EP4: Why a Passion Project Can Help You Get Into College

A college admissions interviewer for a top 10 university in the U.S. shares what she looks for when interviewing undergraduate applicants.

We discuss:

  • The metrics used to gauge undergraduate applicants in an interview
  • Why a passion project is a big component
  • Why resume buffers are easy to spot
  • The importance of the art of conversation
  • Common mistakes students – and parents – make

Here is an abridged, edited version of the interview:

Q: What is your role in the college admissions process?

A: I act as an alumni interviewer for my undergraduate institution. It’s a top 10 school here in the United States and I just act as an alumni interviewer on a volunteer basis for high school seniors who would like to attend [undergraduate school].

Q: Are these interviews optional?

A: They are. So when a student applies, the student has the choice to indicate whether they would like to be contacted for an interview. They can decline the interview, and in lieu of the interview, submit an additional letter of recommendation.

Q: Do you receive any information about the student prior to the interview?

A: No. Interviews are supposed to be pretty blind interviews. The only information I receive is the student’s name and contact information so that I can contact the student to set up the interview. I also do find out which college within the university they’re applying to.  But other than that I do not know what their SAT scores are, I do not know what their GPAs are. I’m discouraged from doing any social media searches for the student or anything of that nature.

Q: What kind of information are you hoping to glean from the interviews?

A: The school’s really looking to get a sense of what’s really behind the application material.  You know the students will list certain activities they’ve been involved in throughout their time in high school. And what we’re really looking to find out is, what is it that motivates them? What kind of initiative does this student show? What does leadership involve for that student aside from perhaps just a title? What is it that makes that student perk up aside from being just articulate and those sorts of things. What is really the motivating force behind that student, is a big piece of it.  We’re also looking to find out how interested the student really is in our particular school, is one piece of it. If there’s any other intangible information, things like any obstacles the student has overcome or opportunities the student has taken advantage of that maybe didn’t fully come out in the application package.

Q: So this interview process could help a student but it could potentially hurt a student as well.

A: It could. I do give a score at the end. I rate a student from 1 to 5.  There’s a specific criteria for that. Very hard for students to get a 5. I’ve almost never given a 5 out. Even a 4 is very, very, very exceptional. The way the scoring system’s set up, most students who are extremely qualified [and] would be a great addition to the school, I would rate a 3.

Q: What is an example of a reason you’ve given out a 4.  What is considered extraordinary?

A: It’s often students who just really, there’s an interest factor about them. They’re not just [someone] who can put together something on paper that looks good but they’re clearly really interested in the things that they’re doing, the things they’re involved in. They’re doing it out of a genuine interest and passion that comes internally.

I would say for me as an interviewer one of the things I encounter the most that is not so much a negative, it’s almost become more expected, but is certainly not a positive, is students who, they just kind of go through the motions – mom and dad or someone mom and dad have paid to coach them – they’re kind of doing it to check boxes off a list so they’ll look like good college applicants. And they either seem heavily coached or they can’t really articulate why they’re really doing any of the things that they do. It’s not unusual. It’s certainly fairly typical for someone who’s 17, 18 years old. On the other hand, students who are really going to jump out at the interview, is someone who already has a sense of what really makes them tick.

Honestly for my purposes, it really doesn’t matter what they tell me about or what they’re interested in, so long as they’re personally really interested in it. And clearly they’re well versed in it. They can talk about it for quite a while, and they just kind of light up when they talk about it. And no matter what it is, they’re really interested in doing it, and not mom or dad or a counselor who encouraged them to take on.

Q: I can see why the interview process is so telling because when you meet someone face to face, it’s really hard to hide that kind of thing.

E: Exactly. And interesting for me, I’m a parent of elementary school-aged children and it’s certainly been insightful for me at this stage in life with my own kids. It’s helped me relax a lot as a parent and try to provide my own kids with opportunities as opposed to, they need to do this and this and this in a very high-stress way. But try to tap into what they’re really interested in and try to get them out there so they can find what does make them tick and find that spark for themselves. So it’s actually been constructive for me as a parent too.

Q: A lot of our readers are young entrepreneurs or aspiring young entrepreneurs or parents whose kids have a passion for entrepreneurship or any kind of passion project really. Is this something that could provide an edge?

A: Certainly they can benefit in the area of in terms of how deeply can they talk about a topic. How well versed is it?  They really have learned about business and really put that together, or how passionate are they and involved are they in their activity. So they would do really well in that category. But for schools that do want to know about the public, or global or community or local aspects, they might lose some points there.

Q: Many of our young entrepreneurs involve some form of community outreach into their business.

A: I think for a student who is able to work on those different aspects where maybe there is an economic value to them and they learn a business aspect, but there’s a community awareness, they’re going to cover all of their bases. And so I think that’s great.

I will also say on the flip side of what I just said too, it’s really easy for an interviewer to spot – I’d hate to call it false community service. For instance, I had a student once who was very memorable for me because she made this big deal about starting a nonprofit. Well when I asked her more questions, it was clear her father who was an attorney, started a nonprofit in her name so it would look good for college. There was very little of herself in that, and her interest in that, and I would say, that probably was less effective for that student in an interview, than a student who went and started a business and was really passionate about it. So it can definitely go both ways.

Q: You mentioned five metrics. Can you disclose what those five metrics are?

A: One is just the student’s interest in the school. If the school is clearly not interested, that is something that I’m asked to mention. One is just the level of, we’re asked to look at student’s initiative and level of leadership to their activities and the extent to which they immerse themselves into that. And again, how student’s have dealt with opportunities, challenges, things of that nature. Those are the sorts of things that we’re asked to look for.

D: Tips for parents?

A: I think that going through this process, it has given me a lot more freedom as a parent. Again I just feel like my job is to help encourage and guide my kids in who they are as people and what they’re interested in. I feel nothing but sadness when I encounter a student who really seems like they weren’t given any of those opportunities to explore what they actually might be really interested. I feel like they unfortunately missed out on a chance and again, these are kids that I’m interviewing so I hope only the best for them, that that will happen for them in college. And for them, that they just haven’t been able to articulate it.

Other little things that are helpful that I would just advise from a parent’s perspective, is just getting your kids used to talking in a little more depth about the things that they’re interested in. It’s so easy for kids to just give those one-word answers, and not go a little deeper.


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