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Passion Projects for High School Students: Why They’re Important and How to Get Started

4 minute read

Passion projects are a great way for high school students to build skills, stand out in college applications, and explore careers. But funnily enough, I only recognized the value of a passion project after high school.

In my sophomore fall of college at NYU, my social entrepreneurship professor assigned us a passage from the book Range by David Epstein. The beginning describes a young man’s seemingly endless career journey. One second he wants to draw and be an artist, the next second he wants to just sell art, then he wants to be a preacher, and then somehow he’s back to drawing?

This man was Vincent Van Gogh. Epstein offers the idea that this long journey to find what one is good at in their career has to do with Northwestern economist Ofer Malamud’s research on match quality, a term used to describe the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are.

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Malamud found that those who specialized in their field later switched jobs less in their career, signaling that they had greater match quality. Those who had taken a greater variety of topics in school also seemed to have lower unemployment rates. As Epstein summarizes, “Exploration is not just a whimsical luxury of education; it is a central benefit”. High school students can benefit greatly from exploring topics that interest them not just in the short-term pre-college but also in their career long-term.

When to Do a Passion Project

Given how there are benefits to exploring a variety of topics and careers, when is the best time to start exploring? 

Many would argue that college is the time for students to start exploring career paths. This was actually when I began exploring careers. But why not start earlier? The story of Vincent Van Gogh is one of a long winding path that extends throughout his life, but many people might not have the luxury of exploring careers for that long. Starting earlier allows students to have more time to explore topics and find what excites them, which can then allow them to make better decisions about what college they want to attend or what they want to major in. 

What is a Passion Project?

A passion project is an individual project that a student initiates to learn more about an area they’re excited about. Students can also have mentors to help them along in their project. One of the great things about a passion project is that the final product can pretty much be anything! It doesn’t have to always look like a paper or presentation, and the student is in charge of their project so they decide the direction.

Why Passion Projects are a Great Way to Explore Interests

There are many potential ways to explore, but a passion project is one of the best ways for a high schooler to pursue their interests.

Learn about career paths

When students dive deep into a field like biology, entrepreneurship, or computer science, they can get exposure to the same kinds of problems/topics that industry professionals deal with. As a result, students can truly understand what being an entrepreneur or a software engineer might be like, and not just make surface-level judgments about specific careers. 

If students are open to it, they can also explore doing their passion project with a mentor who might be able to guide the student and offer valuable insights into a certain industry or career.

Distinguish yourself on College Apps

A passion project can demonstrate to admissions offices that a student has the initiative to pursue something that interests them and can also take ownership of a project. It can also show colleges what a student is excited about, and why they may want to pursue a particular major or field of study.

You Can Do Something You Enjoy

School can sometimes be a bit dry. Passion projects give students complete control over what they want to explore, which allows them to be excited about learning. I personally became excited about learning when I started learning about technology startups outside of school. I was fascinated by technological innovation and the challenges of scaling a business. It was a completely different feeling from learning in school, because it was something I wanted to learn more about and I felt more motivated as a result.

Academic research has confirmed this difference: researchers from the University of California found in a 2014 study that “People are better at learning information that they are curious about.” At Polygence, we’ve also seen many students who start our program with the intention of boosting their college apps and resume, but by the end, they’ve expressed how their project has helped them feel a sense of pride and excitement for what they’re learning about.

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How to Begin a Passion Project

Select a project topic that excites you

Think about a topic that you care about and would have fun learning more about. You have the freedom to decide, so make sure it’s something worthwhile. At the same time, the topic doesn’t necessarily have to be something you know you want to do for your career - the whole point is to explore so that you can decide whether it’s something that interests you.

Think about what you want your project outcome to be

Passion projects don’t have to always culminate in a presentation or paper. You can take many different paths to present your work and what you’ve learned. We’ve seen students create an original children’s storybook, a wearable device prototype to track the onset of Covid-19, websites, podcast episodes, and so much more! If you’re still stuck or want some inspiration, check out some project ideas here

Moreover, final project formats don’t necessarily need to be decided before starting to learn about your topic. You may have a better sense of what you want your project outcome to look like as you start doing research. 

Passion projects are an excellent way to explore careers, boost college applications, and help students learn about topics they're curious about. Exploration is crucial in helping students learn about themselves and find what excites them the most. And the earlier a student can start, the better!

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