How To Pick Your Spike

How To Pick Your Spike

How To Pick Your Spike 800 272 Larry Liu

After figuring out what you’re really passionate about and brainstorming possible Spike ideas, you’re probably asking yourself: “but how do I know which is the best Spike to pursue?” The typical student we coach at The Spike Lab will brainstorm almost a hundred ideas before picking one to focus on. Even though the process of ideating so many Spike ideas is difficult, it is usually even more challenging to narrow down the choices to pick the best one to pursue. To help our students pick the best Spike, we’ve developed a set of guidelines to gauge, what we at The Spike Lab affectionately call, the “Spikeyness” of each idea. “Spikeyness” is our measure of how good each idea is.

To evaluate “Spikeyness”, we first put each Spike idea through a series of questions to see whether it meets a basic quality threshold, and then we evaluate how impressive it will be to colleges.

Basic Thresholds


The most important thing to consider is, “How excited am I about this idea?” Are you itching and eager to start working on this idea right away? Does it energize you? If not, then it’s not “Spikey” and strike it off the list.


The second most important thing to consider is alignment with your Story. Does your Spike idea reinforce your Story? If you haven’t yet, check out our other post about crafting a good Story. Your Story is like your North Star, and your Spike is the centerpiece of your Story. Without this clear alignment between your Spike and Story, you’ll run the risk of your Spike coming off as random, confusing, and worst of all, forgettable. If it’s not aligned, then it’s not Spikey so either find a way to get it aligned or strike it off the list.


Is it clear exactly what you’ll be doing for your Spike and what the expected outcomes are by the time you apply for college? For very good Spikes, the answers to these questions are very specific. It’s common for students to start with broad, wide-sweeping goals like “helping people” or “changing the world”, but those aren’t specific enough. Focus on Spike ideas that have clear and achievable target outcomes. More specifics also mean that the idea is usually more thought out and therefore more likely to be successful. If an idea is not specific enough, then make it more specific or strike it off the list.


Is your Spike in an area that you already have some experience with? In High School, many students are exposed to ideas and topics without being given real hands-on experience with them. But for your Spike, you’ll want to pick a topic that you not only have passion for but also have experience with. For example, a student might be passionate about building websites but never learned to program. It would be risky for this student to pursue a Spike building a new mobile app idea because of his or her lack of current programming experience. If you don’t have enough current experience in the area of your Spike, then it’s not “Spikey”, and you should strike it off the list.

There are two main reasons why current experience is so important, and both of them have to do with time. First is the time it takes to learn a new thing in a deep and meaningful way. Building out a Spike takes a LOT of time and learning the foundational skills along the way also takes a LOT of time. Unless you’re an 8th or 9th grader, you run the risk of simply running out of time to achieve something really impressive. The second reason is the time it takes to switch between Spikes if you decide to quit on the first one. If your interest in the particular field isn’t yet validated by real experience, you run the risk of discovering that you’re not actually very interested in that field in the first place. In many cases, you won’t actually have enough time to thoroughly develop a new Spike before it’s time to start applying for college.


If the idea meets all of these quality thresholds, then “Spikeyness” is a measure of how impressive it is to college admissions. What makes an idea impressive, and which ideas are more impressive than others? Impressiveness is driven by a two primary factors: impact and uniqueness.


The main part of the impressive equation comes from impact, which is driven by two core factors: institutional credential and market traction.

  • Institutional Credential. Is your achievement validated by an existing organization? (e.g. First place in a global Math Olympiad)
  • Market Traction. Is your achievement validated by real people? (e.g. 10 million views per month on a blog)

These two factors are not mutually exclusive. Any given achievement could have some institutional credential and some market traction. For example, if a student authors and publishes a book, she might win a local writing award (institutional credential) and go on to sell a million copies (market traction).


At The Spike Lab, we put a lot of emphasis on uniqueness. Obviously, Spikes that are both unique and impactful are ideal, but because of their nature, unique Spikes don’t necessarily have to be as impactful or demonstrate extreme levels of talent. For example, a Spike where a student creates a nonprofit that designs and manufactures jackets for the homeless that can turn into sleeping bags is highly unique. It doesn’t necessarily need to impact millions of people or win any prestigious fashion awards to catch the eye of college admissions. In fact, we think uniqueness is so important that we use it as an exponent in our “Spikeyness” formula because it can exponentially increase the impressiveness of your Spike.

When talking about impressive Spikes, it’s important to address the elephant in the room: fear. It’s completely natural to immediately start thinking, “but this is going to be so hard!” or “am I even able to pull this off?” These are totally normal responses and are actually a great sign that your Spike is sufficiently impressive. In other words, if you’re not worried about pulling off your Spike idea, then it’s probably not ambitious enough! The more impressive the Spike idea, the scarier it is to think about because it’s outside of your comfort zone. Simultaneously, the idea also can’t be too ambitious that it’s just not feasible. Finding the balance between what’s feasible and what’s sufficiently ambitious to be highly impressive to colleges is more an art than a science. Do your best to walk that line and try to get guidance or coaching from others with more experience.

In summary, pull together all the Spike ideas that meets the threshold criteria mentioned above and then pick the one idea that is the most impressive combination of uniqueness and potential impact.