Capstone, thesis, interest, hobby, resume builders, side hustle, passion, spice, dazzle: so many names from the most academic to buzzwords.
Over the past decade, a rigorous high school curriculum, strong grades, and high standardized test scores have led the rankings about what is most important to colleges in making admissions decisions. However, the values, goals, and your unique and beautiful personality that are transmitted in your counselor and teacher recommendations, activities, interview, communication with the school (“demonstrated interest”), and essays are all growing in importance for the final admissions decision.
Admissions factors aside, high school is a wonderful time to experiment—to create and take advantage of opportunities both in- and out-of-the-classroom. In our time together, we focus on creating a series of experiences both during the school year and over your summers so you can discover what gives you a strong sense of purpose, and how your talents connect with a future major, college, and career.
I want to know what matters to you—what you really enjoy doing. What do you do in your free time? What do you care about? More importantly, do you have enough free time to take action about what you care about?
I want you to be involved in an activity that shows depth, you feel committed to, and inspires positive energy. This is what will tie together your application. More importantly, you will both feel and transmit a strong sense of purpose in your steps moving forward.
Why you shouldn’t follow your passion
“Passion” is one of the most overused words in college essays—side note: please avoid using this word in your application. It’s also a term used to describe what admissions teams are “really” looking for in your application, and can be misleading as you express yourself in your application.
As a result, many of you have described to me that you feel pressured to do one or more of the following:
Figure out a passion.
Continue to like what you thought was your passion.
This recent MIT graduate drives this point home: “Is it passion if you’ve been doing it for so long it’s like a reflex and you no longer actively feel excited about it (like math, for me)?”
Know how this passion applies to your future education.
A research study conducted at Stanford concluded:
“Popular mantras like “follow your passion” make people think that pursuing a passion will be easy. Believers are then more likely to give up when they face challenges or roadblocks. …Focusing on following a single passion [also] made people less likely to consider new potential areas of interest. This close-minded view can be detrimental to the success of the individual and to the success of communities.”
Go out into the world
Instead of focusing on defining a single “passion,” focus on your outlet. What lights you up? What excites you? I don’t mean getting lost in a Netflix series or playing Fortnite, but if that’s your go-to, what is it about what you’re watching or the game you most enjoy playing that reels you in? What “sparks joy” as our favorite Japanese lady says? Painting, teaching, volunteering, refurbishing, taking photos, building, building an app, acting, learning, reading, playing an instrument, performing, debating, working with your hands, gardening—the choices are truly endless. This isn’t about defining your future career: how can you actually? The World Economic Forum estimates that “65 percent of the jobs that today’s high school graduates will have in their lifetime do not even exist yet.”
Instead, I want you to dig deep and take initiative: go outside of your comfort zone to learn, explore, and even relax.
We use a combination of “brain games,” constructive conversations, personality testing, career assessments, major exploration, course selection, summer opportunities, internships, and journaling as we work together to take action and turn your interests into career ideas. This is one of the many reasons as to why we work together over an extended period of time, since discovering your tie-in—your purpose—takes time
In addition, I often encourage students to go outside of their comfort zones. For some students, this means creating new opportunities, whether it be taking the time to pick up a paintbrush to fix up the local park, create a social media account dedicated to body positivity, or campaign for greater youth participation at Sunday School. I’m also a strong proponent to also find opportunities in which you can receive mentorship for your biggest interests, whether it’s a pre-college program or interning with your local veterinarian.
Hometown: David, Panama
Miguel is an awesome student and overall person. He’s extremely likeable—emceeing for his high school concerts and events, top of his class, on the debate team, campaigned for his own political party, and loves business. He’s tutored, volunteered, participated in the Math and Physics Olympics, shared his ideals as part of the Youth Ministry, and even played Danny in his high school’s production of Grease. He loves math, chemistry, and philosophy. He tested strong in Entrepreneurship, Finance & Investing, and Marketing & Advertising. He’s also artistic—from designing his own personal logo to the photos he shoots to building his own graduation cap.
