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What Colleges Look For: Does “Passion” Matter in College Admissions?

Surf almost any college admissions website—or sit in on a campus admissions information session—and you will probably hear the buzzword passion.

Passion— what colleges look for in an applicant. But most high school kids have no idea what that word actually means. And they may lack the foggiest idea of how to express it in their college applications.

Parents may be alarmed to learn that the former gold standard of a well-rounded, high-achieving student is out, and that “angular” or “pointy” students—who are insanely good at one thing—are now what colleges look for. What does “passion” mean, anyway, and does your high school student really need to have one?

To selective colleges, a passionate student is one who is motivated, engaged, and intellectually curious about something, anything.

A passion or a developed, demonstrated interest beyond the classroom serves to help a student stand out from the pack of similarly qualified applicants.

“Probably everyone understands that the academic side of the admissions equation is pretty straightforward,” says Greg Sneed, Vice President of Enrollment Management at Denison University in Ohio. “There are GPAs, AP scores, and standardized test scores. On an objective level, many of these applicants will be qualified in that they meet all of our academic prerequisites.”

So, looking at interests and activities outside of academics is a helpful way to differentiate applicants. “It helps us to learn about you,” Sneed says. “How have you chosen to spend your time? What is important to you?”

Students with a sustained, developed interest in a particular activity are also more likely to have a successful college experience, adds Sneed. “And it helps us to put together the kind of balanced class of diverse interests, backgrounds, and experiences. We find that to be invaluable in a college environment.”

How do you show you are passionate about something?

Admissions officers agree that it is not by repeatedly writing, “I am passionate about [fill in the blank]” in your college essay. Instead, applicants to selective colleges should be able to demonstrate sustained, progressive involvement over a period of time in a few activities.

“When we can clearly see sustained involvement,” says Sneed, “then a student doesn’t need to explain to us they are passionate about an activity because we can see it.”

Admissions officers can tell when a student tries to fake passion, says Mary Maier, director of admissions at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. “I may read 1,000 applications a year. I can recognize what is genuine and authentic versus what isn’t.” A student’s self-presentation should fit together with the recommendations from his or her high school counselor and teachers, she adds. “It is very clear to us when a student is only writing what they think we want to hear.”

What if your high school student doesn’t have that one special interest, much less a passion?

Not to worry. Not all selective colleges are actually expecting to find “passion” in each and every applicant.

“I’m not really sure that either the idea of the ‘well-rounded’ or the ‘angular’ student has ever really been true for us,” explains Haverford’s Maier. “Yes, we need some focused, developed students who have a really defined interest.”

Maier adds, “We also need curious, searching, intellectually-open students who haven’t found that one thing yet, but who are eager about the process of learning and exploring.”

In fact, dabbling in lots of different activities or jumping from one interest to another can be fine, too. “This can represent exploration and a search for what they are interested in. And in that case, the search itself is absolutely just as valuable,” says Sneed. “As long as the student can tell us in their essay what they have learned from it.”

The takeaway?

Whether your teenager has a passion or not, when it comes time to fill out the application, encourage your teenager to be genuine, so an admissions committee gets a strong sense of who your teenager is. This is really what colleges look for.

“We realize these are 17-year-old kids,” says Maier. “If you don’t have that one clearly defined interest, it is not a negative in any way. Frankly, it is developmentally appropriate. We are in the process of building an intellectual community with students who are motivated and eager to learn. We are more interested in who they will become as members of our community, and the growth and development they will hopefully experience during their college years.”

Jane Parent

Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.