Is Passion More Important for Admissions Than Test Scores or GPA?

Acceptance letters (Creative commons photo by Flickr user Adrian Ho)
Acceptance letters (Creative commons photo by Flickr user Adrian Ho)

One thing I learned when I was applying to U.S. universities is that standing out to the admissions committee requires much more than good test scores.  The most competitive candidates will all have well beyond average SAT and TOEFL scores, outstanding recommendation letters, and thoughtful essays.  But even that won’t guarantee them a spot at their first choice school.

So what can make your application special?  I had good SAT scores, a decent TOEFL score and good grades, but I think what put my application ahead of some others is that I showed a passion.

My passion has always been for social issues – bringing people from around the world together to empower young people, and especially young women.  Everyone has a passion, and when the admissions committee can see that about you, it makes you stand out.  The trick is to demonstrate that passion in a way that admissions officers can actually see.

Here are some suggestions of how to do that from my own experience.

Write about it

I have created a very simple (and free!) website where I post various career opportunities for college students interested in international development issues.  I did this because I thought that students with similar interests would find my website very useful, as it contained information from various sources and covered different aspects of a career in international development. At the same time, the website has been a place for me to express my professional interest.

There are all sorts of small ways to regularly engage your passion.  If you are a self-starter, you can create a blog on the issue that you are enthusiastic about. It is a good way to show your awareness and understanding of an issue, be it environment, gender equality, animals’ rights or anything else.

If you can’t think of anything you would like to devote an entire blog to, write blog posts for different nonprofits. For example, you can start a journal on PulseWire, an online community for World Pulse, or submit a blog post to the Peace x Peace community, or write an entry for HandsOnBlog.

If you enjoy writing, also try essay contests. A good one I recommend is International Essay Contest for Young People organized yearly by UNESCO and Goi Peace Foundation, Japan. I wrote an essay about degrading environment in my home town and it was selected one of the twenty five Honorable Mentions some years ago. Another great essay contest is organized by the World Youth Movement for Democracy.  But of course there are  many more essay competitions out there.

Participate in student clubs and events

One of the coolest things I did was participate in Model United Nations debate club activities.   I got involved because I wanted to learn the art of debate and diplomacy, strengthen my research skills, and raise my awareness about global issues. It ended up teaching me essential leadership skills.

I also had great experiences representing my country at the Girls20 Summit in Canada, acting as a spokesperson for Red Cross at the United Nations Conference of Parties in Mexico, and organizing a workshop at the Women’s Worlds Congress in Canada.

There are a lot of other international student events to cater to whatever your interest may be.  I found my opportunities using these websites that regularly list student events:


For many students the cost of participating is a major concern, and organizers of many students’ events are aware of this issue, so they offer scholarships and other types of financial aid to help you cover conference fees, the cost of accommodation and even travel expenses. I only applied for those events where some kind of financial aid was available, and I never had to pay for any of my international experiences!

Some events I’ve looked into:

  1. Girls20 Summit
  2. International Student Festival in Trondheim
  3. United Nations Conference of Parties (this year COP-18 will be held in Rio), different non-profits sponsor youth teams to attend the event
  4. Millennium Campus Conference
  5. One Young World
  6. Women’s Worlds Congress
  7. G8 and G20 Youth Meetings
  8. World Youth Congress

Volunteer locally

his seems like the easiest of all the options, but actually I had a really hard time finding ways to volunteer.  I remember in my home town I wanted to spend some of my time on volunteering for local nonprofits, but I just couldn’t find any!

I eventually discovered a website called UN Volunteers that listed online volunteering opportunities. The website search engine allowed me to search for opportunities by language, tasks, topics, and regions. So I translated documents for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Moscow and looked for grant-giving organizations for the Community Breakthrough Support Mission in Kenya. Online volunteering was a very rewarding experience for me because I felt very involved. It gave me the feeling of making a difference.

Of course, these are not the only ways to stand out on your college application, but if you have a passion for something, make sure you show it!

Take time to think about your interests, your skills, and more important, your goals. Although it may be good to focus on one or two things at a time, I believe it’s important to not put all your eggs in one basket. Be prepared to try many times before you win and learn from your mistakes.


  1. What a fantastic post and website Anna! Thank you so so much for this!This is exactly what I am interested in, and the opportunites on your website are amazing! I would also recommend the Clinton Global Initiative, which I will be a part of this year . Keep up the good work Anna!

    1. Hi Nvulane. While it is difficult to get financial aid, there are a lot of places you can and should look before giving up. First of all, most students who get financial aid get it from their university. If you’re looking as an undergraduate, here is a list of all the schools that provide financial aid to international students and here is an explanation of how to understand the net cost of college based on the amount of financial aid available .

      You should also look into scholarships that may be available from your home government or from the US government, as well as scholarships that might be available from private organizations. There are some useful databases you can use here: .

      Finally, make sure you’re taking advantage of your local EducationUSA center. The advisors there work with international students all the time and can help you figure out what schools and scholarships you should look at. You can find your local center here: .

      Hope that helps a bit. Where are you from? What do you study?

  2. Thanks hey. That information is helpful. I’m from Lesotho, Southern Africa. I study Information Technology but want to pursue my undergraduate degree in the US.

  3. hey I am speaking from Mongolia Erdenet small city
    my a job biomedical engineer. I am working hospital in Erdenet city 2 year’s.
    i love a job. My a job save people’s life around Erdenet. i want study MASTER in Public health Management this sector bad work in Mongolia.

    God save all world

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