College Applications: Balancing Individuality with Authenticity
BY YOLANDER YANG '24
With a 21% increase in total applications annually received on the Common Application from the years 2020 to 2023, the emphasis on having an impressive and memorable application is greater than ever. Whether it be from social media, college or school counselors, family members, or even peers, applicants receive a multitude of guidance—helpful or unsolicited—regarding every aspect of their application. Some guidance can be misleading and create unnecessary pressure. In the face of differing opinions, students in the application process should take any recommendations with a grain of salt, and they should shape their application in an authentic way that best suits their interests and reflects their character.
Extracurricular activities undoubtedly play a crucial role in allowing admissions officers to better understand each applicant outside the classroom. Throughout the years, viewpoints on types of extracurricular activities to include in the application have varied heavily on the internet.
Recently, the term “passion project” has become a buzzword in the world of college admissions. Essentially, a passion project is an extracurricular activity that a student initiates outside of a pre-existing organization. There are many examples, from creating a non-profit tutoring organization to making content on a YouTube channel. For genuinely curious and passionate students who have the time and resources to commit to such an endeavor, passion projects are a good way to extensively explore interests. In some cases, students can continue these projects beyond high school and even make a meaningful real-world impact.
However, the practice of creating non-profits purely for the sake of embellishing an application is a new and real concern. A student on the popular internet forum, Reddit, admitted that their friend coerced them to join a tutoring organization claiming to help “underrepresented communities.” In reality, all the students were well-off family friends. This is not only highly unfair to students who genuinely worked hard for a good cause in the application process, but can also steer away attention from true nonprofits that genuinely help underrepresented communities and continue to make an impact after the student passes it onto the next generation after them. Furthermore, fake passion projects can do as much harm as a good project can benefit an application. Admissions officers can scan the web for the existence or feats of these projects, and they can easily identify when an organization is but a name and a 501(c)3 label.
Additionally, special programs designed to help students create their “passion projects'' have profited. Claiming to guarantee acceptance to a Top 20 university, Passion Prep Bootcamp is one such program. Its advertising uses purposeful word choice, claiming that creating passion projects or landing prestigious research positions are the only realistic options for students applying to “elite” universities. This perpetuates the idea that students should only participate in these activities for the purpose of college acceptance and give up ones that they genuinely enjoy. Through spreading this mentality, programs like Passion Prep, which easily cost thousands of dollars, sell their programs by guaranteeing to help students find their unique projects. The practice is detrimental to clients because ideas that are generated by hired help are bound to have similarities, further diminishing a student’s potential for individuality. Therefore, “trendy” admissions advice cannot be applied to everyone, and it is important to evaluate the sources from which they originate. In this case, advocating for passion projects is used as a source of profit for many companies like Passion Prep.
Not every high school student is ready and has the space in their schedule for their own independent project, but that should not devalue their contribution and leadership within other organizations. Rather than exclusively focusing on one huge and possibly unrealistic commitment, participating in multiple different activities can better showcase a student’s broad spectrum of individuality within their character. Participation in pre-existing school clubs and volunteering organizations has great value as students can still gain good leadership experience, and even possibly have a greater opportunity to collaborate with mentors and peers. A mixture of enjoyable activities will mold a student’s identity and allow their individuality to shine through on applications.
College essays—both the personal statement and supplementals—exist to showcase a person’s character beyond their statistics and extracurriculars. They allow a glimpse into the applicant’s personal voice and character, and they often take up the majority of an applicant’s total time spent on their application. In most cases, colleges offer open-ended essay prompts that allow students to write about any topic they desire. While this freedom may benefit some, many applicants struggle to come up with a topic that pertains to them. A simple Google search displays that admissions experts and bloggers advise against essays about sports, stories of immigration, personal tragedy, and more. The reason is simple: colleges have read thousands upon thousands of essays regarding these topics, making the writing harder to stand out. Yet, these stories are defining moments in the lives of many applicants, and it is wrong to discourage students from writing about their meaningful experiences. With self-reflection and authenticity, many over-criticized topics can turn into successful and compelling essays if written in a way that effectively demonstrates the applicant’s character. When writing college essays, students should avoid plagiarism or hire help at all costs. While it is ethical to use ChatGPT and other AI programs to generate inspiration for essay topics, using them to write actual essays, or employing the help of other professional college essay writing services is a serious violation of academic integrity. Letting others dictate the story is not true to an applicant’s individual voice. Colleges can rescind an acceptance or even the degree of a graduate if they find that a student plagiarized or faked any part of their application, creating real concerns of people’s consequences to wrongful actions early on in the process.
For students currently in or about to go through the college application process in the next admissions cycle, it is important to remember that authenticity is among the most important traits that colleges seek. Participating in activities or writing essays based on others’ advice is not always the best because colleges constantly look for students who authentically stand out through their unique pursuits and identity. When researching admissions advice, remember that not every piece of advice can be applied to everyone. At the end of the day, college applications are extremely unpredictable, and with an increasing number of total applicants each year, colleges become more selective. A rejection letter does not equate to failure, but rather a redirection to new opportunities that can lead to unexpected success.