Most universities are not particularly interested in students who approach college as the 13th grade—just the next step on a path laid out for them by their parents since before they were born. They instead seek out students who demonstrate passion and curiosity, especially about their chosen field of study.

In your college applications, it’s important that you demonstrate your interests (not just state what they are, but show them at work in your life) and that those interests inform your prospective major. You can and should demonstrate your interests in your college essays, your activities lists, and even in your transcripts.

Here are some specific tips on how to prove you’re invested in your intended major:

1. Take AP, IB, and honors courses in that field

If your high school offers advanced courses in a field you’re passionate about, take those courses. Honors, AP, and IB credits demonstrate that you’ve devoted ample time and energy to a given field.

I would also recommend approaching advanced classes from the opposite direction. If you’re like most high school students, you’re not yet sure what you want to major in or what your academic interests are. Take advanced classes in subjects that you perform well in. You might find that these courses create entirely new interests for you that weren’t there before. 

Throughout high school and college, you will likely develop new passions and a deeper understanding of what you love. Advanced courses are one of the ways in which you can discover what those passions might be.

2. Join a student organization . . . or start your own

Interested in computer science? Join a coding club at your school. Or, if none exists, create one. If you’re interested in something—whether it be coding, poetry, chess, or pottery—chances are there are other students at your school who are interested, too.

You can demonstrate passion for a field or cause by joining an organization on campus and working your way up the ranks to, say, secretary or even president. You can also demonstrate initiative and leadership by starting an organization of your own.

Not sure where to start? Ask a counselor or teacher at your school about how you might get something new off the ground. With the right support, you can develop your interests and set yourself up for a strong college application.

3. Join a club & volunteer

You can also look beyond the walls of your school for club and volunteer opportunities. Join a mystery book club or a Spanish conversation club at your local library branch. Volunteer as an elementary school assistant at your local school district. There are so many possibilities that you can find with just a quick Google search.

4. Take free online courses

There are a ton of free online courses on subjects ranging from psychology to political philosophy, from computer science to principles of accounting.

You can find courses on the iTunes U app, many of which include syllabi and course readings alongside lectures. There’s a drove of Massive Open Online Courses available, many of which will even provide a certificate for completing the course. MIT hosts a wide range of free courses online, such as this Introduction to Computer Science and Programming in Python.

Many of these free online courses are offered by prestigious universities and taught by some of the most renowned faculty in their respective fields. By completing one of these courses, you can get a head start on university-level work and develop a new or existing passion.

5. Contact an expert

Do you live near a university? If so, reach out to faculty members to ask if they might be interested in your volunteering as a lab or research assistant, or even if you could stop by just to ask them some questions during their office hours. You might receive no response from a number of professors, but you would be surprised by how many would be more than happy to at least discuss what they do and why.

Along the same lines, if you’re passionate about business, reach out to local business owners. You might even find opportunities for employment. At the very least, you’ll gain vital insights into the kind of work you might want to do in college and beyond.

6. Read, watch, and listen on your own

Subscribe to The New Yorker, or The Economist, or Wired, or any number of magazines focused on literature and culture, or economics, or technology, or whatever it is you want to major in. Watch documentaries. Listen to podcasts. Finding media that will fuel your passion and leave you informed has never been easier. 

The kind of knowledge you can gain from reading, watching, and listening first-hand cannot be matched by second-hand commentary. No visit to Sparknotes, or advice from your uncle, or other kind of second-hand knowledge can stand in for the real thing. Hearing or reading about the thing is no match for hearing or reading or doing the thing itself.

With a novel in your hand or even a computer science course on your screen, don’t just be a passive consumer—take notes not only on the content, but your reactions to it. What makes you excited? What leaves you confused? What gets you frustrated?

By staying engaged in a field of study, you shouldn’t only learn new information. You should also learn a lot about yourself.

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