For admission to Ivy league or other selective colleges and universities like Stanford, MIT, Northwestern or Duke students must show both high achievement and intellectual passion. So what is the difference and how do you demonstrate it?
High achievement is the more easily measurable of the two. It is defined by earning high grades in a rigorous curriculum and high scores on standardized tests like the ACT, SAT and SAT Subject Tests. There is no substitute for high achievement. To compete for admission at the most selective colleges students must be high achievers relative to their peers.
When students have intellectual passion, high achievement often comes with it. The problem I see a lot in students is high achievement without a real passion for learning. Specifically, intellectual passion is a combination of curiosity and commitment that results in learning beyond the classroom. Many students are engaged in extracurricular activities and even take advantage of summer enrichment opportunities that appropriately nurture their interests. But the real key, evidence of the desire the most selective colleges are looking for, what is often missing from the applications of denied and wait-listed students, and that Thomas Jefferson so eagerly recommended, is independent study.
This means reading, and to choose to read in the digital age means you must love it. If you don’t love reading, it is easy to avoid. In fact, it is not uncommon for high achieving students to frankly admit that they do not like to read. They will do it, sometimes copious amounts of it, to score well on a test or to earn a top grade, but the divide is usually still quite apparent. In my experience, on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, I see many students scoring well, but the very top scorers have a passion that is evident. Additionally, beyond impressive independent research and writing projects and compelling application essays, there are two parts of a student’s application where intellectual passion shines through.
First, in recommendation letters by a student’s teachers, there will be no mistaking a mere high achiever from a truly passionate individual. These recommendations carry much weight since they come from somebody who has spent a year or more getting to know the student and has a large frame of reference. Second, an interviewer will be able to tell in a short amount of direct contact with a student how intellectually passionate they are in comparison to the other high achievers they have interviewed.
So what can be done to help insure your student has a passion for learning prior to high school?
1. Read to your child. Most people do this early in their child’s life, but often stop too soon. Once your child is able to read, reading can be done together and not just before bed.
2. Read yourself. A child is much more likely to enjoy reading on his or her own if that child witnesses a parent reading regularly. There is no substitute for this.
3. A combination of 1 and 2, when your student begins high school you should make an effort to read some of what he or she is reading. Casually discussing it proves that reading and learning is important and not something that ends when you leave school.
OK, you say, we got it, read, read, read. Read to them, with them, and on our own. But what should they read? The simple answer is that before high school reading almost anything is great. Follow their interests. If they are interested in music, science, art, movies, or money they can read and learn about it. There are, of course, specific texts that will give a student an advantage through high school and beyond by imbuing important cultural capital. For instance, familiarity with the stories of the Bible and the Greek and Roman myths are important foundational monuments. More modern stories that are appropriate for adolescents, culturally important and fun to read include Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.