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The "Passion Project" - How to Separate Yourself from the Rest

You have a stellar GPA and a great ACT score, you're a member of several clubs, and you put in over 100 hours of volunteer work last year, so you should be all set to get into the college of your choice! Right? Right?!

For some schools - most public universities and many private universities - your impeccable GPA and other credentials will gain you admission. Your list of on-paper accomplishments, though, likely won't get you in to America's most selective colleges. To do that, you'll need to demonstrate "passion" - and you'll want to start soon!

What are the selective colleges looking for?

In 2019, dozens of very prominent universities joined on to the Deans Commitment Letter, a statement "which seeks to clear up misconceptions about what admissions offices value in applicants." The letter is part of the "Turning the Tide II" initiative put forth by the Making Caring Common Project spearheaded by Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Turning the Tide II focuses on how high schools and parents can support teens in developing core ethical values, a sense of responsibility for others, and a reduced sense of "achievement-related stress," and the over 140 schools that have signed on are taking it seriously - schools like, Columbia, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Notre Dame, Penn, Pepperdine, TCU, University of Chicago, UNC Chapel Hill, USC, and Yale.

Richard Weissbourd, the report's lead author explained in a PBS interview what the Making Caring Common Project believes is wrong with the college application process:

Some students are racking up accomplishments, and I think they think, particularly in affluent communities, that the goal is long brag sheets. And, the message we're trying to send here is that the goal isn't long brag sheets; the goal is meaningful academic engagement; it's spirited, passionate learning; and it's meaningful ethical engagement - being involved in your community, concerned for others, concerned for the greater good, for the public good.

And, the message we're trying to send here is that the goal isn't long brag sheets

These colleges are not looking for accumulation of extracurriculars and accomplishments (what Weissbourd calls "brag sheets"); instead, they want to see that you view your involvement in classes, clubs, and activities not simply as statistics that will look good on a resume but as meaningful endeavors that will positively impact both you and your community. They want to see you seek out experiences that might be outside your comfort zone - something that takes you outside of your culture, for instance, or that demonstrates you care about others and "the common good".

Less of this

More of this

Mere accumulation of extracurriculars

Investment into meaningful activities

Mere accumulation of AP classes

Academic engagement

Focus on your resume

Focus on your exploration and growth





What is a Passion Project, and how does it help?

A Passion Project is a long-term project that centers around a student's character, interests, and strengths. The top-tier schools want to see students do things that are transformative and that require a commitment of at least nine months to a year, which means students will want to at least have something in mind by the end of sophomore year.

The top-tier schools want to see students do things that are transformative and that require a commitment of at least nine months to a year, which means students will want to at least have something in mind by the end of sophomore year.

Ivy League schools and other selective schools are looking for "spirited, passionate learning" and meaningful engagement, especially engagement that demonstrates your care for your community, and the Passion Project is your best tool for highlighting these things. Because these projects are necessarily long and entailed, they give students an opportunity to really invest in something that will further their experience and expertise as well as show what type of impact they can have on others.

Why does a it work?

Think of a school like Stanford that accepts 1 in 20 applicants. They receive thousands of applications from the best students in the world, nearly all of whom have excellent GPAs and near perfect test scores. More and more, schools like Stanford are focused less on the "well-rounded student" and more on the "well-rounded campus" - they want to have a diverse mix of not only cultures but also interests and personalities. The average application, though, contains many statistics but very little personality, and that makes applicants easy to dismiss as yet another overachieving student. That sounds like a harsh way to look at the academic career of a student who spent years of his/her life building a stellar resume, but remember that nearly every applicant these admissions officers see has a similar stellar resume. If your resume clearly conveys that "meaningful academic engagement", "spirited, passionate learning", and/or "meaningful ethical engagement" the universities are looking for, your resume will rise to the top.

What does it look like?

Consider what these schools are looking for: evidence of your academic engagement, your good character, and those unique strengths that set you apart from other applicants. Now, let's consider two students who decide to volunteer their time to serve their respective communities. Student 1 focuses on volunteer hours with a charity he really likes, and Student 2 embarks on a "Passion Project":

  • Student 1 volunteers for 100 hours with Habitat for Humanity, helping to build houses for those in need. He consistently spends 8-9 hours every month helping any way he can, and he receives an excellent letter of recommendation from his team leader.

  • Student 2 works with a local university and several local elementary school counselors to develop an after school program that encourages kids to read, and she spends a year chronicling the program's successes and challenges in a blog. She also works to contact local news outlets in order to share what the program has accomplished. One outlet runs a minute-long segment on her program.

Though we may not want to admit it, Student 1's volunteerism simply does not convey as much about his character and personality as Student 2's. Student 2's "meaningful ethical engagement" is evident whereas Student 1 could be invested in Habitat for Humanity, or he could be developing a "long brag sheet" to impress colleges. Student 2 is clearly compassionate and desires to help others in her community, whereas Student 1 may be compassionate and may desire to help others in his community... or he may be hoping 100 hours is the magic number for his resume. In short, Student 2's passion is clear; Student 1's is not.

Types of Passion Projects

A Passion Project should highlight your character, your strengths, and your interests, and there are two types of projects that can accomplish just that.

Creative Project

If you're creative, you will want to think of how you might be able to use your creativity to grow yourself and to benefit others. In the example above, Student 2 chose a project that demonstrated her desire to help elementary schools students (character), her communication skills (strength), and her love of reading (interest), and she chose to create a program to bring those elements together. She also chose to blog about the program - a creative way to communicate the progress of her project.

Academic Endeavor

It may be that the idea of developing something from scratch is daunting to you, but you do well academically. Great! Set a goal, and get after it! You might look for internships or research positions that will help you pursue your academic interests. If you can develop a relationship with a research professor or with a corporate team, that will enable you to explore your academic passions and add experiences that most students will not have.

Ultimately, your Passion Project is a way to set yourself apart while also exploring something that actually interests you and that will undoubtedly grow you. The investment you make in your community and your academic development will be easy to convey to others in a genuine way, and that genuineness will set you apart.

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- Randy Biggs

Owner, Heritage College Prep



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