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Write about the Student’s Path to Passion

With fall comes agonizing personal essays for college and scholarship applications. Students can write more effective essays by showing instead of telling.

When students explain their experiences that drove them to their passion, they give their readers windows into the forces that shaped them and how they responded. Connecting those dots gives admissions officers and scholarship committees deeper faith in the student’s passions, and that certainty makes officers and committees more likely to commit their resources to the students’ futures.

Colleges and scholarship programs ask oddball questions for personal essays.

To a student, admissions officers and scholarship fund committees seem like demons sent to torture them with bizarre essay topics. From the applicant’s answer, colleges and scholarship programs want to divine a student’s fit, writing ability, and creativity–a peek into the student’s soul. Admissions officers and committees want dynamic students who not only will stir classroom discussions, but also will stir the world.

These universities asked these questions:

Brandeis: “You are required to spend the next year of your life in either the past or the future. What year would you travel to and why?”

Lehigh: “What is your favorite riddle and why?”

Stanford: “What matters to you, and why?”

Wake Forest: “Some say social media is superficial, with no room for expressing deep or complex ideas. We challenge you to defy these skeptics by describing yourself as fully and accurately as possible in the 140-character limit of a tweet.”[1]

Students spend hours and days searching their lives for substantial, innovative responses to these questions.

Most students use emphatic language to convey their passion.

Students trying to differentiate themselves to the admissions officers and scholarship fund committees risk trying too hard. Often, they insist their passion, commitment, and plans using increasingly emphatic language.

Consider three sentences one could imagine a student writing:

  • “I feel passionately about the environment.”

  • “Seeing people suffering in poverty drives me to help them.”

  • “I want to save people from the ravages of opioid addiction.”

Essay reviewers do not trust these statements because they do not know the individual. Their inherent skepticism weighs heavily against simply believing students who state their dreams and goals in words. When readers have no reason to trust the writer, they discount the writer’s ability to convey information accurately. Students can provide more depth the admissions officers and committees seek.

Write specific details on how the passion originated.

Conclusory statements about a writer’s passion do not persuade readers. Readers want evidence that shows the step-by-step evolution that led to the student’s passion.

Passions about the environment, poverty, or addiction never spring forth like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. If any passion arose in a student, some event or circumstance or life experience always triggered or nurtured it.

Describing those details give them weight. Compare the earlier statements with these proposed revisions.

“Hiking on Sperry Glacier from age 12 to age 18 and watching it shrink every year makes me want to lend my strength to combat climate change.”

“Learning my family’s path out of poverty and the obstacles they overcame to give me this opportunity to go to college makes me want to help others access the same opportunity.”

“Watching my aunt fall into opioid addiction and watching her struggle broke my heart and lit a fire that compels me to seek to stop opioid addiction.”

Aside from helping the reader understand how students reach their passion, those idiosyncratic, detailed experiences also diminish the possibility the student downloaded the essay from the internet. When a student has no story, readers will consciously or unconsciously suspect the entire essay works fiction.


When college students describe the experiences that shaped their passions, they can make real money. Every year, college administrators, the United States, and private organizations or foundations give over $50 billion in scholarships.[2] Describe the devil in the details that ignited the student’s passion. That will increase the likelihood of admission or scholarship award.


[1] Elizabeth Hoyt, 15 Crazy College Application Essay Questions,

[2] Scholarships & Grants for College Students,

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