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Passion Projects: The Unsung Key to a Stellar College Application

Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller
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At Prompt, we often write about how being academically strong isn’t enough — at highly selective colleges, it’s just a baseline. The work of distinguishing your application from the pack remains (cough, “essays,” cough). 

Here’s a former Cornell admissions officer putting an important spin on this point

Even for academically stellar students, their applications often “lacked tangible indicators of their passions: a project, experiment, portfolio, or an endeavor on which they spent substantial time learning, tinkering, or creating.” (Emphasis added.)

A passion project is deeper than taking on a leadership role in an organization. It’s about accomplishing something far beyond that of a typical high school student. Thus, projects can be almost anything, so long as they show deep and sustained interest (ie: a “passion”). For example:

  1. Writing a research paper
  2. Being a maker
  3. Writing Music
  4. Creating impact through community service

Most passion projects help distinguish applicants on the all-important personal score - that is, in showing they have the character traits to succeed in college and beyond. 

But for research projects, in particular, they can help distinguish a strong academic record — showing that your strong academics are “above and beyond” the many strong academics highly selective schools see.

For help with every other piece of your application, check out our College Essay Help Center.

Plan for a passion project: go deeper with what you like + get adult support;Highly selective colleges explicitly state that “passion projects” get students admitted;Passion projects work because they show academic rigor and demonstrate the 5 traits colleges look for in applicants;Showcasing your passion project: Write about it with the 5 traits in mind
Plan for a passion project: go deeper with what you like + get adult support;Highly selective colleges explicitly state that “passion projects” get students admitted;Passion projects work because they show academic rigor and demonstrate the 5 traits colleges look for in applicants;Showcasing your passion project: Write about it with the 5 traits in mind

    Plan for a passion project: go deeper with what you like + get adult support

    As college essay coaches, we find that many of our students do have passions — but what they haven’t yet done is put in the time and focused energy to turn that passion into a project worthy of admission. Often, “just” by adding another 80-100+ hours of effort to a portfolio or project, they’d be able to create something that would truly stand out. 

    A great way to get a meaningful project going is to get adult support for something you love. That could mean finding a teacher to work with you independently on a research paper or topic, or on an artistic or community service project. It could also mean working with companies that specialize in supporting high schoolers in their own projects, such as Polygence and Lumiere.

    In fact, you could spark the right idea for your own project by looking at Polygence’s project gallery. (Not an ad, btw, we just like these two companies.) You’ll see how diverse they are:

    • A Review Paper on Quantum Algorithms 
    • A Financial Planning guide for beginners
    • A Research Paper on the Effect Dance Therapy has on Neurological Disorders
    • The Myth of Io in Ovid and Beyond: Voice, Sexuality, and Lamentation, and even
    • A Fabulous Fashion Magazine.

     You can keep thinking about what the best project for you might be, as we show you a few more examples that show why these projects are so powerful in a college application. 

    Highly selective colleges explicitly state that “passion projects” get students admitted

    Here’s UPenn boasting about the “boundary-pushing” research of their admits this year (55,000 applications for 2,400 spots):

    Nearly one-third of the admitted students engaged in academic research during their time in high school, many earning national and international accolades for research that is already pushing the boundaries of academic discovery. Admitted students worked alongside leading faculty and researchers in their fields of interest, co-authored publications included in leading journals, and displayed their ingenuity in making connections across complex and varied disciplines. (Emphasis added.)

    In the next paragraph, UPenn shows off their new admits’ community service cred, saying:

    Over 80% of the admitted students are living out [a community service] tradition by engaging in community service activities that have already made a significant impact locally, nationally, and globally. We admire those students who gave their time to help others on an individual level and those who facilitated large-scale initiatives and undertakings that made a wide and lasting impact in their communities. In the midst of the pandemic, many students displayed flexibility and creativity in translating their desire to give back to the virtual realm, pivoting with established practices to new and innovative means of making a difference.

    And here’s the story of the application that made the Cornell admissions officer (from the intro) believe that “a tangible indicator of [your] passions” is key to a great application:

    [T]his student's fit with the program really came to life as he described the weather station he had built at home. … After reading, I thought, this student clearly will get my recommendation for admission, because he has the grades, the test scores, and a demonstrated intellectual interest in his chosen program. Trifecta! He had hit the nail on the head in expressing "fit and match."

    Finally, here’s how Harvard deals with impressive passion projects. (We know these details because they had to make their admissions data public in recent litigation.) 

    Harvard only awards its top academic score (a 1 out of 4) to 0.4% of its applicant pool. Applicants with an academic 1 rating have a 67% chance of admission, compared to 8.6% for those with a 2 rating. 

