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Hook & Passion Project

In years past, the college admissions process was all about earning top grades and perfect test scores. However, the admissions process at top schools has become increasingly competitive, and great grades and test scores are now just the foundation of a strong application. Ivy League and other top colleges are seeking to build well-rounded classes made up of students who have specialized interests. Rather than students who can do it all, colleges are seeking to admit students who have demonstrated a unique and compelling core passion—what we call a hook.

What is a hook?

To simplify, a hook is just what it sounds like—a particularly compelling aspect of a student’s profile that “hooks” the attention of admissions officers and helps them stand out from other applicants.

In most cases, a hook typically refers to a specialized narrative or series of achievements that a student intentionally builds over the course of his or her high school career. It could be demonstrated through participation in a prestigious summer program, the completion of an incredible accomplishment, such as representing the US at an International Science Olympiad, or the development of a passion project, like publishing a book or starting a small business.

Keep in mind that a hook doesn’t necessarily have to be over-the-top impressive or prestigious—it is rather a well-developed record of distinctive achievements, activities, or service in one or two specific areas of interest. A hook is often a combination of all of the above factors, reflecting the unique permutation of a student’s background and life experiences, interests and talents, and accomplishments. Genuine interest and authentic passion are the most important components in creating a compelling hook.

Colleges value diversity and tend to value hooks related to intellectual, creative, and communal pursuits. They are looking for students not just with a zeal for studying and doing well in school, but who are deeply passionate about their selected interests and hobbies. They are looking for productivity and initiative in those areas, as well as evidence that students will bring what they love to campus and share their talents and projects with their college community.

How to Demonstrate Your Hook: The Passion Project

Developing and demonstrating your hook will require multiple activities and achievements, both in school and out of school. Many intermediary steps and hours of hard work are necessary to earn impressive accolades related to your hook—such as a competitive, national-level award, fellowship, or admission to a summer program. That being said, one of the most compelling ways to showcase your hook to top colleges is through a passion project.

A passion project is an independent creative endeavor that highlights your core passions and skills. It should demonstrate initiative and convince colleges that you are truly invested in your subject of interest.

What might you do as a passion project? If you’re interested in literature and writing, for example, you might decide to write a short novel that you then submit for publication or compile a group of short stories or poems that you publish in an online journal. If your interests lie in the non-fiction sphere, you might start your own journal or blog, delving into a specific topic that you find meaningful or informative. If you consider yourself to be more of a visual person than a verbal one, you could create a set of paintings or drawings that you then compile into an art portfolio. If you are more scientifically inclined, you could consider developing an application or a website using your knowledge of coding. If you’re interested in political activism and making a change in the world, you might set up a not-for-profit organization dedicated to a cause that you care about, such as climate change or racial justice.

Passion projects are a great way to delve into your interests and, often, to make a true difference in your community. Although most passion projects tend to be individual pursuits, they can create a profound impact on your community, either by direct service or by indirect influence (i.e. writing about a cause, creating an impactful piece of art, etc.). Passion projects can also allow you to showcase your leadership skills and creative talents in a way that is more unique than just playing cello as a member of your school’s orchestra or participating in your school’s yearbook advisory board. Your passion project is truly your place to exercise complete control over the development of your creative vision. See below for examples of how to turn your hook into a passion project!

At the end of the day, however, whichever hook and project you choose should reflect your genuine interests rather than the interests you suspect colleges might want to see. College admissions officers are looking for authentic passion in your admissions portfolio, and your passion will shine through most brightly if you choose an idea that you’re genuinely devoted to. Above all, have fun with whatever you choose to do!

3 Steps for Developing Your Hook

Developing a hook may seem intimidating to some students, but remember that your hook is all about discovering and exploring what you love! It should be guided by authentic interest, curiosity, and enjoyment. Additionally, it is beneficial to start exploring your interests early in your high school career to maximize opportunities around you and begin establishing your hook early. To create a hook, follow these three steps:

1. Reflect on what you like to do.

Finding a hook begins with self-reflection. Consider first what ignites your passions and interests—whether inside the classroom or outside of it. Even passions that are not as academically inclined can still be intriguing and easily become hooks. Do you love playing video games? Writing poetry in your spare time? These interests can form the basis of an engaging and unique hook.

2. Find ways to explore your passion from different angles.

As you identify your core interest, seek to explore that interest in diverse ways throughout your high school career. First and foremost, take challenging courses that relate to your hook. If your school offers AP and IB courses, strive to enroll in those, as they could ultimately count for college credit at certain schools. Additionally, pursue opportunities to deepen your engagement with the subject outside of the classroom. For instance, a student who loves English and creative writing might start out by joining a book club at school but continue exploring her passion for literature by attending selective summer programs. She might then start her own passion project, teaching poetry to students at her local library and writing a novella, then pursue publication in literary magazines, and submit to the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and other essay contests. The more opportunities you take advantage of to explore your interest, the better!

3. Incorporate service, leadership, and interdisciplinary pursuits into your activities.

Above all, you should prioritize staying active and committed to your passions in the ways that are most meaningful and authentic to you. The best way to do this is to increasingly take on leadership roles related to your hook. If your school doesn’t offer a club related to your hook, demonstrate initiative and leadership by creating a club yourself. If you are involved in clubs or organizations on campus, plan to run for a leadership position during your sophomore or junior year. Doing so will show your commitment to your subject of interest and your motivation to build community around your passions.

Explore Potential Passion Project Topics

Finding Your Hook in Law and Political Science

University students study in a business school classroom with male lecturer

Finding Your Hook in  Economics and Business

Finding Your Hook in STEM

A smiling high school student girl standing with a backpack in the library while holding book stack in hands.

Finding Your Hook in Literature

college application, laptop, 2 students

Finding Your Hook in Medicine

Music, Artistic, music lessons, college, university, music education, education, music hook

Finding Your Hook in Music

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a hook?

A hook is just what it sounds like—a particularly compelling aspect of a student’s profile that “hooks” the attention of admissions officers and helps them stand out from other applicants.

What is a passion project?

A passion project is an independent creative endeavor that highlights your core passions and skills. It should demonstrate initiative and convince colleges that you are truly invested in your subject of interest.

How do I develop a hook if I don’t have a passion?

It’s okay not to have a set passion right away! As you begin to explore your interests, it’s important to be conscious and reflective, paying close attention to what you discover about your likes and dislikes along the way. Invest yourself further in that which naturally interests you, and get creative as you find new ways to explore it — whether that be through a different course, a related club or summer program or an internship.

What are examples of passion projects?

Passion projects can take many forms, from writing and publishing a book, starting a website, blog or YouTube channel, founding an organization, club or other community group, or researching and publishing about your own academic interests. You might become involved in local politics, enact meaningful change through an internship, develop your art portfolio and display your works locally or online. There really is no limit to what you can take on and call a “passion project.”

Where should I add my passion project on the Common App?

You should highlight your accomplishments on your Activities List, as well as write about them in your supplemental essays. If you feel like writing about your passion project in those two places is not sufficient, you can also provide further information on the additional information section.

Why are passion projects important?

Passion projects are a fantastic way to explore your interests outside of the opportunities traditionally available to you at school. In the college admissions process, passion projects allow you to showcase your interests, passions, leadership acumen, and authentic potential. Most importantly, a unique passion project will serve to set you apart from your peers in the college admissions process.

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