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Passion Projects for High School Students: Your Ultimate Cheat Sheet to Getting Started

A passion project is work that you complete on your time that showcases your talents, skills, interests, and connection to your community. Plus, completing a passion project can serve as an edge in college admissions. Download your Ultimate Cheat Sheet to Getting Started here.

Many more colleges and universities are going test-optional. Yet, College Board has decided to go digital with the SAT.

Even if students were to go forward and continue taking standardized tests, achieving a high score isn’t the key to getting an edge in college admissions.

A perfect GPA isn’t going to cut it either or what seems to be a carefully curated list of extracurricular activities that support a possible major or career.

Want to know what will get the attention of admissions officers?

A passion project.

A passion project is exactly that: a work that you care deeply about. Since it’s a work that you care deeply about, you don’t need anyone to tell you to put substantial time, effort, and energy into pursuing it.

In its very nature, a passion project is self-initiated, independent work that makes you excited to know or do more about something.

You don’t need a teacher, counselor, or parent to give this idea as an assignment.

Many students already engage with their learning, curiosity, and their community through different kinds of passion projects.

Some conduct independent research, develop a new product, start a nonprofit or business, or produce media like podcasts, videos, and books.

PACP Passion Project Spotlight: An Interview with Kevin

One of our PACP students, Kevin, is a great example of how to pursue a passion project.

A senior at Portola High School in Irvine, Kevin is the founder of Inquire, an app that enables easier communication between students and teachers. He will be attending the University of Pennsylvania as a student of the NETS program, where he also plans to launch Inquire nationally.

We interviewed him for his insight and advice.

TLDR: Check out the headlines for main takeaways on passion projects for high school students

Passion Projects can be about providing a solution to a common problem

PACP: Why did you decide to pursue this project that ended up being Inquire?

Kevin: During that time we were transitioning to online learning, it kind of came about when I was talking to one of my teachers. During that conversation, we touched upon the fact that communication at this time was just so, so bad.

In general, from that moment, I kind of realized that even before distance learning and online learning, the connection between a classroom of students and then students with their teacher outside of class once the school day ends was also definitely lacking.

That was definitely the impetus for me wanting to pursue this project and see it through.

After talking with that teacher, I went back and started talking to my friends and asked, “Is this a problem that you guys are seeing as well,” and they were like “Yes, definitely”.

Also, I know that my sister at that time [who was at the junior high school] was kind of in an online virtual format. And it was difficult for her to talk to her classmates even more so because all of her classmates were from all over the district. She had an even harder time connecting, especially with her teachers and her classmates.

All this coming together, I think there definitely can be a solution to this. For me, the most logical solution was to do an app and put that out as fast as possible.

PACP: But why take this on? How did you determine that “I really want to do something about it”? What is it about you or that moment that helped you make this decision? You could’ve just walked away.

Kevin: For me, it was definitely a problem that I saw affecting so many of my classmates and affecting myself. It was an opportunity for me that I saw that I could really make something that could live beyond myself. I could pass this app onto a team on the other side of the country. They could test it in their school, maybe in New York. Or after I graduate from Portola, I can have a team of students still carry this on.

Passion Projects demand planning, troubleshooting, and commitment

PACP: How did you start the project?

Kevin: For a project like this, my first thing is always, I need to get a team because I knew for something of this scale, I wouldn’t be able to take this on myself. That’s also a common theme of how I approach all my projects. We also had a very solid and in-depth conversation about how much time we were willing to commit to this and how invested we were going to be in this project.

The start of the project was definitely way less technical, was very what do we want this project to look like, kind of like a lot of ideation before. We definitely spent a lot of time thinking through the project in the beginning.

PACP: What challenges did you face?

Kevin: You can only plan so much and even then, it’s never going to be enough. We definitely did our due diligence beforehand, but even then… it’s just so unbelievably unpredictable.

For us, it was also largely a learning experience. We were doing a lot of learning as we go, and so we definitely faced a lot of roadblocks in the beginning.

Getting a team of 4-5 people to agree on one design or one look for the app is unbelievably difficult. We probably went through like a 100 iterations of what the app would ultimately look like. There was just a lot of back and forth, constantly communicating.

This is kind of very app specific, but debugging was just an absolute nightmare. It was crazy.

PACP: How did you keep the people on your team committed?

Kevin: Right from the beginning, I made sure that the team that I assembled were people that I knew who would be able to stick with the project, if it got bumpy at times.

When there were moments when we wanted to quit, I think it was really important that we addressed them. Whenever there was any concern, or we were at a breaking point, or there was definitely a lot of conflict, or this was going to be a problem, we put things aside, addressed that first, and then went back to the project.

And I think that’s really important to making sure that nobody feels, at any point in time, that they are less, or treated less on the team or the project has, all of a sudden, become more important than them or what they’re contributing.

For me, it was just really important to sit down one-on-one with any team member whenever we had a conflict. If I didn’t have that conversation with X person, would they have ended up putting in that 50-60 hours later on down the line that really helped pushed the project through?

The project was that important to me and to the rest of the team just to make sure that everybody was feeling solid and feeling okay.

