I have been involved in college admission for a long time. I’ve seen trends come and go. And I’ve seen admission practices fade away that everyone (myself included) thought would never change. I even remember when college applications were handwritten on paper and sent in the mail.

But now, a new fad in college applications has me scratching my head. 

The Passion Project Quest

A wave of students is convinced that they’ve found a powerful secret to give them an advantage in the race to their highly selective dream school. I’m not sure where this trend comes from, but I suspect some private counselors or websites of questionable value are spreading the word to get clients or clicks. The trend focuses on gaming the college admission process by crafting the most spectacular extracurricular profile spearheaded by a dazzling, all-encompassing, multi-year Passion Project. 

On the surface, there are many benefits of pursuing a Passion Project. I am impressed by many of the multi-year efforts to respond to a social need in the community, the country, or the world. 

These students take the lead (usually giving themselves a very impressive title, such as president, CEO, or founder) by forming a not-for-profit organization that raises money, conducts research, or provides a desperately needed service to people or the environment. It could be a foundation that distributes food to needy senior citizens or educates neighborhoods about the need for vaccinations during the COVID pandemic. And I have personally spoken with students who have launched free tutoring programs, engaging hundreds of volunteers and serving thousands of students. 

The possibilities are endless. But the common theme is a project that requires hours and hours of volunteer leadership, an inspiring vision, and selflessness to devote their intellect to doing good. 

As you read the above description of a Passion Project, you might think, “It sounds like a great idea. If a smart young person can help the world and convince a top college to admit them, why not? It’s a win/win. Where do I sign up?!”

Passing the Admission Officer’s “Smell” Test

I am sorry to throw cold water on this fire, but I have major problems with Passion Projects as a way to rocket ahead in the race to highly selective admission. 

Almost everyone outside the admission office should be impressed by a desire and ability to help the world. But after years of experience as an admission officer at a highly selective university where I read countless applications for a limited number of spots, I learned an important lesson: what may seem like an impressive part of an application to the general public (including people that have already gone to college and therefore believe they know how to get into a college) is often not as impressive to an admission officer. 

Authentic versus Inauthentic

Admission officers can remarkably suss out authentic versus inauthentic parts of an application. They know how to read between the lines when reviewing letters of recommendation. They know when edited essays have too many words, sentences, phrases, or ideas that are not those of the student. And they know when a list of extracurricular activities does not pass the “smell” test. 

Many applicants consciously (but probably inadvertently) build their extracurricular profile for admission to highly selective universities in an inauthentic way. They may treat their extracurricular choices like a checklist of “required” activities, including a little bit of leadership, volunteer hours, music lessons, a summer program at a brand-name college, and a varsity sport. Or they may follow a path forged by those who have gone before them by simply mirroring the extracurricular choices of an older student who gained an admission letter from their dream college. 

In these instances, an admission officer will not gain an authentic sense of what the student is passionate about or capable of doing when making their own choices. 

Most Passion Projects Are the Height of Inauthenticity

In an overwhelming number of cases, a student who chooses to pursue a Passion Project is doing so only for one reason. They’re not following an authentic passion. They’re not following a natural course of exploring different interests, challenging themselves, or finding activities they like and may even do in the future. They are only pursuing a Passion Project to gain admission to a highly selective college. 

When activities, essays, letters of recommendation, or any parts of the college application seem inauthentic to the admission office, this is a big red mark against the applicant.

On the surface, a student who takes years to pursue an interest and achieve impressive results in any field may look just the same as a student who chooses to pursue a Passion Project. But there is a difference in the intention that stands out in a very obvious way to the admission office. 

My Advice

Throw away the label of Passion Project and any notion that there’s some secret way to build your extracurricular profile by doing the “right” activities. 

Instead, be yourself, challenge yourself as much as possible, and enjoy the time you spend in and outside your high school classroom. If you find that you have to do certain activities to support your family or take care of your responsibilities, please know that these will be recognized powerfully as authentic extracurricular activities by any admission office you apply to.

Over the course of many years as an Independent Education Consultant, I have gained a lot of expertise on how the college application process works. If you’re interested in benefiting from my time-tested advice, please contact me.