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How to Strengthen Your College Application During COVID-19

Just because the pandemic has changed your plans doesn't mean you can't impress colleges with your application. Here's how to improve your apps from home!

Due to the global pandemic, in-person instruction and gatherings in schools across the country look completely different than they did a year ago. And even with a vaccine on the horizon, it could be a while before we’re able to adjust back to a “normal” school structure. Now you’re not only bored without your sports, clubs, and other extracurricular activities to be involved in, but you might feel overwhelmed and stressed about the entire college admission process too.

When you’re applying to college, it’s important to strategize how you’re going to stand out among thousands of other highly qualified applicants. Many students fall into the pattern of trying to stand out by getting involved or becoming active members of many extracurricular clubs and activities, piling on AP coursework, and working overtime to study for the SAT or ACT—options you might not have at the moment. But there’s some good news: that might be a good thing. You can still show college admission officers that you’re a successful, standout student who’s perfect for their school, even without all of these organizations and accolades on your résumé. Here’s how.

Your college application burnout alternative

When I was in high school, I took the advice to “get involved” and threw myself into so many extracurricular activities and leadership positions that I barely had time for my rigorous studies (let alone a normal sleep schedule). But what I didn’t know was getting involved didn’t give me anything special to put on my résumé—it didn’t give me that “wow” factor that the Ivy League schools I was applying to wanted to see. It didn’t even put me on their radar. What it did make me was severely burnt out

All this made me realize I needed to take control of my own path again. I needed to cut out any extracurricular activities and efforts that didn’t exactly align with my passions and find one thing that did. So I started volunteering at a local elementary school. There, I created my first passion project—a program that focused on helping low-income students master math and literacy. From then on, I focused on what I was truly passionate about. I wrote compelling essays about this passion project, and I reached out to professors about it…and started going to bed at a reasonable hour.

I didn't have a bunch of extracurriculars anymore. I didn't attend any summer programs. I didn’t do what everyone else was doing. Instead, I demonstrated that I was an action-taker. I got accepted into University of Southern California and Harvard University because I showed them I was passionate about my field of study, could take initiative, and was determined to grow. My passion project said more about me than 100 extracurriculars ever could.

You may be stuck at home during a global pandemic without any extracurriculars, but you don’t need all of them to demonstrate your achievement. You only need one strong passion project to show your dream colleges who you really are.

Related: What Colleges Care About in This Time of Crisis

What is a passion project?

A passion project is a venture that you independently create based on your own academic and personal interests. It’s also the #1 strategy I share with my students to propel them into a successful college application process—one that leads to an acceptance letter from the schools of their dreams. Developing a passion project will showcase your personality, interests, and initiative without spreading you too thin. Even better, you can develop and execute a passion project on your own terms, even in your own home.

How to find your passion project

Here are the steps you should take to develop your own passion project that’ll give you the edge you need when applying to college during the pandemic.

Step 1: Strategize

First, you’ll want to pick a theme that aligns with your academic career goals. What are you passionate about? What are your interests? What academic area can best fit those interests? Having a theme will give you a clear sense of direction when creating a project.

Step 2: Brainstorm

Start brainstorming passion projects that could align with your theme. You could create an informational platform or website, start a research assistant position, or even start a service-based organization or program! Having a passion project that aligns with your theme gives colleges clear evidence of all the things they’re looking for: your talents and abilities, personal qualities, and your fit for the school.

Related: 5 Ways to Brainstorm Your College Essays

Step 3: Execute

A passion project that stops in the ideation phase is just that, an idea. Now you’ll need to take action steps to make the project a reality. An important part of this phase is being consistent. For instance, if you want to start a podcast about political science–related topics, you should release regularly scheduled episodes. If you’re starting an after-school educational program for middle schoolers, set up regular meeting times. Consistency makes it evident you’re passionate, hardworking, and dedicated to your project—and gives you more experience to write about in your application.

Step 4: Scale

Finally, it’s time to take your project to the next level. Scaling your project is all about getting it out into the public sphere. You can do this in a number of ways: get published in a newspaper or magazine, collaborate with like-minded organizations, or organize an event. The fact that you, your messaging, and your passion project are in the public eye gives you immense credibility in the eyes of colleges. 

Related: How to Discover (and Pursue) Your Passion

Using your time in valuable ways

We may have all been dealt a bit of bad news with COVID-19. But there’s one thing this pandemic has given us that’s one of the most valuable things a student can have—more time. More time to study for the SAT or ACT. More time to work on your passion project. More time to network with counselors, college admission officers, and teachers to get awesome recommendation letters. Use this time wisely. Spend it devoting yourself to a quality project rather than worrying about the quantity of qualifications you can put on your college application.

The other benefit of your passion project

When you start focusing on the quality of your achievements rather than the quantity, you start aligning yourself with pursuits that really mean something to you—pursuits that can show college admission officers more about who you are and why they need you at their school next fall. And what comes with those greater quality achievements? More confidence.

You’ll gain a sense of confidence about creating that one outstanding factor that’ll open up so many more doors for you. Confidence to crush your standardized tests and keep up your GPA (which could lead to more opportunities for scholarships and more acceptance letters). Confidence you can share with those around you, to become a role model for your younger siblings and friends. Confidence about doing something you take pride in and that others are proud of you for doing. That’s what's really going to make a difference in your college applications. In times like these, you’re called to rise to the occasion. So focus on what really matters, and answer confidently. 

For more advice on improving your college applications, check out our College Admission section.

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About Julie Kim

Julie Kim, EdM, is the founder and CEO of Julie Kim Consulting, creator of the Passion Project™ bootcamp, and a Harvard University graduate. She helps hundreds of aspiring Ivy League and top-tier students create their own standout factor on their college applications.


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