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The “find your passion” narrative is a scam

Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

This prompt might look familiar. Personally, it makes me want to scream and rip my hair out. It’s the sixth Common App essay prompt, and even if you didn’t choose to answer this prompt (I did not choose this prompt), college-specific supplements are guaranteed to ask you this, or at least some form of it:  

Describe something you’re passionate about. How do you learn more about it? What makes it so appealing? Or, What do you want to study, and why? And another variation: how did you discover your intellectual and academic interests, and how will you explore them at (university name)?

In these essays, I frequently wrote about my “passion” for climate change and renewable energy, which I do care deeply about and am involved in, but also because it tied into my then intended major of environmental engineering. 

I caught myself unironically reading articles like “Express Your Passion and Uniqueness in Your College Essay” and “What If I Don't Have Anything Interesting To Write About In My College Essay?”. I perused through the majors and minors listed on each colleges’ website in a terrible thought process that looked something like this: “Hmm, could I be passionate about Computer Science? Would I be more passionate about a B.A. or B.S. in Computer Science? Hmm, could I be passionate about Cultural Anthropology?” I would go through the list alphabetically and ask myself this about every single major in a mind-numbing process.

I felt a subconscious need to establish myself as a “passionate” student to colleges. Being passionate was marketable and valuable, thus increasing my chances of being admitted into selective universities. Universities marketed themselves as a place where students can explore their passion—creating the implication that my passion has to be academic or able to be contained in a classroom, which then implies that you have to somehow monetize it. Being told my entire life from family, friends, and mentors, that “everyone has a passion, you just gotta find it and do it” also fed into this. Asking applicants to write about their passions is a way for admission officers to let applicants do the heavy lifting—defining and packaging themselves into a neat little box that the office can then decide whether to accept or reject.

Once in college and upon my realization of how burdened my brother was with student debt as an environmental engineering graduate, I switched into mechanical engineering. Then, I realized how the mechanical engineering curriculum gave little room for me to take classes I was actually interested in. So, the alphabetical process of sorting through majors began again, with moments of potent distress compelling me to pull up the Duke majors & minors page.

Having checked off my freshman year at Duke, I reflect on the past year with both gratitude and disillusionment. I’ve met and become friends with incredible people, made some amazing memories, and found joy in the freedom of being in a new environment. Academically, I have no idea what I’m doing. But on a personal level, the most burning question on my mind is what have I been doing and why did I do that to myself? I worked so hard in high school, filling every nook and cranny of my time with studying, sports practices, music lessons, clubs, and other extracurriculars to ascribe myself as a “passionate person,” just to get into a selective college. Although I am grateful to have had the privilege to be able to focus on academics and all the opportunities I did, I now realize that what college I go to really does not matter in the long run. My happiness is far more important than anything else and I barely left myself any time for personal growth and figuring out who I am, who I want to be, and what actually brings me joy because I was so focused on doing things that everyone around me was doing and on being an “accomplished” person. 

I definitely self-sabotaged in trying to convince myself that I am passionate about things and that my passion is “X.” I gave myself no time to explore and introspect, and I now realize that my search for a passion has always been for something external and packageable, rather than for myself. How am I supposed to know what I’m passionate about and what I want my career to be at nineteen years old? Just because I like something doesn’t necessarily mean I want to do it—I’m a strong proponent of renewable energy, but frankly the engineering behind its mechanisms confounds me. Oxford Languages defines passion as a “strong and barely controllable emotion.” I feel that when someone cuts me off in traffic, or when I find a cute sticker to put on my water bottle, but not necessarily for any academic subject.

I last minute turned down a program this summer specifically engaging with renewable energy in South America. It would’ve been a great resume builder, but the prospect of going there made me feel trapped and confined on a singular path. Instead, I booked an even more last-minute flight 5,000 miles away to work-trade for seven weeks, and more importantly to take my time for the sake of it. I began typing this sitting at a hostel in the middle of a beautiful jungle, making typos every other word because I hadn’t typed or used my computer in so long, but feeling more alive than I ever have in a long time. I felt so connected to the Earth and nature and because of that, I feel like I am actually doing things for myself now–even beyond my time work-trading.

I don’t know what my passion is. Every time I label something as my passion, I lose interest in it. I probably will never have a passion, because my interests are constantly changing, and that’s totally okay. Having a passion is not a requirement to be a valuable and interesting person, and we are not meant to be packaged and labeled into something that other people can decide the worth of. With a new mindset on giving myself permission to be non-committal and freedom to explore, I will keep doing random things that bring me joy, regardless of its perceived external value.

Michelle Ling is a Pratt sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.

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