Passion projects are an extraordinary way to study new skills, obtain confidence, and delve greater thoroughly into your interests. Additionally, you can demonstrate your strengths and extracurricular pursuits at some stage in the college admissions process. As evidenced by the recent college acceptance rates, college admissions standards are becoming increasingly competitive. Therefore, if you intend to attend a highly-selective college, a passion project is a great way to stand out in the applicant pool.
While the process of applying to college usually starts in senior year, building a strong applicant profile should begin earlier in high school. Many universities are going the ‘test optional’ route and this means a shift towards evaluating applicants using more qualitative criteria.
Universities look at the stories that students tell in their essays and the projects that they’ve created to back up their admission profiles. For many students, that means they are looking to create an individualized project of their own, AKA a passion project.
What is a passion project?
As the name implies, it is anything you take up because you are deeply interested in it / passionate about it! The project can take a variety of forms (we’ve explained some below) and cover an array of topics and interests.
To help with the ideation process, we have listed over 25 passion project ideas that are perfect for high school students (sorted into 6 main categories).
25 Ideas for Passion Projects while in High School
Category #1: Work on a Research Project
Picking up a research project on a topic you’re passionate about is a great way to showcase your interest in the subject, relevant skills, and analytical and critical thinking skills.
Thanks to multiple virtual and in-person research programs available, you can also choose to be mentored by scholars working in a field you’re interested in. Read how to find research opportunities as a high school student.
One way to do a research program to apply to summer research programs where you can work 1-1 with a PhD on an independent research project. Students that are low-income, can also apply to programs like the Lumiere Foundation.
Alternatively, you could conduct independent research on topics such as the one below –
- Passion project idea: Working on a machine-learning-based platform that predicts the performance of a stock based on information from online communities, and compares it simultaneously with its performance for a few months to check its accuracy. One way to do that is to look at programs like Veritas AI.
- Studying the relationship between the proximity of grocery stores and the spending habits of shoppers.
- Studying biomimicry and developing solutions in a local context.
- Applying for and participating in summer research programs held by prestigious universities (bonus points if it’s the schools you’re applying to!). Check out this list of the most competitive summer programs.
- Reach out to professors and researchers via email or through online communities, and shadow them as a research assistant for the summer.
Let’s say you’ve done the research and written a stellar research paper, you should consider taking it to the next level by publishing it in a journal.
Application Open for Veritas AI Summer Program 2023
Veritas AI has a range of programs for ambitious high school students, from close-group, collaborative learning to customized project pathways with 1:1 mentorship. The programs have been designed and run by Harvard graduate students & alumni. In the AI Fellowship, you will create a novel AI project independently with the support of a mentor over 12-15 weeks. Examples of past projects can be found here.
Category #2: Bridge the gap between your academic interests and their real-world applications
If you can show ownership and your ability to take things to the next level / create opportunities, you can be sure to leave a lasting impression as a college applicant.
Taking up Spanish for your senior year of high school is cool. But translating that knowledge into a tutoring project or “Spanish for beginners” podcast is even cooler!
Passion projects like these display the skill to be able to apply your academic learnings to the world around you, in an accessible, easy-to-understand manner.
- Write a blog series on the basics of high-school world history.
- Take up tutoring roles with students of lower grades in a subject you are confident teaching and passionate about.
- Set up a podcast episode talking about home gardening and methods to set up a sustainable cycle of harvesting produce organically at home.
- Volunteer with a non-profit working with a field you’re passionate about (such as animal rights, and eco-consciousness) to assist them with their social media efforts or help them build or refine their website – the list is endless!
- Publish an interview series with local community leaders from underrepresented ethnic and racial groups, talking about their experiences, learnings, and initiatives in the community.
Category #3: Organize an event
As is the case with any passion project, there should be a very clear purpose for this one, or else it can seem like a ‘one-off’ effort (which is less impressive for a college application). Events are great for community engagement, creating awareness, and mobilizing efforts for causes.
Hosting an event involves more than simply deciding upon a venue and spreading the word about the event in your area. It shows your ability to think of the bigger picture, an eye for detail, and the ability to influence people to come together for a cause.
- Host a live Q&A (in-person or over social media) with a team of doctors that worked closely with the community at the peak of the COVID pandemic.
- Create a series of videos on topics that you are passionate about, such as mental health advocacy, climate change mitigation, sexual wellness, etc.
- Organize or lead discussion sessions on career plans, sharing circles for high school students to learn and engage with fellow college applicants.
- Take part in charity drives, garage sales, and collection drives in your vicinity.
