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    Letters of Recommendation: What is Intellectual Promise?

    3 Minutes Read

    No matter how organized you are, applying for college can be time-consuming and stressful. Depending on the institution there can be reams of paperwork to fill out, the prospect of daunting interviews, challenging personal essays to write, and critical evaluations of your GPA and test scores. Though the good news is, despite all the administrative hoops and empirical assessment, the broader admissions process takes a holistic approach.


    Colleges recognize that every student is an individual possessing unique character traits that are otherwise impossible to detect when looking at a transcript or application form; such as one's integrity, maturity, initiative, creativity, or empathy. This is where the letter of recommendation comes in, as it offers a chance for outside parties—usually an academic teacher or counselor—to provide evidence of a student's unique character and compatibility with a specific college. The ultimate aim of an admissions office is to look for prospective students who will make the best use of their resources to realize their academic and personal potential. A fundamental quality that indicates this potential, and one of the 16 elements of your character recommenders are asked to evaluate you on, is intellectual promise.


    What is Intellectual Promise?

    Intellectual promise is having the wherewithal to deepen your learning through asking questions, seeking answers, recognizing connections with what you discover, and a willingness to delve even further by repeating the process.

    In an academic setting, it will typically manifest itself as a student going above and beyond what's required in a course and pursuing answers to their own questions. Curiosity—a tremendous trait in itself—is the desire to know more, but intellectual promise goes a step further. It is the ability to understand which questions lead to new knowledge or insights.


    How to Develop Intellectual Promise

    Passion Curiosity Promise equation for Admissions

    The abstract of developing intellectual promise is simple. Start with curiosity. Which subjects, inside or outside of school, are you interested in knowing more about? Explore what you enjoy about these topics without expectation of any recognition or reward and don’t be afraid to veer “off course” into something totally different. Wikipedia and YouTube are great places to begin, but be mindful of when your interest becomes something more.

    When you start to lose track of time because you are devouring information, try to guide what you are learning by asking yourself specific questions and seeking out the answers more systematically. Go beyond what is expected—clicking the next link or watching the next suggested video—by connecting and dissecting your findings. When you have a passion for exploring your interests in this way you are not only deepening your knowledge, you are strategically positioning yourself for stronger letters of recommendation.

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    How to Demonstrate Intellectual Promise

    Fortunately, when it comes to demonstrating your intellectual promise you don't need to write an epistemological essay—although going the extra mile never hurts! Here are some ways you can do this and what teachers look out for:

    • If you are already using your spare time to read voraciously on subjects you're interested in, let your teachers know!

    • Ask yourself and teachers questions about what you're learning – both in and out of class.

    • Use what you are learning outside of class to contribute more depth to in-class discussions.

    • Seek teachers’ advice on what to read next, or even museums, exhibits, documentaries, etc they think you would enjoy.

    If you are ready to go further, ask a teacher if he or she would be willing to mentor you through a more structured independent project. 

    An example of demonstrating Intellectual Promise:

    While studying the Treaty of Versailles, which officially marked the official end of the first World War, one of our students became so engrossed with what she was learning, that she independently started reading beyond her textbook. This brought her to the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between Great Britain and France, which divided up control of the Ottoman Empire. She continued to dig deeper on the  Ottoman Empire's dissolution and how it has bred resentment in the Middle East. She traced the ways this resentment spawned extremists—such as in Osama bin Laden—and consequently fueled contemporary conflicts.

    The connections she drew from following her curiosity in the Treaty of Versailles led her to a significant question: what might be the unintended consequences of X? She now thinks this way not only about current public policy decisions, but her own personal life. Talking to her US History teacher about her outside research (which included visiting the 9/11 museum) and bringing her new perspective into the classroom, demonstrated her potential for future insight and intellectual promise.

    Whatever stage you're at in life, making a conscious effort to nurture your intellectual interests has long-term cognitive benefits and is a surefire way to develop other character traits, such as passion, self-discipline, and motivation. When your time comes to apply for college and ask for letters of recommendation, it's guaranteed that teachers and counselors will take notice of your quest for personal and intellectual growth and reflect this in their letters for you.


    If you are interested in exploring these concepts further, reach out to one of our admissions experts. We can help you develop your intellectual promise and create an action plan for demonstrating your character to potential recommenders.

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