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Articles / Applying to College / Foreign Travel as Admissions Currency?

March 15, 2010

Foreign Travel as Admissions Currency?

Question: I'm taking a trip to Europe this summer through one of my teachers with other classmates. Can this exposure help in any way with admissions? Or is there anything I can do to make it matter?

College officials are quite accustomed to seeing all sorts of overseas travel on application forms, so you probably won't get any admissions boost from simply taking this summer trip. Moreover, the "Experiencing a New Culture Changed My Life" college essay (or some variation thereof) is common enough to make most admission officials start to snore (or at least roll their eyes).

But, of course, your pending trip may indeed change your life. It's certainly possible that your journey will spark a new passion (Impressionist art? medieval architecture? World War II history?) If, once you return, you parlay the experiences you have or the interests you ignite during your travels into additional activities (or a long-term academic or career goal) then this may be information you'll want to include in your applications, and it could make you a more attractive candidate at decision time

Conversely, if you already have a talent or hobby that could be expanded during your trip (photography, poetry, painting, cartooning, etc.), then you may be able to chronicle your travel experiences in a way that calls upon your current skills to create supplemental materials that might be application worthy.

Beware, however, that "service" trips are very popular these days. This is when high school students visit foreign lands (typically, Third World nations) and pay significant sums to "volunteer"--building houses, tending crops, teaching English, etc. So your admissions essay on the delights of a picnic lunch in the Jardin des Tuileries will be "competing" with one that chronicles digging latrines in a Paraguayan village at sunrise.

So keep in mind that admission folks have become pretty jaded when it comes to hearing about their candidates' adventures abroad. If you do decide to write a college essay on something you saw, did, or learned in Europe this summer, I recommend that you try to keep your subject matter very focused. ("Whole Sole," in On Writing THE College Application Essay by Harry Bauld is a great example of what I mean.) Talk about a specific subway ride or sculpture, the old lady who gave you directions in the market or the hotel clerk who smiled at your efforts to speak Spanish. Let this serve as a metaphor for how your horizons broadened, but avoid trite and obvious conclusions like "People are people wherever you go." Instead, allow your audience to read between the lines, and remember that most good essays "Show" and don't just "Tell."

Hope that helps. Safe travels!

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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