Last updated August 11, 2023
The Truth about Passion Projects (And 15 Ideas for Yours)
“Passion projects” are the big talk in college admissions today. But with so much talk comes a lot of… Well, BS.
This post is dedicated to a few things. First, I want to give you my definition of a passion project as someone who has been working in college consulting and admissions for years. We’ll break down what admissions officers really think about passion projects here, too. Are they bullshit? Are they legit?
Then—and here’s the best part of the post, I think—I’ll give you my framework for launching a passion project that actually connects with what admissions offices are looking for.
Finally, we’ll lay out some ideas for your own passion project to get the ball rolling. So let’s get to it.
What is a passion project?
A passion project is really just a fancy term for a self-guided extracurricular activity, i.e., an extracurricular that you pursue outside of the classroom or school setting. Really, outside of any institutional setting.
So a passion project is not: band, debate, 4H, cheerleading, athletics, etc. Nor is it the research paper you “helped write” in a college lab.
A passion project is: recording stories from older folks at the local retirement home and packaging those into a book; creating a giant hop-scotch course every weekend at your own elementary school and hosting a massive game / fundraiser to support a cause (I dunno); studying telemetry and independently (key word) doing a scientific study on the telemetry (look it up! :)) of exoplanets.
Notice that last one? NOT a research project facilitated / overseen by a lab. Instead, it’s a project that takes its roots in your own organic curiosity and gumption to get a project off the ground (ha, ha, telemetry reference).
It’s a “project” that you frame up that helps you pursue a “passion” that may or may not be related to your academic interests and goals. So there’s pretty broad latitude to define a passion project as you see fit. For that reason, the term is both helpful and unhelpful. In spirit, I like it: it gives permission to go ahead with whatever you’re interested in / excited about. In practice, it feels a bit… vague and underspecified.
But that’s alright. Next question: Why is everyone so abuzz about these projects?
Why do a passion project? (And should I do one?)
People do (and advocate for) passion projects because they can be a good way to simultaneously go after something you care about AND impress an admissions officer with forementioned gumption, independence, etc.
They’re good on a resume because, unlike school clubs, they show that you’re able to think independently, frame up a project, and execute it. That’s a lot for a high school student. They also can show creativity, vision, or advanced levels of academic ability, depending on the project.
Put a bit more cynically: in a universe where college admissions is extremely competitive, and where it takes a lot more than joining a few clubs to stand out to really top schools, passion projects are a way to put yourself “in a category of one” by inventing a project that differentiates you from other applicants.
Now, to the “should I” question, which, I think, really has another question lurking behind it.
Do admissions officers like passion projects, or do they see them as resume stuffing or otherwise fake?
That’s a good question (if I don’t say so myself). Three years ago, I think more of the “meta” of college consulting focused on helping students develop passion projects avant la lettre. Why? Because they were less saturated. So an independent project driven by passion and curiosity, that fit into the cohesive narrative of the application, was a deeply powerful way to differentiate oneself from the crowd.
But since then, passion projects have become more common, verging on a commodity. More and more students are doing them, guided by companies that are in the business of facilitating them. It is no longer very uncommon to have one on your resume, particularly at top schools.
So it stands to reason that, in an era of “passion project inflation,” the marginal value of having one on your resume will continue to decrease over time. Eventually, they will become just one expected element of an application to a highly competitive school.
Sidebar here: I think that having a passion project will continue to be a great way of differentiating yourself at less highly competitive schools. But they are certainly not enough to get you in at the top-20 highly rejective schools in the country. An average passion project just won’t stand out enough.
But admissions officers still do like to see passion projects. Speaking with Ben Bousquet, who used to be a director at the Vanderbilt admissions office, and other former AOs from top schools, passion projects still demonstrate strengths that schools are looking for. At least when we’re focusing on the extracurricular section, an application with a compelling passion project will usually be evaluated more positively than one without. (Unless, of course, the student without one makes up for it with disproportionately strong engagement in traditional ECs.)
So, bottom line: Passion projects are an increasingly common thing to see on application resumes, which diminishes the value of them. But having one is still good, albeit not enough (by itself) to get you into a top school.
Our framework for amazing passion projects
Not all passion projects are created equal. Some are better, others worse. I think the worst passion projects are those that are “performative,” that is, they don’t meaningfully connect with the world or improve anything. Starting an instagram account that gains 2k followers from around the world and posts inspiring quotes about scoliosis is not a great passion project. Volunteering on weekends to go into medically underserved communities to administer simple, low-cost scoliosis tests might be.
