photo of a man looking outside by window

When I was sixteen, my father asked me what my passions and goals were. Taken aback by the question, I blurted out, “Helping the world.”

How descriptive.

Listen: most sixteen-year-olds don’t even know what they’re having for dinner. To expect them to know what they want to do in five years is not only unrealistic, it is also somewhat irresponsible. With each passing day, we not only learn more about the world, we also learn more about ourselves. What is my learning style? What are my pet peeves? What are my strengths and weaknesses as a person?

In a few years’ time, the questions become much more pressing. If I am considering a career in professorship, am I ready to endure years of researching a niche topic, and ultimately being subject to a committee’s approval in order to secure tenure-ship? If I am considering a career in fashion, do I have what it takes to be an intern surviving on a paltry (sometimes even non-existent) income, in order to work my way up to a livable wage?

Luckily, for now, your passions are not subject to these questions. In countries like Germany and India, where students must take college entrance exams geared towards their professional and undergraduate institutions, the story is a little different.

This doesn’t mean that American students can just enter college without direction. With the increasing number of applications, with each admissions cycle, and the decreasing acceptance rates, what was once a relatively mundane process has now become a hyper-competitive frenzy. What set students apart in this system are numbers and narrative.

The numbers are relatively easy to tackle. Study hard for a few months (maybe with some guidance), and you may reach your goals.

The narrative is what gets many students. No, admissions officers are not interested in reading another essay about how you love swimming because you love to be with your teammates. They want to see your grit and your passion. They want to see that you’ve emerged from the pool, tears, sweat, and chlorine water dripping from your face.

In short, they want to see that you’ve given everything in your body to at least one thing.

But what if you’ve reached junior year and haven’t found that one thing?

A few different scenarios in which that can be true:

  1. You were too busy with other commitments.
    Perhaps your family could never afford to send you to meets, competitions, or other events. Perhaps you were too busy earning a livable wage to be able to pursue your love for the oboe. Regardless of these scenarios, here is one thing that is true: family is a passion. Your emotional or financial commitment to your family is not only valid, but it is also something that admissions officers want to hear about.Dig deeper into this passion and analyze how it has impacted you. Are you a more empathetic person as a result of your interactions with your relatives? Do you breathe and enjoy the outdoors more? Has a family illness inspired you to take up the fight against a specific illness? Think about these. And maybe even act on these thoughts.Are there any activities that your family has inspired you to take on that you can add to your narrative? Perhaps a small family business or a charity?Remember that admissions officers are humans. They will understand your plight, just make sure that your story strikes a chord with them.
  2. You’ve done many activities and found that you were not truly passionate about any of them.
    First of all, you’re not too old to find a passion, and to drop activities that you don’t find rewarding.Quitting the violin at the age of seventeen seemed-at the time-like an irresponsible and irreversible decision. However, the absence of stress-inducing factors, like a hyper-competitive youth orchestra and three-hour weekly music tutoring sessions, was good for me. Within that void of time, I pursued other activities that I had been passionate about all along: creative writing, photography, and teaching myself coding.The range of free online classes and tutorials has made it easier (and sometimes a little confusing) for high school and college students to discover and nurture their interests. It is better to craft a narrative around a topic that truly interests and motivates you, as opposed to one that you had simply followed for a few years.Simply put, the sunk cost fallacy is just that: a fallacy.

    Maybe you can start a business, a small charity or-at the very least-a blog. With the internet, the idea of what an activity even looks like has changed, and many community organizers are actually high school students with a vision and a free, online periodical.

  3. You haven’t found anything that moves you. Nothing at all.
    And honestly, that’s fine as well, but you want to increase your exposure to the world. Read and watch the news, scan op-eds, and volunteer more. These things are all either free or cheap, but require you to overcome that barrier of wanting to access them. And it’s always important to remember that you don’t have to write your personal statement about helping children in Tanzania-you can always write a simple, compelling one about your personal growth.