    Harvard said in the court case that, generally, “an applicant receiving a ‘1’ academic rating has submitted academic work of some kind that is reviewed by a faculty member.” That is, “If the applicant has submitted material that Admissions Office staff believe would be best evaluated by a Harvard faculty member, such as an academic paper or a recording of a musical performance, the application may be sent to a faculty member [...] for review and assessment.” (Emphasis added.)

    By contrast, the next-highest academic rating — a 2+ — means that, though the student has “perfect, or near-perfect, grades and testing,” their application lacks evidence of “substantial scholarship or academic creativity.”

    There are two important points here: 

    1. Even at Harvard, a strong passion project is a huge distinguisher — very few students (0.4%) are at that level, and 
    2. Having a strong passion project enormously boosts your admission chances.

    As these examples show, colleges are hungry for students who carry out passion projects. So let’s make sure you know how to deliver that for them in your application. 

    Passion projects work because they show academic rigor and demonstrate the 5 traits colleges look for in applicants

    As college essay coaches, we know that college admissions teams are looking for something highly specific when they read through your essays. It’s not flowery language and gorgeous style. It’s not relaxed and friendly getting-to-know-you insights.

    No, it’s the 5 traits that show you will succeed in college and beyond:

    • Drive (or grit)
    • Initiative
    • Intellectual Curiosity
    • Contribution
    • Diversity of Experiences

    Your essays are evaluated for one or more of these character traits in a process you can read more about at the link. 

    Well, a passion project demonstrates all of these. UPenn even says that the research projects “displayed [students’] ingenuity” and the community service projects “​​displayed flexibility and creativity,” emphasizing the character traits that these projects reveal. 

    Let’s take the Cornell-impressing weather-obsessed kid as an example. He built his own weather station! The article also says: 

    [The student] had been collecting data and providing information to a cable news station, who then used his data in their weather forecasts. 

    The weather station story shows:

    • Initiative — the student decided to make something happen by himself. He went beyond following a curriculum or doing what his teacher told him. 
    • Drive — here, we’re guessing, but, knowing how the real world works, building your own weather station is probably hard. Things probably didn’t work right when he first set them up. He probably had to fiddle with the display screen and try multiple brands of feeder wire (a term we - essay-obsessed and not weather-obsessed - just invented) until everything worked out. He probably showed grit.
    • Intellectual Curiosity — holy crap. Building your own weather station is Benjamin Franklin-level experimentation and very cool. And it definitely shows this student’s deep interest in a specific topic.
    • Diversity of Experiences — how many students collect data to send to a cable news station? Probably not many. Pulling this off gave this student a unique perspective. 

    Now, this story does omit “Contribution” (unless you think sharing data with a cable news station is “contribution,” which it may well be), but you can see that many passion projects, particularly those with a community service bent, would also have this angle to them. 

    The point is that passion projects don’t succeed because they’re “cool” (actually, maybe a little). They propel applications forward because they greatly increase your “personal score,” which is a major factor in your application.

    In addition, applicants who do academic-related passion projects (e.g., research, maker, coding) are also proving they can do the academic work required to succeed in college.

    Showcasing your passion project: Write about it with the 5 traits in mind

    There are many places you can showcase your passion project:

    It’s also okay to use two of these venues: for example, share a piece of research using the Additional Info, and also talk about what drew you to the research, how you did the research, and what you learned from the experience in your essay. 

    This is a judgment call, one you might make with a college essay coach or trained grown-up. But if the passion project is a great showcase for your traits and ability to succeed in college, you may want to make sure you present it fully to your admissions readers. 

    If you’re choosing to write about your passion project in an essay, here are some quick tips:

    1. Congrats - as we’ve discussed above, a passion project makes for great essay fodder.
    2. Five traits - the reason your passion project is great is because of how it tends to showcase your character and ability to succeed. Stay focused on those elements.
    3. Intellectual Curiosity - consider talking about how you got interested, why you pursued the project so deeply, and what you learned about the topic or field as you kept exploring. 
    4. Drive/Initiative - don’t be like Fred Astair, making hard things look easy. Show your work like in math class: tell the reader what hurdles you overcame, how many times you went back until you got the exact right “feeder wire,” and what you learned about grit and getting things done along the way. 
    5. Contribution - if your project helps people, if your project increased your humility and empathy, if you had to learn to collaborate and get along with others better, that’s great stuff to include in the essay.
    6. Diversity of experiences - take a step back. What have you learned from pursuing this project? How do you see the world differently from most of your peers? Say a little about how you stand out based on this experience.

    What not to do: Stay away from the “It makes me feel alive” trap. We’ve written about this trap before. Colleges care about your traits; not so much about the project itself. Keep your essay focused on how you’ll be great on their campus, not on how a weather station works, because if they cared as much as you do, they’d be in weather, not an admissions office. 

    Feeling inspired? A great place to start is at our College Essay Help Center

    More articles on Prompt.com’s admissions-boosting methods:

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