Intellectual humility

It’s hard for an admissions committee not to notice when a student has demonstrated a sincere love of learning. A real love of learning has a lot less to do with the drive to get good grades than it does the genuine curiosity to know more, to understand, to fill in learning’s blank spots. A student who gushes about the joy she finds working through the most difficult calculus problem sets with her fellow math-letes is demonstrating more love of learning than the student who responds to a query about his favorite subject with, “I like math because there’s always a right answer.”

But nobody loves to learn everything equally, and colleges don’t expect that you will, either. That’s why the most appealing students balance their intellectual curiosity with intellectual humility.

Intellectual humility is the confidence to admit what you don’t know, to consider different points of view, and even to find something fascinating simply because it’s beyond your comprehension. It lets you admit the absence of knowledge while still respecting the subject. The student who discusses why she loves Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is demonstrating intellectual curiosity. A student who relates how he wanted to read the book but couldn’t get past page 50 because he just couldn’t understand it is demonstrating intellectual humility. And both are demonstrating traits that will help them learn, grow, and succeed in college.

College admissions pressure pushes some kids to focus so much on demonstrating what they know that they lose the joy of discovering knowledge and the comfort with the absence of it. But the most rewarding learning happens when you pair both together.