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What is Intellectual Vitality?

When top schools are deciding which candidates to admit, they look for students who display something called intellectual vitality, often using this to judge between equally academically qualified candidates. But what is that? How do you display it? This term is not commonly used by students, as it is one created by admissions officers. In this guide, we’ll explore what “intellectual vitality” means, what exactly schools are looking for, and how you can display these traits, along with traits to avoid displaying.

So what is intellectual vitality? It’s a love of learning for the sake of knowledge alone, rather than its pursuit for grades, prestige, admissions chances, or external expectations. This is what top schools look for in a student, as these schools take pride in being beacons of knowledge and learning, and look for students who will contribute to that end.

How to Demonstrate Intellectual Vitality

Now you know what intellectual vitality is, but how do you go about demonstrating it? The following list describes what admissions officers look for in a student’s essays and extracurriculars to see if they’ve demonstrated their intellectual vitality.

  1. Drive to Learn: This means pursuing interests outside the classroom through multiple approaches. For example, if you’re interested in Plato, you could read his books, read commentaries on his books, blog about your opinions on the books and commentaries, apply his philosophy to managing your busy schedule, apply his philosophy to leading a club at school, put on talks about his philosophy, create a YouTube channel exploring his philosophy, contact professors at universities you’re considering to learn about how their philosophy program incorporates Plato’s philosophy, ask a professor to mentor you about questions on Plato’s philosophy, publish a paper on Plato’s philosophy, etc. You don’t need to do all of these things, but they are all examples of how a drive to learn manifests itself in a student’s activities.
  1. Multidisciplinary Approach: Combining multiple intellectual disciplines or approaches shows your ability to learn creatively. For the Plato example above, coding an app which provides relevant Platonic philosophical quotes to questions posed would be an interdisciplinary approach to your love of philosophy.
  1. Enriching Collaboration: Intellectually exploring with others, especially graduate students, university professors, or other academics, lends credence to your efforts. People who are experts in a field are often happy to discuss it with others, and while you should take care before contacting academics at random, with careful research you can find some whose fields of study directly relate to your interests.
  1. Desire to grow: Ivy League universities are liberal arts institutions, which means they want to cultivate applicants with a broad array of skills who will lead in their field. Applicants who demonstrate the ability to disrupt mindsets or challenge expectations in order to find better paradigms or methods are prized.
  1. Openness to new ideas: Top schools appreciate students who want to learn in a broad and deep way, not just to accomplish some task.In the example above, reexamining Platonic ideals in the light of new developments in philosophy shows an openness to new ideas.
  1. Ambition: Show admissions officers that you have a plan to grow and develop as a thinker that goes beyond your job. This should explicitly link to “Why Major” essays that ask about your intellectual interests.

What to Avoid

The list above are traits to display which demonstrate your intellectual vitality, the following list of traits undermines that perception, and causes schools to question your motivation or ability. 

  1. External motivations: Wanting a high-paying job in a stable career, or to satisfy your parents expectations, or that you want to be conventionally successful. While there is nothing wrong with these desires inherently, top schools are looking for something more from their applicants. Even if these are your motivations, they should not be the focus of your essays.
  1. Stagnancy: Making life choices by taking things easy, going with the flow, exploring only what’s immediately available, or just fulfilling expectations. For example, if you’re interested in Plato, and read his books and enjoy them, and then think about them sometimes – and then leave your interest at that casual level.
  1. Isolation: Working alone in ways that are difficult to independently verify makes it difficult for admissions officers to gauge the scope of your accomplishments and trust your Activities List. This is not to say individual work is valueless, but it is harder to judge if it doesn’t produce tangible results.
  1. Task-oriented mindset: No top school wants to churn out “normal” graduates who quietly, dutifully, go to class and then settle into their jobs. Students who don’t want to change the world for the better don’t belong at top universities. 
  1. Vocational emphasis: Top schools don’t want high school students looking for job training. (The exception to this is specific pre-vocational programs, like BS/MD or BBA programs). Their mission is to teach students to think, and see the world in a new light, and expose them to new ways of thinking. These are skills which help with getting a job, but are often not directly applicable to job acquisition.
  1. Directionlessness: Top schools avoid students who are smart but haven’t set personal goals for how they want to learn. This doesn’t mean you have to know exactly what you want to do, in college or beyond, but you should display a passion for something.

While this list may seem disheartening, doing some of these things won’t automatically disqualify you, or make the activities you’ve participated in worthless. Instead, these two lists should act as a guide for the activities you do, and how you involve yourself in them. For every activity you partake in, determine what you’re getting out of it, and what your participation in the activity says about you.

For your essays, these lists are more concrete advice. Avoid looking at education at a top school as a means to a good career, or admission as the end goal in and of itself. These are institutions which pride themselves on creating scholars, so through your essays they want to see what kind of scholar you will be. This is the best place to demonstrate your intellectual vitality, and hunger to learn.

Final Thoughts

The best way to show intellectual vitality is to get involved. Performing research, especially with a professor at a university, will help you demonstrate your interests – but that’s not the only way! You can do your own research, start your own projects, follow your own dreams. The initiative that you take doing this will help admissions . This is especially useful if it leads to publication. While this is not the only way to demonstrate intellectual vitality, it is the most straightforward and clear-cut.

Once you’ve determined where your passions lie, you will be able to follow them, and in so doing find your own ways to demonstrate your passion for learning, and engaging with what you have learned.
This can feel daunting for high school students, many of whom don’t feel ready to undertake these kinds of academic leaps. If you want guidance, and help to discover and explore your passions, Ivy Scholars offers mentoring for high schoolers who want to find their passions, but aren’t certain where to begin. If you want to know more about how we can help you, schedule a free consultation, we’re always happy to hear from you.

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Wendy Y.
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Below is my son's review. He was accepted to his dream Ivy League school!

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