Intellectual Curiosity and College

According to the IECA’s (Independent Educational Consultants Association) ’Top Ten Strengths and Experiences Colleges look for in High School Students,’ number nine is “Demonstrated intellectual curiosity through reading, school, leisure pursuits, and more.” Stanford is even more direct about its desire to find students with a vibrant intellectual curiosity. On its Common Application supplement, question one states, “Stanford students are widely known to possess a sense of intellectual vitality. Tell us about an idea or an experience you have had that you find intellectually engaging.”

To thrive at a school like Stanford, a student should have an expansive intellectual curiosity supported by the variety of books read, authors referenced, websites visited, and research undertaken. An intellectually curious student possesses motivation to solve arcane engineering problems, examine and analyze the Crimean War, or write C++ code to create a software program for calculating economic cycles. None of the students I’ve worked with who have eventually been offered admission to Stanford have had a problem with the intellectual vitality question. They didn’t sit in their chairs wondering what intellectual curiosity meant or how to approach the prompt. Most came up with examples quickly and needed little assistance in formulating a response.

In the past, a student didn’t necessarily have to show extracurricular pursuits outside of the classroom to prove they had strong intellectual curiosity, now most do. In fact, at MIT, applicants are ranked in four different areas: Academics, Co-curricular Activities, Extracurricular Activities, and Interpersonal Skills. ‘Co-curricular activities’ are defined as educational activities that take place outside the classroom.  Applicants are ranked on a scale of 1 to 5, with ‘5’ being the highest. To be a serious contender at MIT, you really must participate in intellectual pursuits outside the classroom. Some students pour themselves into a variety of such activities that include: science or math Olympiad, model UN, debate team or mock trial group, writing for a website or local newspaper, attending a writing workshop, submitting original fiction, poetry, or drama to a writing contest, such as Scholastic’s, or entering artwork in a contest…the possibilities are almost endless.

Admissions officers become very excited by applicants with unique interests, born from intellectual pursuits, who also have the drive to organize, from scratch, activities, clubs, or businesses to pursue their passions. In essence such candidates bring strong intellectual curiosity and leadership to the table. That is a rare and powerful confluence.  For example, if you fervently are interested in Tibet, and you personally invite the Dali Lama to come to your school, that is strong evidence of intense intellectual curiosity coupled with bold action. That is exactly the type of person most highly selective schools want on their campuses.

Admissions officers also like to see this kind of intellectual vibrancy in as many of your endeavors as you can muster the energy. If you’re in a U.S. History class and you pull together a presentation on U.S. Grant, and you not only read the textbook materials and articles you found while searching in Google, but actually read his two-volume memoir and write, independently, a contrast and compare essay about Grant and Robert E. Lee, and have it published in the local newspaper, your intellectual curiosity will soar on your application.

Naturally, as you note these activities on your resume, you will let your counselor know of your activities as well as those teachers who are willing to write your recommendations. This will verify to the admissions office that your intellectual endeavors are genuine and warrant mentioning across all areas of your application: recommendations, essays, and, of course, in your interviews.  

Intellectual curiosity isn’t something that can be faked; it really must be genuine, which is why it is such a convincing piece of the application puzzle. If the admissions office notes a genuine curiosity about learning in a candidate, the appeal of that applicant rises above the crowd of equally qualified candidates, and the possibility of gaining admission rises just as high.  Intellectual curiosity might rank only ninth on a list, but its import in the admissions process is incalculable.