Episode 6: "Finding" Your Passions

Episode 6: "Finding" Your Passions

Date of Publication/发布日期
October 9, 2020
Jonathan Helland
Files & media
Volume 1 2020-2021

“Finding” Your Passion

Throughout this blog series, the subjects of a student interests and passions will come up several times. How do you balance passion and pragmatism when choosing a college major? What can make an interest of yours interesting to a college admissions officer?

In essay I will set the stage for further discussion by explaining why passion is important and how students can discover their own passion.

Why should a teenager have a passion?

The best college applications, taken as a whole, tell a story about dedication, intellectual curiosity, and, yes, passion. They tell this story through course selection, activities and summer programs, and essays. Admissions officers see someone who, for example, takes every available biology and environmental science class, joins the ecology club and the conversation club, and spends their summer volunteering to clean beaches, and they know this is someone who will work hard at their school and beyond because they genuinely care about something.

This is why so many schools require an academic interest essay, asking students to explain why they want to study what they want to study. Many schools do this by asking about "passion," directly. Carnegie Mellon has the following essay prompt, for example: "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?" And Cornell's college of Architecture asks, "What is your "thing"? What energizes you or engages you so deeply that you lose track of time? Everyone has different passions, obsessions, quirks, inspirations. What are yours?"

It's easy to see why colleges want students with passion. Someone who is only studying to get a degree so they can get a high-paying will do what ever is required to get that degree, but that's it. Someone who is studying because they love what they are studying will go above and beyond, will explore and innovate and excel.

How do you get one?

But where does this passion come from? What about students who don't have a passion? Students who are interested in the extrinsic awards (good grades, a prestigious college acceptance, a lucrative career) but not the intrinsic joy of learning fascinating new facts or skills?

If passion is so important to college admissions, where can a student "find" some? It's an interesting question, and more complex than it seems at first.

You'll notice I'm using the word "finding" in quotation marks. "Find your passion" is a common English expression, but it's a misleading one. A recent Stanford psychological study demonstrates that a person's interests aren't fixed and stable over time. Passions aren't so much "found" as built! Perhaps more importantly, this study found that a person who believes interests are fixed is less open to developing new ones.

So, one of the first things a student can do to help them find a passion is simply to embrace a "growth mentality" to the topic. If you are open to new experiences, then you can always find new interests and passions.

Another lesson we can learn from this study is that, when trying new things, a little perseverance is necessary. Just because a student isn't interesting in something immediately, it doesn't mean they'll never be interested. Often, we need to develop some skill and competency at a task before we know whether we like it. Especially if the skill is complex and difficult, or takes a lot of time to get good at. Nobody enjoys their first day of falling down over and over again learning how to ride a snowboard.

That said, it's best to approach new tasks, topics of study, and activities from a sense of play. People underestimate the effectiveness of play in education; we want our students to work hard and to be successful, forgetting that the reason playfulness evolved was to serve as a way for children to learn. But it's even more crucial when developing passions and interests. In order to learn to love something, you first have to learn to enjoy it. For this reason, you can't turn the search for a passion into chore. This is one task where the harder you try the less you'll succeed.

I've read many academic interest essays from students trying to explain where their passions came from. It's easy to tell which students don't really have a passion for their subject. From those that do, the stories are often very similar. Often a passion is passed down to a student from a great teacher or an inspiring family member. Sometimes, a student discovered a passion at intersection between two different interests (Do you love both music and physics? Maybe you should study acoustics!) Very often, students first identify a problem in the world, and then set about looking for ways to use their aptitudes to solve it (if you're worried about the environment and good at math and science, maybe you can develop a passion for environmental engineering!)

But what about non-academic passions?

It's easy to get caught up in a mindset that limits passions to classroom subjects and potential college majors. But all kinds of passions can be helpful on a college application and, more importantly, in having a fulfilling and meaning life.

Some students will have a passion for sports, for example, and even if they aren't going to play at the college level, they can still pursue and develop this passion and they will still end up with an application that tells a story about dedication, hard work, persistence, teamwork, lessons learned about failure, success, and the importance of practice, and all the other life-long benefits of sport.

This can be applied to many things—hobbies, the arts, cooking, travel—almost anything that a student can show dedication and passion for can be helpful on an application.

Contrary to popular opinion, you don't have to have a joyless childhood to get into a great college.


In conclusion, here is how an aimless student can find a passion:

  • Look inward. What brings you joy? What would you do or learn about if you didn't have to do anything? What issues in the world do you really care about?
  • Be open to new experiences. Explore. Try many different things.
  • Growth mindset. Remember your interests can grow, develop, and change over time.
  • Be persistent. Give yourself a chance to grow to love something. Don't give up when you're still getting through that awkward beginner stage.
  • Consider what interests might be combined into a passion.
  • Have fun. Don't approach everything as if it were a job. Embrace a sense of playfulness when you try or learn new things.
  • Finally, don't worry. Many people don't truly find their passion until they are already in college or even later in adulthood. That's okay. Just keep on exploring and trying new things.