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Last updated May 11, 2023

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Passion Projects and Mental Resilience

Key Takeaway

To improve mental resilience in high school students, pursuing meaningful activities, building a positive mindset, and creating a portfolio can help cultivate resilience and positively affect college admissions outcomes.

An ongoing mental health crisis

Even pre-Covid-19, studies showed that a majority of students were struggling emotionally in high school. Zorana Ivcevic, the co-author of a January 2020 Yale University report on the mental state of US high schoolers, said: “We know from talking to students that they are feeling tired, stressed, and bored, but were surprised by how overwhelming it was.”  Then came the crushing emotional and physical impact of Covid-19 that pushed this general trend into a full-blown “state of national emergency” with “soaring rates of mental health challenges among children, adolescents, and their families.” As the pandemic finally comes to a close, things have not improved. In 2022, the stress, anxiety, and depression still affecting high school students remained at epidemic levels. Let’s look at some of the root causes of all of this emotional turmoil—pre-, during, and post-Covid. We’ll also offer up some ways you can be your own best advocate, build up confidence, and help sustain your own happiness.

Confusing external forces

One root cause of anxiety that preceded the pandemic is college admissions. Rising rates of teen stress correlate with steadily decreasing acceptance rates at top schools. In 2011, a student applying to Ivies might have considered the University of Chicago a safety school with a 34.9% acceptance rate. Not anymore. Its admission rate last year was 6%. The stress of admissions is glaringly obvious. Students from high-achieving schools “suffer from symptoms of clinical depression at rates three to seven times higher than normal”.

Then came Covid-19 and made everything even worse. One of the many serious psychological effects of the pandemic is giving us a sense that we no longer have control over our lives. During quarantine, the confusing health protocols, shifting school rules, suspension of whole athletic seasons, restrictions on socializing, and other external demands wore down our sense of internal agency and made us all feel a lot less powerful. For so many students, life as they knew it was turned upside down. Since our emotional regulation systems are still in development during our teen years, this chaos hit teenagers the hardest.

To cope better, take back control

Where does the ability to adapt to trauma and adversity (aka resilience) even come from? Research shows that building resilience depends largely on mindset. One of our own Polygence students Isabel Wang studied this subject in her project Coping During Covid-19. Isabel researched a concept called Locus of Control (LOC) in a study of her fellow high school students. Isabel’s data suggested that students who believe their own decisions guide their life coped much better with the ever-changing ambiguities of Covid than those who didn’t. So how do you become like one of those resilient students in Isabel’s study?

For you to feel like you control your future path, you must have final say in which direction to go. Pursuing an activity that is personally meaningful to you and makes a positive impact on others can help improve your overall mood, happiness, and self-confidence. In fact, research shows that people who have meaning in their lives are more resilient, perform better in school and work, and even live longer than those who don't.

Find your purpose by observing yourself

Maybe you need a little help figuring out what this personally meaningful thing is that you want to pursue. As dread-inducing as the college essay is, it can lead to self-discovery. Applying to college provides a unique opportunity to reflect on all the strides you made in high school, including the failures you endured and what you did to move past them. It can help you understand who you are and what kind of future you want.

Here are a few college essay type prompts that can work the same way.

  • If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the world, what would it be and why?
  • Is there a person or a group of people you know need help? How would you convince others to support them?
  • What is your favorite invention that has changed peoples’ lives for the better?
  • What personal trait do you most admire about yourself and how can you strengthen it?
  • If money was no object, what would you most like to accomplish in your career?

Writing is therapeutic

Even before you do anything with what you discover about yourself, the mere act of reflecting and writing positive things can help you feel better and more optimistic about the future. When we take the time to recognize our past decisions and current obsessions, we seem to feel more in control of our future lives. For example, if climate change feels like an enormous weight on your shoulders, identifying it and what worries you about it is a good first step. Then maybe making a plan to research renewable power sources and pursue that subject as your passion project can help you start feeling more in control.

Take the long view

Writing about your interests and experiences can also help you see a bigger picture about yourself and the world. As you’re writing, you may see how things that felt like failures or disappointments at first may have led to better opportunities or unexpected victories later on. Perhaps they even taught you something important. Part of working on your resilience is knowing how to pace yourself. During WWII, the British created a poster with the headline "Keep Calm and Carry On" to encourage everyone to go about their daily lives despite the threat of war. If you take the long view, you will see that the things that feel out of control for you in the moment—bad grades, college rejections, sports injuries, loneliness, a global pandemic, etc.—can ultimately be overcome with patience and time.

