Define Intellectual Vitality Essays

Candidates respond to all three essay topics. (250 word limit for each essay.)

First, let’s briefly get a sense of what 250 words means. It’s two average paragraphs, or three lean paragraphs. Also known as: not a ton of space! The burden is on you to think about the meatiest point you need to make, and then to build your surrounding elements strategically, so that they help you deliver that point with maximum impact, concisely. It’s not as easy as it may sound. For our analysis, we’re mostly going to dig into the “meat” aspect.

Topic 1: Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.

Let’s hold a magnifying glass over that word “development.” It’s the key. When something develops, it evolves from one thing to something else. It may grow in size. It may grow in complexity. It may shrink. It may go from solid to liquid. Don’t focus on the result. Focus instead on the “change” aspect. The “X to Y” evolution, transformation. The morphing. The … “development.”

Here, we’re focused on your intellect. So before we search for great candidates for ideas or experiences that have played a part in developing our intellects, we need to define it first and make sure we understand what it means. What is your intellect? Take a stab, close your eyes, and try to define it, see what you come up with. In a nutshell, intellect refers to your ability to reason. Your mental horsepower. Think of it like RAM. Computers loaded with RAM are able to do a lot of complicated things, simultaneously. Folks at Stanford tend to have a lot of RAM. Their brains can handle complicated ideas, even those that are incongruous. And because they have mighty intellects, they’re able to grapple with those ideas.

Here’s a silly example. Imagine teaching a 4 year old about “lying.” It may be too complicated to suggest that sometimes it’s okay to lie, but generally it’s not advisable. The four-year old brain (compared to a freshman’s at Stanford) doesn’t have quite as much RAM. Maybe the four year old brain can only process this idea: that “lying is bad.” Always? “Yes, always.” When they’re older, maybe they can deal with exceptions that don’t bust the rule, necessarily, but make it a touch more complicated.

The more “intellect” you have (not that it’s a quantity, but here you can think of it that way if you’d like), the more you’re able to grapple with conflicting ideas, understand nuance, comprehend challenging concepts. What we want to get a sense of here is not a measure of your intellect, but rather, some self-awareness for a time when your intellect CHANGED (advanced) from one state to another.

Here are some examples (there are an infinite number of possibilities here, this is purely meant to help you kickstart the brainstorming process):

  • Was there a time you realized you were WRONG about something you were 100% sure you were right about?
  • Was there a time you learned that there was simply another (equally valid) way of looking at something? Say, through a different cultural lens. Or a different gender. Or religious world view. Or class perspective.
  • Was there ever some person (could be a historical figure, an athlete, an artist, a politician, a writer, an uncle) who espoused ideas, or excelled at something, in a way that changed the way you understood or saw things?
  • Was there an experience that inspired you to APPROACH things differently? Say for example you were always a trusting person but an experience caused a shift where you subsequently approached things more cautiously? Or vice versa, whereas you’d always been suspicious and cautious of the unknown, an experience caused you to relax your guard and approach things differently?

Notice in all these examples, we’re hammering the idea of “difference” and “change.” It’s all about the delta. In order to crush this essay, you need to help us understand how an idea or experience somehow transformed your intellect from starting point A to new point B.

Topic 2: Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.

Classic Stanford undergrad question. The mistake we see 95% of the time on first drafts is the impulse to try to “slip in” resume highlights. As if, this is a veiled attempt by Stanford to want to be IMPRESSED. The way to impress Stanford here is through honesty, and charm. But mostly honesty.

Indulge us here and take two swings at this. On the first attempt, get it out of your system, whatever letter you want to write, just take a crack and then file it away for the time being.

On your second attempt, go with us on a little journey. Start by creating a roommate, leaving everything to chance (the same way it’ll more or less work out when you’re actually assigned a roommate in your freshman dorm). For starters, your roommate will almost certainly be the same gender. Now, generate a bunch of parameters, like ethnicity, height, weight, athletic/ musical/etc., liberal/conservative, east coast/southern/west-coast/etc., affable/surly, cool/not-so-cool, American/foreign-born/etc…. Don’t spend too much time, because it doesn’t really matter much. Give this guy or gal a name. Again, don’t get stuck on this, the idea is to paint a vague picture. But once you have this picture, commit to it for a second. Imagine a real person on the other end.

