Polygence blog / Education and College Admissions

How I Advocated for Students as an Admission Officer when they Wrote About Passion Projects

6 minute read

When I was an admission officer at Vanderbilt, I always told students that my job is to advocate for them, and their job is to make my job easier.

You don’t want me to struggle to tell your story to the admissions committee.

Admission officers are storytellers. We tell your story to the admissions committee on your behalf. We summarize it in our notes on your application. If you’ve created a strengths-based narrative in your application and weaved those strengths together into a compelling story, your admission officer should have no problem advocating for you.

Still, anyone who has watched a few movies or read a couple books knows that not all stories are created equal. The (harsh?) reality is there are only so many ways I can spin an essay about making the varsity soccer team. Especially when I’m on my 42nd application and 11th sports essay of the day. Or one about how volunteering led to a changed perspective. Or any other overused essay topic.

You can—and should!—write about something more distinctive.

Some of the best essays I read, both personal statements and supplemental essays, were about interesting projects students took on outside of the classroom.

I’m going to pull back the curtain and share how I advocated for students with these “passion projects.” It was always fun as an admission officer to tell an interesting story about a student with a cool project. And if your admission officer is excited to tell your story… you’re off to a great start.

Here are four ways I advocated for students with passion projects in admissions at Vandy, and how I coach my students now when they write their applications:

Create a research project tailored to your interests and your schedule

Polygence pairs you with an expert mentor in your area of passion. Together, you work to create a high quality research project that is uniquely your own. We also offer options to explore multiple topics, or to showcase your final product!

I wanted our admissions committee to be able to picture an applicant as an active member of our educational and social community (hint: this should be your goal with your essays!).

For example, when students had a business endeavor or an entrepreneurial bend to their application, I would say how I could see them making use of the business accelerator programs and entrepreneurship coaching we offer. We want the future inventors, founders, and CEOs to choose Vanderbilt, so this was a logical way to connect the dots between what they do and what we offer.

I remember a student who ran a free virtual summer science camp for elementary students during the COVID summer of 2020. She led the young scientists in DIY home experiments to teach them about the scientific method. That is pretty much exactly what the Vanderbilt Student Volunteers for Science (VSVS) club does. So, I told the committee that I am presenting them with the rare opportunity to admit the future president of VSVS… and they did!

One actionable piece of advice here is to write supplemental essays that do that connecting-of-the-dots for your admission officer. Remember, your job is to make their job easier. Think about the projects you’ve taken on and see if there are clear ways your essays can connect what you do with what their school offers.

Second, I strategically used particular words that carried weight in our process

Like overused essay topics, there are plenty of terms that are used so frequently in the admissions world that they no longer carry much weight. Every student seems to be a “leader” or “well-rounded.” And, for some reason, I’ve read dozens of letters of recommendation that use the cliché, “still waters run deep” to describe a quieter student with depth to their personality.

But some students really stand out. If I call a student a true innovator and tell a story to back that up, that has meaning. That might be the student who created a machine learning program to predict when a storm will produce floods, or the one who developed a snow-melting robot.

Similarly, lots of students are volunteers, but I reserved the word activist for those who really earned it. I remember a student with a particular disability who worked with a state senator to pass a bill that helps people like him navigate public spaces better. A student researching homelessness during the COVID pandemic becomes an activist when their research pushes for better public health policies for an underserved population.

This is part of why we advocate for a strengths-based narrative and honing your application around a couple core strengths. Your application—essays, extracurriculars, letters of recommendation—should be chock full of references to whatever it is that makes you you. That will lead your admission officer to clearly identify what is distinctive about you. Speaking of which…

Third, I focused on the novel thing they’ve done that I would have never thought of

You’re probably catching on to the theme of out-of-the-box thinking here. Distinctive projects stand out—sometimes even more than high levels of recognition in well-established fields or organizations. As I wrote in this Reddit post,

I’ve reviewed countless applications from debate champions, but only one from a girl who plays drums in a Led Zeppelin cover band. I’ve seen a lot of varsity tennis, but only one student who was a Pokémon card game champion.

Look, you don’t have to cure cancer to stand out to admissions. But, as that post emphasizes, there are a lot of activities off the beaten path that “count” in admissions. Creativity, problem-solving, and originality all have a place. There might be something non-academic you’re already doing that should be included in your application or would make for an interesting essay.

I loved advocating for these students in admissions because it brought a sense of novelty to committee. It comes back to the point I made about stories earlier: they aren’t all created equal.

If you write about an interesting project in a supplemental essay, I’ve got something fun to bring to committee.

Fourth, I highlighted intellectual vitality and a genuine love of learning

This one is huge. At the end of the day, colleges are recruiting students. Learners. Young people seeking an education. And, both in college and in life, education often happens outside of the classroom.

I told students and families all the time that when you’re in college you’ll learn as much in the classroom as you will in the dining hall with friends, in 2 am study sessions, and in student organizations.

So, it follows that one intangible trait we looked for was intellectual vitality. A love of learning, and the insatiable urge to do something with that knowledge. To put it to use.

I would go out of my way in committee to highlight these traits in truly standout applicants. They, almost by definition, were engaged with some sort of interesting passion project well beyond the four walls of their high school.

Every student wants to seem “smart” or academic in their essays, but some standouts walk the walk. Like the student who watches their public middle school close and becomes determined to research the complicated relationship between school enrollment and economic growth. Stories like these highlight the issues that are all around us, begging to be investigated and improved upon. You might just help develop a solution.

Again, you don’t have to cure cancer. Be curious and willing to learn. Try something new and even fail along the way. It can lead to excellent outcomes—in admissions and in life.

Want to start a project of your own?

Click below to get matched with one of our expert mentors who can help take your project off the ground!