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You stare at your computer screen, thinking about how to answer an essay question that will determine the next 4 years of your life:

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

This is a hard question for anyone to answer!

Recently, I was sitting next to several high school students in a cafe who were trying to write their college essays. Here’s a sampling of what I overhead.

  • “Do you think I should write about my participation in orchestra?”
  • “I grew up in the suburbs and didn’t do anything really interesting. What do I write!”
  • “What special talent do you think I have. I built a few robots in my technology class, does that count?”
  • “I don’t know what I’m passionate about! Argh!”

Sound like you?


Most of you have heard your entire life that to stand out and get into the right college you need to follow “the checklist”:

  • Participate in a high school sport? Check.
  • Volunteer in an under-resourced community? Check.
  • Take the right number of AP courses and rock the SAT? Check.
  • Join 4 school clubs? Check.

This is the ticket to get into a great university. Or maybe it’s a recipe for some passionless and aimless teenage years.

Somewhere along the way, you were duped. Then you went on a college tour and started hearing admissions officers talk about passionate students. Or in other words, students who have worked on a personal passion project.

Huh? When did the formula change? What happened to following “the checklist”?

Why is well-rounded suddenly boring? And what in the world is a passion project?


A passion project is an applied demonstration of your interests or passions outside of the classroom. Let me emphasize outside of the classroom. This means, it’s something that no one forced you to do for credit or a grade.

Now, don’t get me wrong. A passion project could have started in the classroom, but for it to be truly meaningful to you and an admissions committee, it needs to have lived well beyond the assignment and outside the classroom.

Why? Because if you were forced to do something as part of a class, it isn’t special.

Everyone is required to hand in assignments. Not everyone takes their passions and interests and does something about it.

Say you have a passion for writing poems. If all you did was write poems in your poetry class, that isn’t special. Everyone in poetry class had to write poems.

Let’s take it to the next level. Instead of just writing poems in class, you start writing poems during your own free time and you find a journal to publish one of your poems. Now we’re starting to talk about something special.

You can make your project even more unique and compelling. Instead of just publishing your poems (which is an accomplishment in and of itself), say you take your love for poetry and teach kids in your community how to write and publish their work in an online literary magazine.

Your passion has suddenly become not only tangible, but highly impactful.

These are the types of students that great universities want to bring to their school: passionate students who use their talents to make an impact in the world.

Princeton even prompts students to write a supplemental essay using this quote as inspiration: “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”


Some of you are thinking, “This totally makes sense but I have to write my college essay and I don’t have time to start a passion project.”

It’s time to take inventory to see where you are at.

Reflection #1: Have you done anything in the past few years to act on your passions outside of the classroom? Did you spend any of your free time on the weekends or during the summer working on a personal project? Or did you start something in class that you can work on outside of the classroom? Build on whatever you’ve already started.
Reflection #2: Do you know what your interests or passions are? If so, you’re halfway there. If not, take time to reflect and consider what they are. Ask your friends and your parents what they think your passions or interests are. Or think about the books you read or the classes that really captured your interests.
Reflection #3: Still stumped about your passions? Try the entrepreneurial approach. Think about what problems or challenges in the world really get you going. Think about a time when you obsessed over some issue you learned about in class or at home.
Reflection #4: If your work is directly related to impacting others socially or environmentally, then great. If not, consider how you can apply your project in your community where it interfaces with others.


You have time. If you are reading this at the beginning of September, you have a good 2-4 months to do something meaningful so that you have amazing material for your essay.

But you have to get going and find time to work on something that will distinguish your application. To do so, you’re probably going to have to cut out the clubs that you don’t really care about or quit the sports team you aren’t giving your 100% in.

The time you save can be poured into your passion project.

And even if you fail, you’re still covered. Isn’t one of the common app questions: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Want some extra help on your college applications? Grab our FREE “Elite College Essay Guide” now!

CLICK HERE to receive your FREE Elite College Essay Guide

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