Go Deep to Reveal Your Intellectual Vitality!


When writing narrative-style college application essays, I advise students to start by sharing a real-life story that illustrates one of their defining qualities or characteristics.

Once a student shares a real-life story with a problem (either big or small), they can go on to explain how they handled it.

Then comes the most important part: What they learned in the process.

This analysis, reflection or questioning is the most important part of an effective college application essay.


Because this is where a student can show colleges how they think, what they care about and what they value.

It’s called “intellectual vitality.”

I wrote an essay writing guide last year, the Writing Survival Kit, where I shared 50 tips, techniques and strategies for writing these essays.

I want to share with my tips on how to bring intellectual vitality into your essay.

Here’s an excerpt from my guide that features one hot strategy on how to bring this depth into your essay (I featured a second strategy in my previous post):


Chapter Six

In your narrative essay, you share something that happened, usually with an anecdote.
Now you need to help the reader understand why it mattered to you.

These writing tools will help you explore and explain in your essay the meaning of what happened.
This will give your essay depth and show the reader how you think, and your ability to analyze and reflect.


Reveal Your Intellectual Vitality

Once you pick a point you want to make about yourself, and have found an anecdote to illustrate that point, you need to explain why it matters. To you. To others. And to the world in general.

Once you start to share your thoughts about what happened, you can take your points even deeper by asking “Why?”

Take a look at some of the points you have made in your rough draft, and ask yourself:

  • “What about it?”
  • “Why should you care?”
  • “And that means what?”
  • “Is that important?”
  • “Why does it matter?”
  • “How did it get that way?”
  • “Why is that?”

These questions can help you flesh out or develop your essay and take it beyond just talking about something that happened, or what you did about it. They reveal your ability to think critically, and learn from experience.

Remember, you don’t need all the right answers for these questions. Just offer your thoughts, ideas or best guesses. In general, these essays are a way to throw out some ideas, chew on them, kick them around, examine them from different angles and come up with conclusions.

The ability to take a simple incident or personal quality and examine and analyze it to find meaning reveals what is called “intellectual vitality.” It’s a sophisticated way to say thinking— and the best colleges can’t get enough of it.

See my other strategy from this chapter on how to bring depth to your essay.

Note: For those of you applying to Stanford, this can help you answer their first supplemental essay:
“Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.” 250 words