Passion Projects teach you about what you value most

PACP: What do you value the most from having done Inquire?

Kevin: I would have to say what I value the most is the idea of being able to instill trust within a team as a leader. I think that is so ridiculously important. They knew that I would put in the hours needed and I would put in the effort needed to make sure that this would go through.

In the real world, you would do this kind of thing for money. But for us, we weren’t getting compensated. The only sort of compensation we could potentially get is if we actually made it into a tangible thing. That requires a lot of trust from the team as a whole.

I learned a lot about how to instill that trust, making sure that they knew what my plan was, when I wanted to change that plan, when I disagreed with them. There was never this gray area where they were confused or I was confused. They could trust me to let them know when I was unhappy. They could trust me to listen to their opinions.

Something that I will definitely carry into all projects that I take into the future as well is trusting that my vision was big enough. There was always this acknowledgement that they knew that I would do everything I could to make sure that this followed through.

That idea of trust is so important because you’re able to get the most out of them and they will always get the most out of you.

Passion Projects are low risk and high reward

PACP: Would you recommend that everybody do some kind of project?

Kevin: I definitely think so. The only reason why I would think somebody wouldn’t want to do this is the fear of failure and I think that’s so, so unbelievably unfounded, especially at the high school level.

As high school students – and even as college students – your job is to fail, and fail and fail and fail. Right now, the consequences are so nominal.

Let’s say Inquire crashed and burned. So? Nothing really is going to happen to you. You’re going to wake up in a bed the next day. You’re still going to go to school, you’re still going to have a chance at college.

The consequences really aren’t that big. You’re not working with a company with investors putting in like 400, 500 million dollars, and you have that much money on the line.

Find something you’re interested in. It doesn’t have to be something you’re crazy, ridiculously passionate about. Walk in maybe with the knowledge that, okay this is going to fail.

The skills that you’re able to gain taking on a project and being able to become comfortable with failure, learn how to lead, pick up a few technical skills here and there are way more important than whether or not your project actually comes into fruition.

It’s worth the effort and sacrifice you put in. Even if nothing tangible comes out of it, you’ll learn so many soft and hard skills. The journey is so much more important than the destination when doing a project especially at the high school level.

PACP: What do you say when a student is in the middle of a passion project and is wondering “I don’t know what I got myself into”?

Kevin: It’s definitely a tough place to be. It’s definitely a case-by-case kind of question. If I had to give a kind of more overarching advice, I’d say if you’re in the middle of a project and you’re kind of confused as to where you want to go with this, you have to do a little bit of soul searching.

At the end of the day, you can kind of boil it down to your ROI: how much time are you going to put into this, how much effort is needed to get to where you want to be? Is the project really going to conflict with some things that maybe you know that are actually tangibly important: your grades, your health, particularly?

If pushing through the project is going to negatively affect your health, maybe your personal relations, or the return on investment isn’t enough, definitely don’t be afraid to drop a project as well. It’s fine. I’ve definitely done it before.

Passion Projects for High School Students Summary

As demonstrated by Kevin, there are numerous benefits to doing a passion project. We’re highlighting 4 reasons why high school students should complete a passion project:

Enjoy freedom and take on responsibility

There are rare moments in students’ academic and social lives when they take charge.

With a passion project, students decide what the project will be. They can be the directors and designers of their own project-based learning.

Tackling your own passion project shows that you’re being proactive, that you’re taking risks, and that you’re holding yourself accountable for the execution of your idea.

Develop and discover talents, skills, and motivation

Working on your own idea is one of the best ways to improve talents and skills you already have, while also discovering new ones.

A passion project is an opportunity to apply what you already know, and adapt and adjust to how the project is developing.

As you dedicate and focus, you may even lose your initial motivation and will have to find ways to sustain your drive at every stage of your project.

Being able to see what you’re made of – in what you can do and how you can see it through – is an invaluable experience to your overall growth as a person.

Entertain your curiosity

You may have a long list of interests and passions. Maybe you’re not sure about this major or that job.

Why not take on a passion project to test drive that curiosity?

The desire to know more about something can be a compelling driving force to start a project and see it through.

Being able to do a passion project on something that you’ve always wondered about can give your learning a sense of adventure that only you can provide.

Collaborate, cultivate, and contribute to community

Want to know if you’re making a difference in the world? Or maybe you’d like to find out the most effective ways to make an impact?

A passion project is one of the best ways to involve yourself and others in what can create change.

You’ll have the opportunity to choose with whom to collaborate and how you can cultivate your relationships.

You can figure out how best to contribute to your definition of community, whether that’s improving conditions, finding a solution to a problem, or creating something completely new.

Of course, your primary intention to do a passion project could just be to stand out in an ocean of college applicants. But as you take action on your idea, you’ll find that you’re able to do more for yourself and your community. Creating a unique learning experience during this time of your life reaps rewards beyond the college admissions process.

Ready to get your passion project going? Download Your Ultimate Cheat Sheet to Getting Started here:

Passion Project Downloadable Guide_v1
Download PDF • 5.98MB

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