Now, you’re gonna address a fresh new letter to this person. But if the open-ended-ness of the Stanford prompt leaves you stuck, consider some of the following ideas. Write the letter using one of the following:

  • What if your roommate just confided in you, and told you an incredible secret. Something that leaves your roommate in an extremely vulnerable emotional state having just put him/herself on the line. What might you reveal about YOURSELF in response? “Hey, so here’s something most people don’t know about ME…” (what might follow that up?)
  • Treat it as though it were a “” profile. What kinds of preferences would you reveal about yourself that might give the BEST clues about what you’re all about? Think about quirks and specificity here. If you were to say “I like Chinese food” it doesn’t say all that much since so many different types of people would fall under that category. If, however, you were to say you absolutely HATE the HBO show “The Wire” that would have the opposite effect since “everyone loves that show.” Can you stack up a few such preferences that, when summed, may help someone get a sense for what you’re all about, and even better, become more curious to get to know you better?
  • You know that classic question “if you were stuck on a desert island forever, what album would you bring?” … You can put a twist on it here. Name a few KEY possessions you’re gonna bring that’ll be essential to your comfort. Forget bland necessities like “a toothbrush” (since everyone will be packing one of those). More like, the “sounds of the rainforest” you use to lull yourself to sleep every night. Stuff like that. And possibly even suggest a few things you DON’T have that your roommate may bring to complete the set for total roommate symbiosis. You don’t need to follow this conceit exactly, but maybe this gives you an idea from which you can springboard to help show us something about who you are exactly, and what makes you … you.

Topic 3: What matters to you, and why?

Ha, in 250 words… you’re asked to grapple with one of life’s more challenging questions. A fitting test from a place like Stanford. Let’s start with what NOT to do.

Extinguish the desire with every ounce of effort in you to imagine what Stanford wants to hear. If you pen a response that you BELIEVE will put you in good stead because you think it shows maturity, or emotional intelligence, or whatever else… you are in for a crash landing. Or, tell you what, let’s a make a deal. Write that version, and keep it handy. Now write ANOTHER version that may never ever see the light of day. Think of this as a private diary entry. An exercise that may lead to something. But take the pressure away that someone might read it, so be more honest than you might want to be otherwise.

For this version, imagine you’re addressing a crowd (like the Pope, or MLK), and it’s a crowd of people who… aren’t really contributing all that positively to society. Maybe they’re lazy. Maybe they’re irresponsible. Maybe they’re disaffected. Maybe they’re dangerous. Let’s just call them the folks who aren’t model citizens of the world.

What might you say to inspire these folks? Think about it. If you were to say something obvious, wouldn’t it run the risk of not having much of an impact? Make it less about you (just for a second), and instead think about what you might say to inspire this crowd. If you were to say “say no to drugs” or “do unto others…” or “cherish each day as though it were your last” … hasn’t everyone heard it already? If they haven’t internalized those ideas, they’re certainly not gonna do so just because YOU said it, right? But they might if they hear something NEW, something fresh about what matters, in a way that may cause them to re-evaluate things or see things through a new lens.

Obviously, you won’t want to write about something trivial, like “driving a nice car matters because the value of a smooth ride is more pleasing than a bumpy one.” Unless it’s a cracking metaphor, something like that might make your message seem like you didn’t give it a whole lot of thought, or, worse, someone who’s so privileged that that type of material comfort is truly something that matters more than deeper, cooler things. So, it probably will have to do with human interaction, or a way of approaching things, or a state of being, or the like. Think about where others are going wrong. What are others MISSING, in a way that leads to irresponsible behavior, actions, attitudes, etc.? What matters to YOU that makes you feel like your compass is pointed in a better direction?

This conceit (of addressing a crowd) is meant to unlock ideas, not for you to embrace the idea too literally of proselytizing. So, if it helps, use your imagination of the crowd to help the ideation process, and then if you find a neat germ of an idea, you can build on it and then personalize it and develop it in a form that’s more suitable for this 250-word space.

Above all, be interesting here. If you write something that you think someone else might ALSO say, torch it. Do it over. Keep doing it until you’re convinced that no one else will be writing about this idea. Or, writing about a common idea in an uncommon way. Push yourself here, and avoid “predictable.”

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.


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