for Ivy-League institutions, for which a majority of applicants have both strong academic abilities and a long list of activities on their resumes.

  • Stanford specifically asks about “intellectual vitality” on its application, only furthering its reputation as one of the foremost schools in the world (it’s also exceptionally difficult to earn an acceptance from the university).

For this reason, many schools are now explicitly looking for the quality of “intellectual vitality” in their prospective students.

The term leaves many applicants scratching their heads, but, if analyzed closely, it becomes perfectly clear:

A student who exhibits intellectual vitality intrinsically values their education. Their mind is curious and they energetically pursue knowledge and a pathway to understanding. This student seeks opportunities to learn in all parts of their life, not simply in those situations in which it is required.

I have a 4.0 GPA and am the Senior Class President, does that mean I have intellectual vitality? Maybe.

It’s important to understand that intellectual vitality may or may not translate to how well you performed in your high school classes.

To better understand this term, read the following examples to see the difference between a student exhibiting this quality versus a student whose motivation is simply to earn good grades in order to get into college.

Intellectual Vitality and Project-Based Learning

Jamal and Ariel are in an honors English IV course that requires them to complete a graduation project.

The teacher has encouraged students to choose a topic that is either personally meaningful to them or one that will allow them to explore a career they may be interested in pursuing.

  • The project requires students to write a lengthy research paper, work in the field with a mentor, and present to a panel of judges. It’s time-consuming and worth a good portion of their grade.
  • Ariel chooses to do her project on the cost-effectiveness of home improvement projects.
  • She has zero interest in home improvement, but her dad’s a contractor and would be able to easily find her a mentor.

She’s a strong writer and does what she needs to do to meet the minimum of her teacher’s requirement of a 5-10 page paper.

Ariel completes exactly 20 hours of service. She has also done several years of theater and aces the presentation.

  • When all is said and done, Ariel is happy with her A and never thinks about the project ever again.

Jamal has been interested in becoming a veterinarian since he was a kid but has had little experience in the field beyond taking family pets to the vet.

  • For his project, he decides to study the field of veterinary science and the changes it has undergone over time.

Due to privacy and liability issues, he has a hard time finding a mentor.

  • After calling twelve different clinics, he finally finds a person who will work with him and turns in the required paperwork over a week late.

While writing his paper, Jamal becomes engrossed in the research and learns new information about the profession.

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At dinner, he excitedly shares his knowledge with his family and tells them about what he has been able to do while working at the vet clinic.

When all is said and done, Jamal writes 9 pages and logs 40 hours.

He went over on his hours because he wanted to help one of the animals undergoing major surgery through the recovery process.

He practices his presentation many times with family and friends but is nervous in front of the judges and loses his train of thought a few times.

Overall, he’s happy with his B grade and had a blast while completing the project.

Over the summer, he decides to apply for a job at a local animal shelter and still goes back to the vet clinic to check in.

  • In the above example, Jamal exhibits intellectual vitality. Although Ariel completed all of her work on time and earned a higher grade, her motivation was simply to earn a good grade. 
  • She did not heed the teacher’s advice to choose a project that was meaningful to her.
  • Instead, she figured out the path of least resistance to earning that A: Her dad found her a mentor, she wrote the minimum number of required pages, and she completed the minimum number of required hours.

On the other hand, Jamal chose a topic that he was curious to learn more about.

  • Even when he had difficulty finding a mentor, he continued to persevere because it was important to him.

He was excited enough about the work he was doing and the information he was learning that he shared his experiences with his family.

Then, he took what he learned from the project and used it to help him make decisions about a summer job.

  • Even though Jamal’s grade wasn’t perfect, he’s the type of student that colleges seeking intellectual vitality want on their campus.

He is a student who is open and unafraid of new opportunities even if it means hard work.

Intellectual Vitality in the Day-to-Day Classroom

Katie and Christopher are students in an upper-level science course.

At the beginning of the semester, the teacher goes over the syllabus, including information about the breakdown of the weight of assignments for their final grades.

  • Christopher is a talented math student and spends some time analyzing the breakdown.
  • He realizes that even if he never completes any of the homework, he can still earn an A in the class.

For the rest of the semester, he memorizes what he needs to and earns good grades on classwork, tests, and quizzes.

He never completes a single homework assignment.

  • Katie also earns an A in the class. She really enjoyed the homework assignment that required students to watch an episode of Mythbusters at home and then to come up with their own small-scale myth-busting project.
  • She loves to bake at home. Since completing the assignment, Katie has started to experiment with her recipes, rather follow them line-by-line.
  • She’s made some pretty cool discoveries and feels proud of the candy-coated brownie recipe she wrote from scratch.

If you were to compare Katie and Christopher’s transcripts, they would likely be very similar.

However, Katie’s approach to her science class exhibits intellectual vitality.

She took a required activity for school, learned from the experience, and then made a connection to her life by using new knowledge to enhance her baking skills.

For Katie, experimentation didn’t have to be a skill that was only applicable when used in science class.

Intellectual Vitality and Work

Anaya is working after school and on weekends at a donut shop.

  • They have just implemented a new online ordering system, where customers can pay through an app and pick up their order at the front.

She realizes that the customers’ names are printed in small letters on the receipt, which is inside of the bag.

When there are several orders at once, customers can be seen rifling through each bag of donuts to figure out which order is theirs. On several occasions, customers took home the wrong order.

  • Anaya thinks about this problem on her way home from work and brainstorms a few potential solutions.
  • She’s not a manager and has no responsibility to fix the issue, but it’s bothering her and she knows there has a to be a better way of organizing the orders.
  • She brings up the issue to the manager at her next shift and asks if it’s okay to try out a new system each day in order to figure out what works best. The manager, who is usually busy in the back, hadn’t even known about the problem and excitedly agrees.

By the end of the week, Anaya finds a better organizational method and is paid to go to the other local stores to train their employees.

In this example, Anaya shows intellectual vitality by transcending her role as an entry-level employee.

She notices a problem and, instead of simply alerting the manager, Anaya feels compelled to create a solution. She uses her intellect to brainstorm ideas and then creates positive change.

Intellectual Vitality at Home

Do you have intellectual vitality?

To figure out the answer to that question, you can compare yourself to the students in the examples above. Whom do you most resemble?

You should also think about your behavior at home.

  • What are your interests and hobbies?
  • Is there a skill that you learned simply because you wanted to?
  • Maybe you love watching documentaries on Victorian monarchies.
  • Or perhaps you have turned the underside of your deck into a chicken coop.
  • Have you taught yourself HTML?

It may sound silly, but check out your Google search history.

  • How many times do you ask “why?” and “how?” simply because you are curious?

Students who are intellectually vital will be college students who are engaged on campus and invested in their learning experience.

They will one day be employees or leaders who are innovators and game changers.

Conclusion

When writing an essay on intellectual vitality, it’s imperative that you be reflective and introspective.

You must think about what motivates you to succeed and learn, both in and out of the classroom.

If you see yourself in Jamal, Katie, and Anaya, and/or if you independently pursue knowledge to satisfy your own curiosity and interests, you have a bright future ahead of you.

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