What differentiates the two? I like to say that you can “think like a startup” to come up with a good passion project. Storytime.
June 2020: My younger cousin, about to be a senior, hadn't done any significant extracurricular activities. But within just four months, he spearheaded an initiative to conserve oral traditions from seniors in his community. Two months after that, his records were accepted by a renowned historical institution and taken into their collection.
Discussing this work and its importance to him became the heart of his college applications. He prominently featured it in essays, which were exceptional. Today he’s continuing this project while pursuing anthropology at a top school.
How did he do this, and what can we learn from it?
When I look at what my cousin did, I see that he charted used principles from the startup realm. In essence, here was his approach:
- He found a pressing issue: the fading memories and cultural tales of the elderly.
- He proposed and validated a solution: an appetite for audio/visual interviews.
- He came up with his end goal: record 30 interviews with 20 people and host them on a website.
- He rolled out a Minimum Viable Product (MVP): a basic website showcasing the interviews.
- Executed outreach: shared his work with the community and pitched it to a historical society.
Why the startup analogy? Successful startup founders grasp certain essentials.
The age-old adage, "the customer is always right," isn’t just retail rhetoric. It emphasizes the importance of interest in what you have to offer. Similarly, a passion project without genuine need and demand might fizzle out. This also applies to passion projects that are academically motivated. Who is your audience? Is there interest or social relevancy to your work?
Next thing I noticed is that he valued time and acted quickly: Timely execution differentiates successful startups from unsuccessful ones that never get off the ground. Same goes for ECs and passion projects.
He also defined his success state. Not every project needs to be globally transformative. A local but well-executed effort can have every bit as much impact as one with global reach or ambition.
Finally, he reached the right audience. He identified a group that would genuinely benefit from his work (the elderly people he interviewed) and build his project around their input. Then, he connected his work up to a bigger institution that saw the value of his work in a different light. This distribution is as important as the ideation phase.
Practical Steps to Launch Your Own Passion Project
So how do you take the framework my cousin found success with and apply it to your own project?
First, align interests and research: Start with a core skill (e.g., writing, research) related to your main interest. Dive deep into an issue close to your heart.
Second, go through problem validation: Engage with affected communities to identify and understand the problem's nuances. Their insights will guide your direction.
Third, think about impact. potential solutions to a problem (or areas of academic interest) that fit with your core strengths. Try to somehow gauge interest by consulting those affected. Send some emails, ask your neighbors, etc. It doesn’t need to be too fancy. Just make sure there’s some there there.
Fourth, define tangible goals for your passion project. What does the end state look like? A research project? A website? Identify this up front so you know what you’re looking for.
Then, the two more areas you need to focus on are deployment (get it out fast! Don’t be a perfectionist) and distribution. Distribution can be tricky, but is often essential for coming up with a resume-worthy project. AOs want to see that your project touched the world in some way, shape, or form. Again, this doesn’t need to be radically transformative. But who did you put your project into the hands of once it was done?
15 Passion Project Ideas to impress admissions officers
These 15 passion project ideas span a range of disciplines and areas of academic or personal interest. I tried to give a pretty diverse array of examples, here.
I also wrote out what each step of the process I outlined above would look like for these.
Passion Project Idea #1. Science: Bee Conservation
- Problem Validation: Research declining bee populations and their importance in our ecosystem.
- Solution Validation: Build bee hotels or create community gardens.
- Tangible Goals: Establish five community gardens with specific plants that attract bees. Document the rise in bee activity.
- Deployment: Collaborate with local schools or communities to build gardens.
- Distribution: Share results with local environmental agencies and schools for educational purposes.
Passion Project Idea #2. Political Science: Local Government Awareness
- Problem Validation: Identify lack of youth involvement or awareness in local politics.
- Solution Validation: Create an interactive website or app detailing local government structures, representatives, and issues.
- Tangible Goals: Achieve 1,000 active users in six months.
- Deployment: Advertise on social media platforms targeting local youth.
- Distribution: Collaborate with local schools to integrate the platform into civic classes.
Passion Project Idea #3. Literature: Digital Poetry Slam
- Problem Validation: Recognize that local poets have limited platforms to share work.
- Solution Validation: Organize monthly digital poetry slams or readings.
- Tangible Goals: Host 12 events in a year, each with at least 10 participating poets.
- Deployment: Use platforms like Zoom or Twitch for events.
- Distribution: Archive performances on a dedicated YouTube channel.