- Set up a website or app collating all of the social events happening in your vicinity/state – a social calendar of sorts.
Category #4: Work on your digital presence
Along with in-person projects, having an online presence that showcases your work and experience is an excellent addition to your application. It speaks of ambition and larger engagement. It also compels you to reflect so that you can stay relevant.
This lets admission officers take a look at your non-academic achievements and activities alongside your admissions essay.
- Create a website that showcases your academic achievements, extra-curricular activities, research projects, and hobbies.
- Set up a social media account that you regularly post on – it could be a word a day from a language that you’re learning, fun facts about astronomy, event updates, etc.
- Start a YouTube channel that captures your passion – baking, traveling, writing, public speaking, and more!
- Collaborate with your peers with a similar social media presence for short videos, and featured posts.
- Spread the word about your blog page, YouTube channel, website, or tech portfolio by sharing links with your friends, academic counselors, and family.
Category #5: Set up your own small business
Setting up your own business is a great way of showcasing innovation, passion, problem-solving ability, and an array of skills that are valued professionally. This project can be as small or big as you’d like.
- Hold bake sales every week with cookies, cakes, and brownies
- Coach the elderly in computer literacy, and teach basic skills such as operating an email ID, ordering items from online retail stores, and staying safe from phishing and malware
- Offer your writing services to local businesses as a freelancer – blogging, copywriting, editing, etc.
- Set up a thrift store for pre-loved clothes to promote sustainability amongst your peers! (Many people are setting up stores online, consequently building a massive social media presence – you can actually work at the interaction of two or more passion project areas)
- Ship hyper-local items from other states/countries such as bao buns, authentic ramen, spices, and sweets in your hometown.
On a side note, if business and entrepreneurship interests you, check out some of these competitions which also let you ideate business plans and pitch them!
Category #6: Work on writing projects
Writing is a skill that comes in handy in a lot of situations. Knowing how to tailor your writing for a particular objective is a very handy communication skill to have.
- Submit a research paper to renowned journals, such as the Concord Review.
- Start your blog page – cover niches such as film and entertainment, food, or even travel
- Send an article or two to the local newspaper, or the newspaper at your high school
- Conduct and publish an interview with an academician in your field of interest, and publish it in a magazine.
- Publish a set of short stories or a collection of poems with your peers.
Now that we’ve covered over 25 passion projects that you can pick up, let’s take a look at why passion projects significantly increase your chances of getting into your dream school.
Over 75% of all present Harvard students have worked on a passion project in high school. Your college application is sure to stand out if it displays a high-school journey that has the right balance of academic, extra-curricular, and passion-turned-project.
How to use passion projects for college admissions
You can showcase a passion project in a number of ways in your college application.
A) Add the project to your portfolio and activity list
For instance, if your passion project has required you to produce deliverables/project milestones which can be considered as ‘work’, then it can go in your activity list or as a portfolio that you add to your college application.
B) Showcase the passion project as an academic achievement
If your passion is for educational purposes, it can be showcased as an academic experience. A great example of this is a research paper. If you have scaled a passion project over some time, you may even consider whether it can qualify as an extra-curricular activity.
C) Win competitions using your passion project
You can even compete in science fairs and competitions with your passion project and list that in your application if you win.
D) Write about your passion project in an essay
One of the best ways to showcase a passion project is to write about it in one of your essays (e.g., a supplemental essay). The more you can use concrete examples of what you’ve done when writing, the better. For example, when asked the question why this major, you could talk about the passion project and how it connects to the major that you’re applying to.
A pro tip: Use quantitative metrics to showcase your project’s impact
When talking about your project, focus on its impact. So, while you can speak about it qualitatively, do not forget that quantitative parameters matter. For example, “Discovered a polymer that is 5 times stronger than the average market variety and can be produced at 1/2 the price”.
Developing and launching a passion project takes dedication and motivation, two skills you need to highlight in your application. All things considered, the first thing that your passion project should have is ‘you’. Select an activity that matters the most to you, and reflects your values, beliefs, and interests.
Once you put effort into your passion project, you’d be surprised at how many individuals and groups you can engage with in the process.
Think hard about things that interest you/challenge you (or both!), identify patterns, and note some ideas down! You’ll have something solid before you know it.
One way to do a passion project – Lumiere Research Scholar Program
If you are ready to work on your passion project and could benefit from some mentorship, you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students that I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 2100 students apply for 500 spots in the program!
About Stephen Turban:
Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.
You can connect with Stephen on LinkedIn.
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