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Do You Need “A Passion” To Get Into College?

Who brought that ubiquitous word “PASSION” to the college admissions process? Consultants? “How To Apply” books? Admissions officers? Guidance counselors?

This word does not come from a teen vocabulary. It’s too extreme, too emotional, too revealing, too blurred with sex or romance, too intense, too uncool, too hokey. It’s a buzz word of the college admissions industry, designed to market students to colleges. Some high school students appear to have that unique focus in high school. But for most students, “passionate” is probably not the way they would authentically describe themselves.

What is an admissions officer looking for that we call “passion”? I found a clue in an urban dictionary definition: “Passion is when you put more energy into something than is required to do it. It is more than just enthusiasm or excitement, passion is ambition that is materialized into action to put as much heart, mind body and soul into something as is possible.”

So how do you know if your kid has passion?

1. How does she spend most of her extra-curricular time? Parents can muddy the waters. They believe their kids must be involved in multiple activities: sports, performing arts, community service, to check all the boxes. But admissions professionals send a consistent message that colleges want depth vs. breadth. 

So it is better for your kid to do one extra-curricular activity at a high level than be a jack of all trades, master of none. Some parents feel apologetic about that. But I would much rather see a teenager do one community service project that demands commitment, like Eagle Scout or Girl Scout Gold, vs. food pantries or book drives that only require casual involvement. A “deep” activity allows the teen to become truly immersed in the experience over a long period of time, genuinely internalizing what that experience has to teach, and achieving mastery and innovation in that realm as well. Georgetown Professor Cal Newport’s book, How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out), advises students that “less is more.”

The Common Application asks the applicant to list key activities, with level of leadership, years of participation, and hours/week and weeks/year spent on the activity. Why? It’s not the number of activities per se. Their algorithm shows that they want to see how much time you actually spend on each pursuit: a concrete measure of commitment and enthusiasm.

2. How does she spend her truly free time? One of my clients year ago was exceptionally talented in performing arts, and she spent her formal high school extra-curricular time in choral, dance and theater groups. However, in her rare “spare time,” she loved writing stories. It is not surprising that she ended up majoring in English in college, relishing every minute of her undergraduate education.

3. In what school subjects does he excel? On what school projects does he seem to spend the most time? I am not talking about remedial catch-up studying in difficult courses. I mean enthusiastic, curious, creative “go the second mile” involvement, that comes from pure love. Scientist Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin once wrote to a budding young composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: “Great understanding alone, not intelligence alone, nor both together, make genius. Love! Love! Love! that is the soul of genius.

The urban dictionary explains, passion is all about putting in more energy than what is required. Some students become so excited by a subject they will actually debate issues with parents or siblings at home. For less outgoing students, you may need to ask probing questions or heighten your observational powers to detect signs of passion. They may not always volunteer their interests, but they may open up during a quiet time, such as a long car ride or while working with you in the yard.

If your teen doesn’t seem to be particularly turned on by any subject, it may be worthwhile to expose him to learning in a more stimulating environment (a seminar-style or fast-paced, advanced class). He also may need exposure to more topics and experiences to find out more about what he really likes. He might be drawn out by academic clubs and teams (such as US FIRST Robotics, National Forensics League, National Mock Trial Championship, DECA) or explorative summer camps (such as LeadAmerica, Broadreach). Or perhaps giving your adolescent the time, space, and encouragement to read will spark curiosity to pursue newly discovered path. As Plutarch once wrote, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.”

Remember, passion doesn’t mean outwardly expressive. Every human being is a puzzle. Guiding a young person to discover his passions, and finding colleges that will feed those interests, is an art that requires open-minded listening and observation. And self-discovery is a long, circuitous process that continues for  years beyond high school! Colleges don’t require students to indicate a major or career choice on applications. Premature pigeon-holing is not the goal here, just helping a young person find pursuits that authentically resonate.

I recall a bright, accomplished client with a reserved style who was trying to wrap up our consulting session quickly one evening in October. As I blabbed on about the essay, he quietly rose to his feet and said, “Don’t want to miss the Yankees.” With no fanfare, his passion was announced, offering a subtle clue that this would be an important element in his college selection process. This student went on to attend the University of Michigan, thriving in a campus environment of rigorous academics and exciting spectator sports.