Miguel also loves to work out in the gym, and shares his love of health and work-life balance on Instagram. As a result, in high school Miguel created “Skinny Vibes,” a conceptual franchise company focusing on healthy and organic eating habits. He marketed the entire brand, and visited suppliers in remote regions, including the Gulf of Panama mangroves, to find the best quality coconuts. This, my friends, is Miguel finding his purpose.
How does this translate into making a decision on a school and a major? While Miguel had several acceptance offers in the U.S. as an undergraduate, he decided to study medicine in Panama. He was able to fuse his love of a healthy and outgoing lifestyle by moving to Panama’s capital city, living independently and surrounded by cultural familiarity. Academically, he is pursuing a path that he was able to briefly experience in a high school internship shadowing a surgeon. He dreams of applying to residency programs in the States, and opening up his own medical practice. Miguel’s purpose is following his entrepreneurial spirit and love of health both academically and personally.
I used to live on the ocean in Panama. There was also a river next to my home office and that let out into the ocean. One day, as I was getting ready for class and a storm was brewing, a wave of plastic floated down the brown river. Cans, styrofoam, bags. When the water was low, I could spot a washing machine that someone had chucked and was stuck in the shore.
I would think about it—what a shame there is so much pollution, I would say to myself. I would even joke that if a certain student didn’t meet his goal score, he’d have to get some boots and head down for a beach clean-up. On the slowness of Sunday mornings, I would often think about how many bags would be needed to collect all the trash. Or when someone overseas would invest in a robotic boat to clean the shore.
I was so entrenched in my day-to-day schedule—get ready for meetings, go to pilates, stop by the market, walk the dog, research, check Whatsapps and emails—that I wasn’t thinking about what was really important. I had visited impoverished indigenous communities in Brazil and Panama of one-room classrooms and shoeless kids; I had even taught adult immigrants and refugees basic English so they could survive when I was only 19 years old—literally teach them how to keep themselves out of jail if they’re picked up in a bar fight. I’ve brushed my teeth in Mexico with bottled water since you can’t trust the faucet, and sat with my Morrcacan refugee students at the Red Cross and studied their faces as they described the brutal conditions surrounding their emigration.
Somehow, the experiences that I have lived and felt truly touched by had not created the awareness in which I live my life today. However, when I became vegan, I had a huge wake-up call. I became more conscious about my consumption—trying to purchase locally, minimize waste, research the labor behind products. I have a greater understanding of others, much more than I have ever had in my life. I think about the source. I don’t take the clean drinking water from the faucet that I drink from my glass bottle as we Zoom for granted. Now, as we talk about your college planning and application process, I am more and more aware that there is a whole population of children—our future generation—that cannot even access any sort of education. When I realized that one of the main causes tied in to lack of access to clean and safe drinking water, I had tied together my purpose: to educate, we need to create awareness and take action about the most basic needs of life.
Twice the population of the United States does not have access to clean and safe drinking water. Can you believe that? Even more astounding: 31% of schools in the world lack access to safe water and adequate sanitation. Some students are limited to how much they can drink; other children spend their days missing school in order to collect water. Children die of water-related diseases, and girls are more likely to drop out of schools.
Please make a difference by contributing a donation. 100% of donations will go directly to water project costs, and we will receive photos and updates of the community’s project.
Read, listen, share, and explore:
Sir Ken Robinson on Passion, The School of Life
How Awe Can Help Students Develop Purpose, UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, June 11, 2013.
Seven Ways to Help High Schoolers Find Purpose, UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, January 11, 2016.
3 Reasons It’s So Hard to “Follow Your Passion”, Harvard Business Review, October 15, 2019.
Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?, Physiological Science, 2018.
Helping Teens Find Their Purpose, The Hechinger Report, January 3, 2018.