Episode 31: Interesting Interests Are Better Than Uninteresting Ones

Episode 31: Interesting Interests Are Better Than Uninteresting Ones

Date of Publication/发布日期
April 2, 2021
Jonathan Helland
Files & media
Volume 1 2020-2021

Think of the poor college admissions application reader. He or she is probably a young academic, mostly like a recent humanities major or graduate student. It’s January something, and for the past few weeks they’ve been looking at dozens of applications a day. Some of those applications are an easy acceptance. Many more are an easy rejection. For the rest of them, the admissions worker has to make a tough decision--do they recommend acceptance for this student? When they meet as an admission committee, will they fight for this student? Will they try to win a place for this one student over hundreds of other qualified applicants?

Will they even remember reading this application tomorrow? Or a week from now when they’ve read over a hundred more applications?

The importance of being memorable on your college application can’t be overstated. Not only because an application reader has to remember you in order to advocate for you, but also because anything that makes you stick out in the mind of an application reader will also make you appear, in that reader’s mind, as a fully 3-dimensional human being rather than as a set of numbers on a page.

One way of standing out is through your interests. Interesting interests are better than uninteresting ones. Uninteresting interests add little to nothing to your application, while interesting ones, especially if they’re woven into a narrative, will add spice to several parts of the application. (Much of this comes back to the concept of narrative, of which I’ve spoken previously).

Interesting Academic Interests

Interesting interests don’t have to be wacky hobbies (but they can be). A student’s academic interests themselves can be interesting. This can, of course be your major. This chart shows a breakdown of the majors selected by international students in US Universities. It should be obvious that being a Chinese student who wants to major in philosophy or literature is already going to stand out from the crowd.


But, there are reasons why these patterns exist (see my blog post on “Balancing Passion and Pragmatism in Major Selection”), and I would absolutely never suggest a student choose their major based on what might give them an advantage; the college you can only get into by misrepresenting yourself is not the right fit.

However, even the most common majors can become interesting interests with a healthy dose of specificity.

Think about the difference between these two statements:

“I want to study Math.”

“I want to study Number Theory.”

Even if you don’t know anything about math, even if, like me, you have no idea what “number theory” is, it’s still a more interesting statement.

Think about what these two statements tell us about the student—in the first statement, it tells us very little. They might want to study math because they’re good at it, because they heard it will make it easy to get a job, or maybe, because they actually do have a passion for it. We simply have no way of knowing.

With the more specific statement, it’s clear right away that this student is motivated, at least in part, by an intrinsic interest or intellectual curiosity.

And, perhaps more importantly, while this student is just one of many future math majors applying to college, he will be more memorable than any of the rest of them.

So how do you convey in your application that you have highly specific or unusual academic interests? You don’t usually get to specify when you select your intended major; you have to pick one from the list of majors offered by that school.

There are two places you can express your interesting academic interests in an application. The first is in your activity list. If you have activities related to your interests, you can elaborate somewhat in the activity description.

If you took classes at a summer pre-college, which classes you took can show off your interesting interests. If you did a research project or paper, the topic of your research will reveal things about your interesting interests.

The second place is in what College Counselors call is in an “academic interest essay.” Many colleges will give a prompt like this one from Carnegie Mellon:

“Most students choose their intended major or area of study based on a passion or inspiration that’s developed over time – what passion or inspiration led you to choose this area of study?”

Or this one from University of Michigan:

“Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?”

While CMU’s is asking about how you developed a passion for your subject area, and UMich’s asks how their specific program can help you pursue your interests, both give an excellent opportunity for you to share your specific academic interests.

Because colleges want students who are passionate about learning and intrinsically motivated, questions about academic interests might be the most common type of supplemental essay required by colleges. Students with interesting and specific interests tend to write better academic interest essays.

Interesting Hobbies

I practice Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), a hobby that involves trying to recreate the martial arts of the middle ages and renaissance (mostly sword-fighting) based on the manuals written by the masters of that time. It combines sport with historical research and languages.

I’m particularly experienced with German longsword combat of the 14th century, Italian Rapier fencing from the early 17th century, and 19th century self-defense and cane fighting from Britain and France.

Having said those things, I bet two things are now true: 1. You probably have questions. 2. You probably think I’m more interesting than you did a minute ago.

Imagine you work in college admissions. If you were trying to decide if I should be accepted to your college, my experience in HEMA probably wouldn’t tell you much about my academic abilities or my readiness for the rigors of college. (It would tell you a little about those things, though, studying old fighting manuals is somewhat academic, and all martial arts require patience, dedication, and hard work). Nevertheless, it would make me seem more human and unique.

You certainly wouldn’t have much trouble remembering me among a pile of applications.

“Jonathan Helland…which one is he?”

“He’s the one who does historical fencing.”

“Oh, that Jonathan Helland!”

The same will, of course, be true of your own student's weird hobbies, whether it's capturing and raising rare beetles, building telescopes from scratch, or competitive eating.

In Conclusion

I didn’t write this blog post to encourage your students to go out and seek the weirdest hobby they can, nor to shame those students whose interests are fairly ordinary. Quite the opposite; I want every student to be free to pursue their own genuine interests to the fullest.

I do want students to explore and try different things in pursuit of their passions, and to dig deeper into the interests they already have in order to hone them into something more specific. But in the end, not every student is going to end up with interesting interests and that’s okay.

The risk, rather, is when students and parents try to fit into a predetermined formula. Students who only do what worked for other students or what they think colleges expect of them will never have the opportunity to develop those things that will make them the most interesting to the people (and never forget that they are people) on the other end of their college application.