If you’ve done any reading at all about writing compelling applications to college, whether on this blog or elsewhere, you know that the number one buzz word is passion. People are passionate about millions of things, from ideas and principles to sports and other collaborative activities to music and other performing arts to computers and technology to volunteer work and community service and on and on), but all these varied manifestations of passion share one thing in common: a deep commitment, a visceral inclination, a kind of love.
Admissions committees can tell when candidates are truly passionate about something both because of the way they talk and write about it and because their track records will SHOW depth and breadth of commitment. Most students can relate to being passionate about the music they love to listen to, whether on their iPods or blaring from their sound systems or both, and that passion, those iTunes libraries, weren’t created and groomed just last week or last semester. They’re the result of years of loving to listen to music. (To be clear, I’m just making an analogy here; passion for music is awesome, but it’s not getting you into college.
Regardless of whether you’re passionate about oboe playing, ultimate Frisbee or coaching in the Special Olympics. Any of these COULD help you get into college—one of the best things you can do in high school and communicate on your applications is academic passion. Why? Because you are applying to an institution of higher LEARNING. Not higher sports. Not higher musicals. Not higher school clubs. Not higher community service. The first thing admissions committees want to know about you is a) whether you’re academically prepared for the rigor of their curriculum and standards of excellence, and b) whether there’s any kind of fire in your belly to pursue college level study in a field of interest. That explains why your GPA, and, for most schools, your standardized test scores are still the two most important criteria for acceptance: they answer those two critical questions, or at least are supposed to answer those two questions.
If you claim passion about science, your grades in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, your participation in science activities, clubs, or workshops or summer programs or internships will confirm or disconfirm that claim. Similarly, if you claim passion about literature and/or writing, your grades throughout high school in English and your participation on the school newspaper or literary magazine or personal blog will confirm or disconfirm that claim. Let’s say you’re passionate about playing soccer. Chances are you started playing organized soccer well before high school, whether on a recreational or travel team, and you’ve been a leader on your high school’s soccer team. Maybe you ref now for the same kid leagues you used to play in. Maybe you volunteer to help coach soccer at the junior high school level. Maybe you went to a summer camp that specialized in soccer. And how did you come to assemble such an impressive and compelling list of accomplishment over years? Easy! You freaking love soccer and can’t get enough of it; your passion is communicated not only in your bold statements about it in your activities list and essays but in the very list of those accomplishments.
Back to the main subject at hand: developing and demonstrating ACADEMIC passion. Some students are lucky in that they are naturally drawn to learning—perhaps in one or two subjects or to learning in general—the way other students are drawn to soccer or acting or playing jazz saxophone. In my experience, most students may find one or two classes throughout high school that they like (not that they’d admit it in public) or maybe one or two interesting/funny/entertaining teachers who brought certain material to life. It’s this fat majority I’m really talking to here. If you want to take your whole high school experience to the next level; if you want to best prepare yourself to get the most out of college; and if you want to become a much more compelling candidate to admissions committees; then FIND AND DEVELOP an academic passion, preferably early on in high school (Don’t worry if you’re a rising senior and you’re thinking, “Great, now you tell me.” I got something for you in a minute). Choose a subject and decide to be the best you can be in that subject. Maybe you don’t love ANY academic subject. Fine, choose the one you dislike the least and fake it ’till you make it. That is, pretend you’re interested and behave as if it’s a passion: Sit in the front row. Hang out with the teachers in that department during free periods. Do some outside reading. Before long, you might find you like it. You must spend a HUGE amount of time in high school classes and doing homework whether you like the subjects or not. It goes so much easier on so many levels if you decide to like it. Find something—anything—that may capture your interest and get busy.
And now for the rising senior feeling s/he’s late in the academic passion game. It’s never too late. If you make a decision this summer to really get into math or foreign language or science or English and, as a result of that decision carried out over four months (i.e., the whole first semester next year) and corroborated by your best grades in high school in those subjects, you, too, will have a compelling story to tell. You can write in your application about how you discovered a real and abiding interest in a given subject during the summer before senior year, which of course you must back up in your grade’s senior year and your teachers’ letters of recommendation. It is not unusual for some students to come into their academic own that late in high school; everyone develops physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually at his or her own rate (just as some kids have physical growth spurts in 7th grade while others have them in 11th, and obviously one isn’t better than the other).