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 the college's common application supplement, the first questions is: “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, students 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.  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 United Nations, 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 a student fervently professes an interest in Tibet, and personally invites the Dali Lama to come to his or her 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 endeavors as students can muster the energy. If a student in a U.S. History class is pulling together a presentation on U.S. Grant, and he or she not only reads the textbook materials and articles while searching in Google, but actually reads Grant’s two-volume memoir and writes, independently, a contrast and compare essay about Grant and Robert E. Lee, and has it published in the local newspaper, that student’s intellectual curiosity will soar on the application.

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

Ralph Becker, a resident of Long Beach, has been counseling students for more than six years. A former Yale Alumni interviewer, he holds a certificate in college counseling from UCLA Extension, and has published SAT* Vocab 800 Books A, B, C, & D.

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