Create a portfolio

Once you’ve identified what you’re most curious about, a great way to build confidence, keep the momentum going, collect your learnings, and share them with the world is to build a portfolio. A portfolio can help you organize and find common threads in past work and give you ideas for future work. It’s also a handy reminder that you are on this self-directed mission. The most memorable portfolios show the evolution of a specific skill or thought process. They tell an interesting, cohesive story that you want to keep reading, just like a good story or essay. Remember that a project’s failures are just as fascinating, if not more so, than a  project’s successes. A portfolio can be a living, breathing thing, ever evolving as you keep striving.

To help guide you, here are 8 tips to create a powerful portfolio:

  1. Use this as an opportunity to observe your progress. Look back on work you’ve done. Recall when you struggled. Figure out where and how you can improve.
  2. Own it yourself. You are the editor, the producer, the boss. You’re in control here. If you want input from a mentor or teacher, that’s fine. But you should have final say.
  3. Be selective. Overcrowding your portfolio with an exhaustive list of everything you’ve ever done dilutes the purpose. This should not look like an attic stuffed with storage boxes; it should be more like a carefully curated Hall of Fame. If a project was a failure, but it really helped get you to the next level, you should include it.
  4. Communicate clearly. Often the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. Make sure that your projects are presented in such a way that they can be understood. Is it clear why you did each project?
  5. Show the evolution. Your projects should be related to each other. Draw the connections for your audience.
  6. Show intellectual progress and vitality. This is related to the evolution tip above. As you tackle new skills and concepts, your projects will likely get more complex or sophisticated. Call out the new things you are learning.
  7. Highlight your focus. This one is optional. Your portfolio might be consistently focused on one subject or long-term goal.
  8. Look at other portfolios for inspiration. You can reach out to teachers, mentors, or professionals in your field to ask for examples. Colleges that accept portfolios also often publish noteworthy examples. We have two great portfolio examples by Polygence alumni that you can check out. Molly Miller put her Polygence project “Engineering Project on Wind Power Generation Utilizing Aerospace Transportation” and her other engineering projects on her personal website. Molly is now a first year student at Stanford. Matteo Farinacci created a digital creative portfolio with the help of his Polygence mentor Amira.

Just like the process of writing about your experiences can be therapeutic, so can making a portfolio. It can certainly give you a feeling of achievement to see all of your hard work in one place. You might even discover a thematic thread you never even knew existed. Add to that the positive feedback you might get from the teachers, mentors, peers, and even complete strangers who see your portfolio, and you can see how a portfolio can build confidence.

Inward and outward success

The suggestions we have been making—to gain control over your education by identifying the things you really care about, taking ownership of your own projects, and showcasing them—have all been in the service of improving your own mental resilience. But it just so happens that mentally resilient people also make very successful college applicants.

All of the passion project work you do (be it in your essays, your published research, your portfolio work) also gets you noticed by college admissions officers. Independent academic and passion projects can often tip the scales towards acceptance at certain schools. Our analysis of 160,000 domestic applications to Harvard showed that thousands of students with perfect grades and test scores still had only an 8.6% chance of getting in because their applications contained “no evidence of substantial scholarship or academic creativity.” But students who submitted independent research or other creative work increased their likelihood of admission to 68%.

Taking control of your learning is a win/win whether you get into your top school or not. If you apply and get rejected, you will be mentally resilient enough to know that there are a thousand other paths you can take to fulfill your larger goal, and you can even find a silver lining in the rejection. If you apply and do get in, you can be sure your authentic curiosity and all the work you did to explore it contributed to your acceptance.

Get the care you need

Finally this blog post is certainly no substitute for proper medical or psychiatric care. If you need professional help, please seek it. The aim of this post is merely to introduce you to mental resilience research and offer you a few simple suggestions. We hope some of the techniques described above will help empower you to follow your own path, day by day, step by step.


This blog post is adapted from the original white paper Paths to Resilience: How Passion Projects, Positive Storytelling, and Portfolios can Support Student Mental Health by George Philip LeBourdais PhD

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