Real Passion vs. Fake Passion in Your College Essay

A lot of students apply to college out of fear. They’re trying to avoid a bad outcome rather than envisioning and pursuing a good one.

As a result, students often have a tough time saying WHY they want to attend school - much less any particular school. Or, rather, they know why they want to attend a fancy school, but they also know that they can’t be honest about it. Clearly, this won’t work in a college essay:

I want to go to Harvard because it’s super-prestigious. Everyone will respect me, no one will question my decision-making, and I’ll have lots of opportunities after college.

Imagine asking someone out on a date by saying, “If you go out with me, then everyone will think I’m cool, and I’ll get to date better-looking people later.”

A lot of students think they can compensate by showing hyper-enthusiasm about the school. These students use the word “passion” in every paragraph; they seem to think that if they express enough emotional intensity, admissions officers will be overwhelmed and wave them in.

This isn’t a great strategy either, mostly because everyone else is doing it.

Enthusiasm Inflation

Not that long ago, you could apply to Stanford with good grades, solid SAT scores, a few extracurriculars, and a nice essay, and you stood a decent chance of admission. (Forty years ago, Stanford admitted 31% of its applicants. Today, it’s 5%.)

The competition has gotten tougher from every angle. Applicants today have much better SAT scores, more impressive extracurricular accomplishments, and far more sophisticated essays. In other words, the relative value of a perfect SAT score, a county wrestling championship, and a lyrical essay has gone down.

The same is true for passion. Today, Stanford applicants treat passion as a baseline requirement. In many cases, their parents and counselors and friends have convinced them that they’re supposed to feel full-blown commitment to something - and when they look around their lives and don’t find anything that quite measures up, they pretend.

This pretending turns the application essay into a cynical game, and students don’t enjoy playing it. (It doesn’t feel good to lie about who you are.) It also brings an additional concern: What if the admission officers don’t believe me?

This is a legitimate worry. Ask yourself: when you’re speaking to another person, do you generally think you can tell when they’re bullshitting? Does the person’s tone sound different? Can you pick up on little signals, gestures, twitches?

Of course you can. We’re good at these things.

So are admissions officers. They read thousands (and thousands) of essays, and they can tell the difference between a performance of passion and genuine passion. They read the first paragraph of an insincere (or half-sincere) essay, and they know the score. The question is, what do they do next? What would you do?

Now, you might be tempted to say, “Well, I read 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays, and some of those kids sounded like they were laying it on a bit thick. If everyone does it - and if the admissions officers have to let somebody in - why shouldn’t it be me?”

Maybe it will be. After all, Harvard isn’t getting enough totally honest, deeply self-reflective essays to fill its freshman class. There’s some gamesmanship going on, no doubt.

But here’s a slightly different question: where’s your competitive advantage? Even if some tricksters slide in on the strength of a little BS, what are the chances that it’ll be you?

Very low. After all, your overall chances of getting into Harvard are low (because everyone’s are). Why would your chances of out-passioning the very best high school BS artists be much better?

In other words, you don’t have a competitive advantage in fake passion. But you DO have a competitive advantage elsewhere. In fact, in one area, you have a perfect monopoly - and that’s in being yourself.

Now, before you think I’m going all woo-woo on you, please hear this: I’m not suggesting that you just open up and throw a random mashup of secret thoughts and feelings on the page. Clearly, that won’t do either.

I’m talking about going deep into the areas of your own life that most confuse and interest you. I’m talking about putting aside fake passion for other people’s priorities - and finding the areas of your own existence that make you feel genuinely alive. If you can find something - anything - that makes you feel this way, then there’s a chance your reader will too.