Passion Project Idea #4. Art: Community Mural Project
- Problem Validation: Unattractive or graffitied public walls.
- Solution Validation: Propose community-driven mural projects.
- Tangible Goals: Complete three murals over a summer.
- Deployment: Host community brainstorming sessions for design input.
- Distribution: Organize mural unveilings with local media coverage.
Passion Project Idea #5. Anthropology: Indigenous Culture Documentation
- Problem Validation: Disappearing indigenous cultural practices.
- Solution Validation: Document oral histories, rituals, and daily practices.
- Tangible Goals: Produce 10 documentary-style videos.
- Deployment: Engage with local indigenous communities.
- Distribution: Collaborate with museums or educational institutions for public viewing.
Passion Project Idea #6. Sociology: Loneliness in the Elderly
- Problem Validation: Increasing feelings of isolation among elderly populations.
- Solution Validation: Initiate a pen pal or digital communication system.
- Tangible Goals: Connect 100 elderly individuals with pen pals.
- Deployment: Advertise in senior centers or through caregiver networks.
- Distribution: Share success stories with local media and gerontology researchers.
Passion Project Idea #7. History: Digitizing Old Photographs
- Problem Validation: Aging photos in local archives at risk of degradation.
- Solution Validation: Digitize and catalog photos.
- Tangible Goals: Digitize 1,000 photos within a year.
- Deployment: Collaborate with local historical societies.
- Distribution: Create a public digital archive.
Passion Project Idea #8. Psychology: Mental Health in Schools
- Problem Validation: Rise of mental health issues among students.
- Solution Validation: Establish peer counseling or stress-relief workshops.
- Tangible Goals: Implement programs in three local schools.
- Deployment: Train student leaders and educators.
- Distribution: Share outcomes with other educational institutions.
Passion Project Idea #9. Environment: Recycling Education
- Problem Validation: Low community recycling rates.
- Solution Validation: Develop recycling workshops or informative videos.
- Tangible Goals: Increase recycling rates by 20%.
- Deployment: Collaborate with local waste management agencies.
- Distribution: Distribute materials to schools and community centers.
Passion Project Idea #10. Music: Local Artist Showcase
- Problem Validation: Limited platforms for local musicians to gain exposure.
- Solution Validation: Organize monthly music showcases.
- Tangible Goals: Host 12 showcases featuring 5 artists each.
- Deployment: Advertise via local radio and social media.
- Distribution: Archive performances online for wider audiences.
Passion Project Idea #11. Economics: Local Business Spotlight
- Problem Validation: Small businesses struggling amidst large chains.
- Solution Validation: Create a blog spotlighting local businesses.
- Tangible Goals: Feature 50 businesses over a year.
- Deployment: Interview business owners and customers.
- Distribution: Share blogs via local media and community forums.
Passion Project Idea #12. Philosophy: Ethical Debates Forum
- Problem Validation: Lack of platforms discussing ethical dilemmas.
- Solution Validation: Host monthly debate sessions on ethical topics.
- Tangible Goals: Engage 100 participants within six months.
- Deployment: Use platforms like Discord or Clubhouse.
- Distribution: Share debates on YouTube or as podcast episodes.
Passion Project Idea #13. Architecture: Sustainable Building Designs
- Problem Validation: Increasing need for eco-friendly buildings.
- Solution Validation: Design sustainable architectural models.
- Tangible Goals: Create 5 model designs in a year.
- Deployment: Collaborate with local construction firms or architects.
- Distribution: Showcase designs in architecture magazines or exhibitions.
Passion Project Idea #14. Medicine: Basic Health Workshops
- Problem Validation: General public's lack of basic medical knowledge.
- Solution Validation: Organize health workshops covering basic first-aid, nutrition, etc.
- Tangible Goals: Conduct 10 workshops reaching 500 participants.
- Deployment: Partner with health professionals for content.
- Distribution: Collaborate with schools or community centers for hosting.
Passion Project Idea #15. Agriculture: Urban Farming Initiatives
- Problem Validation: Urban communities' limited access to fresh produce.
- Solution Validation: Initiate community gardens or urban farms.
- Tangible Goals: Set up three community gardens in different urban areas.
- Deployment: Work with local councils for space and resources.
- Distribution: Supply produce to local markets or food banks.
Hope that helps. Passion projects can be a mixed bag. But done well, as all of those examples would be, they can really help cement the story you’re telling throughout your application.
Just plan, plan, plan. Good luck!
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