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College Bound

Keep “Find Your Passion” in Perspective

Every college applicant in recent years has heard the adage to “find your passion.” These words are intended to encourage and inspire. Yet, they can be misunderstood as well. Some young adults expect the identification of a passion to be accompanied by a feeling of dramatic fanfare—an emotional moment in which they think, “Aha! I have found my life’s mission.” Another common mistake is for students and parents to discount an interest because they do not deem it worthy of being labeled a “passion.” The pressure can feel particularly acute during college application season. Fortunately, those who study the psychology of success are now offering a new way of looking at this topic.

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck is applying the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset,” made famous in her best-selling books, to the process of how students identify new interests. Dweck, along with co-authors Paul O’Keefe of Yale NUS College and Gregory Walton of Stanford University, surveyed students about whether they believe people’s core interests change over time. The researchers then asked students to read articles from outside their expressed fields of interest. The more students believed interests to be innate, the less interest they had in the assigned articles. Students with a fixed mindset also tended to believe that passions provide “endless motivation,” and consequently never feel difficult to pursue. Based on these findings, researchers worry that students with a fixed mindset may give up on an interest when they inevitably encounter challenges. Students also may miss opportunities because they limit their own exposure to new ideas.

The psychologists recommend that students view passions as interests that are developed, rather than discovered. With a growth mindset, students can be more open to new ideas, trying new things, and expanding their possibilities. This is an excellent articulation of what colleges want. When I begin working with a student, we discuss passions because having definitive interests helps to clarify a vision for the future and stand out among a field of candidates. However, many high school juniors and seniors are not ready to categorize their interests at the level of a passion. I assure them (and their parents) that is okay.

Colleges do not expect their students to arrive as fully formed individuals with mapped-out futures. They know that even candidates who dedicated themselves to a specific area in high school may have a change of heart while in college. They want to see evidence that applicants are open to growth and are willing to try new things. When parents ask me if some types of interest are more valued by colleges than others, I recommend supporting the interests that are truly motivated by their teen. Meaningful experiences come from many different directions and each one helps a young person further define themselves. Sometimes an unusual choice can have a surprising impact. When a young Steve Jobs audited a calligraphy class, no one could have predicted how valuable his appreciation of fonts would later become in distinguishing Apple computers from competitors. At the time, calligraphy was simply something that piqued Jobs’ interest, and pursuing the course was a way of developing himself.

The lingo of “finding your passion” is now so embedded in our educational process that it isn’t going away—this research is a refinement of what that message means. Applying the growth mindset to this mission will ease some of the confusion and stress that students and their families feel when planning for college. 


Deena Maerowitz advises students throughout the entire college admissions process. She works with students ranging from freshmen to seniors and is an expert in both undergraduate and graduate education. She is widely published and sought-after as a speaker on college planning. She can be reached at