How To Write: The Intellectual Essay, for College Applications

Previously, we covered how to write a humorous essay. If that’s not your speed, here’s the second installment in our series on the different angles you might want to take in your writing. Today’s entry is going to be all about one of the most tried-and-true essay types: the intellectual.

Getting Started With Your Intellectual Essay for College Apps

Think about the things you love to think about. Have you delved into the depths of space? Lost yourself in literature from Brave New World to Macbeth? Pondered social problems and their possible solutions? That’s going to be your base for where to begin. There may be multiple subjects that you have thought and read deeply and thoroughly about. However, for college essays, you’ll want to pick the ones that you have serious extracurriculars connected to, and if you have multiple, make sure you choose the one that is best for each prompt.

Keep in mind that this essay format should be used for essays on the longer end of the scale—we recommend 250 words or more. If it’s much less than that, there’s not much room for you to both play up your best personal traits while also telling the world everything you’ve learned. (Imagine trying to squeeze all of your profound insights on a topic into a mere 100 words—or a Stanford supershort!)

Impressing College Admissions Officers with Brains and Passion

As you begin to outline your piece, keep in mind that the essay itself must be balanced between your exploration of an academic topic and between showing off the personal traits that make you a good fit for that college. You may be tempted to fall into the trap of pure intellectual exposition—don’t. This is, after all, still a college essay rather than an academic one, which means that adding a personal touch is all-important. You want to weave your insights in with things that display your personality, and that still allows your individual voice to shine through. To help personalize your intellectual exercise, try the following:

  1. Discuss how you first fell in love with the subject you are writing about, and what made you love it so much that you decided to devote one of your biggest extracurriculars to it. Is it exposure from a young age? Is it a book you stumbled upon that changed your view of that subject or the world? A school speaker who inspired you to enter their field? Was it something you even disliked at first but grew to enjoy? Showing deep personal connections to your chosen field is a great way of displaying your passion.
  2. Talk about how the field you have such passion for has changed you. How has intellectually exploring this topic helped you grow? How has it shown you things that you never could have imagined before? This is especially important if you’ve done hands-on research on this topic. Demonstrating change and growth is an integral part of your college admissions essay, especially if it’s a longer essay. If you can tie that into your passion, you’ll kill two birds with one stone.
  3. Talk about your aspirations in the field. Intellectual essays can work for any student, but they’ll work best for those who know they have a hefty chance of studying that subject in college—or choosing it as a career. What questions in this chosen field do you hope to use your college studies to answer? What are the next steps in whatever projects you have begun? How can the college you’re applying to help you achieve those aims? Doing this demonstrates not only a continued interest in the topic and a facet of your personality, but it also shows institutions that you are serious about whatever major or specific program you spoke of in your essay. You’ll prove yourself a true intellectual as well as a great potential contributor to campus academics and extracurriculars.

Reading and Research For Your College Application Essay

While continuing to outline, remember that possibly the hardest part of writing a successful intellectual essay is saying something about these complex and nuanced topics that admissions officers have never heard before. You need to have read and thought enough about this subject to formulate a unique insight on it, and to demonstrate knowledge of your chosen subject beyond the obvious and commonplace. If you say you’ve spent your entire life devoted to learning about astrophysics and space travel, you’re not going to sell colleges on that if the only people you mention in your essay are Neil deGrasse Tyson and Elon Musk. Similarly, if you say you have a passion for English literature but the only thing you can say about Macbeth is that you found it tragic, that won’t be very convincing. 

How can you tell if your essay falls into this category? If your friends (or even you) have “heard it all before,” you need to dig deeper. So what do you do, if you want greater insight into the topics you’re covering? Read, read, read. Research, research, research. Go through articles on the subject, whether from reputable news outlets like The New York Times to academic sources such as JSTOR. Read plenty of books on your topic, and not just the most popular ones. Chances are you’ve already read widely on the topic you picked, which will help you understand more advanced content. But if you want to boost your understanding to the next level, this is always a good place to start.

How To Write an Intellectual Essay For College Applications: A Summary

As a recap: pick something you’ve pursued outside of class, make sure you show your personal connection to the topic, and make sure you say something unique about it that admissions officers wouldn’t expect to see. If you can do all these three things, you’ll be well on your way to creating a stellar intellectual essay. If you’d prefer to write about something else, stay tuned for our next installment of How To!