There's a popular misconception that seniors "shouldn't" write about study abroad, service trips, or teen travel tours on their college applications.
First of all, this is untrue. There are no bad essay topics, only bad essays, and you can absolutely write an original, unforgettable travel essay.
Even if you couldn't, I would still highly recommend a travel abroad experience for almost any teenager, as they can be some of the most enriching, educational, and fun things you will do in your whole life.
There's a reason the "service trip" essay is a cliche -- and it's because they really do transform students' world view. As jaded adults, we forget what it was like... but I've worked with enough students that it's impossible to forget. There's a certain look of wonder that enters their eyes when they try to describe their trip, but just can't find the right words.
Not all teen travel companies and programs are created equal. While writing Almost Everyone Who Does Teen Travel Programs is Female recently, I realized there are some important questions that many parents or prospective students might not know to ask while evaluating their options.
When I was in college, I worked at Montecito Sequoia Lodge as a fencing instructor, then at Stanford Education Program for Gifted Youth as a Residential Counselor and Biology Teaching Assistant. After graduation, I took a group of American teenagers to Poland for two months, and have continued to stay up-to-date on the industry -- which is changing rapidly due to technology.
Based on those experiences, here is what I would ask:
Unless the trip specifically appeals to boys (like... Thai boxing or something?), most teen travel trips are at least 70-90% female.
It doesn't look like it in the brochures, because companies intentionally pick photos that make the ratio look more even (sometimes, they even encourage young-looking male counselors to get in the photos to make them more "usable").
I don't think the ratio is any reason to choose or not choose a trip -- life is going to throw all kinds of situations at you, and, really, who cares if you're surrounded by girls all summer? -- but I think this is a great question to ask, because it's a way to get a sense of how honest this representative is being with you.
If they're dodgy and indirect about this, what else might they be dodgy and indirect about?
Everyone says their number one concern is safety. What they don't tell you is that sometimes, they are too cheap to train their leaders in first aid. Yes, they may "require" leaders to have some kind of certification...
But you can literally buy those online for, like, $17.
And I personally know people who have done that. "This company was literally paying me $250 a week," a former Travel for Teens employee told me. "I couldn't really afford to spend more than that on first aid training."
(For reference, I refuse to believe $250/week is the industry standard -- when I did my Poland trip, I'm pretty sure I was making at least $600 per week, and that was in 2010. I think I was making $500 or more per week at Montecito Sequoia back in 2006.)
This is why I would only use a teen travel company that provided free training and certification to its employees, either during employee orientation, or through reimbursements.
Due to the exponential growth of the teen travel industry, there is a huge number of boring, pointless, and disengaging service projects out there. Some programs will literally bring in 20 kids every summer, just to stand next to each other and paint the same fence at the same school over and over.
So make sure the project your child would be working on is actually going to be enriching. This means the project brings them some sense of purpose... and that the project actually teaches them something.
If they're doing something that requires no skills, at least make sure they're living in a homestay or are simultaneously doing a language immersion.
But ideally, there is some unique educational component to the project that couldn't happen locally or in a classroom. This might mean an archeology dig, learning field methods for an ecology project, or helping with turtle conservation. It could mean getting hands-on learning experience at a hospital overseas.
If your child has a potential intended major they are going to indicate on their college applications, the educational component could be related to that area of interest. After all, it looks strange to say you want to be a computer science major if you've never taken a computer science class. It looks strange to say you want to study ecology if you have no ecology experience.
The "challenge vs. mastery" bit is important because, in order to achieve a psychological state of flow, or total immersion in an activity, students must face some level of challenge (because without challenge, it's boring) and mastery (because without mastery, it's frustrating). Read more in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
This seems like a strange question to have to ask... but if your child is going to be spending time near the water this summer, you should explicitly, specifically make sure your child will be allowed to get in the water.
I've heard horror stories from students who had ridiculous rules imposed on them, like, "No going in the water above your knees," or, "No swimming."
This is some infantilizing, fun-killing awfulness. If you want to make sure this doesn't happen to your child while they're on the three-week trip you just paid $7,000 for... you need to specifically ask. Maybe even get it in writing. Because I would be absolutely outraged if this happened to me or my kid.
The brochure may have bragged that students will scuba dive in the Mediterranean or ride horses on the beaches of Ireland or visit the Harry Potter set in London...
But that doesn't mean the cost of those activities is included in the tuition you're paying.
Sometimes, the trip highlights are technically "add-ons" or "optional excursions." For many families who send their kids on teen travel trips, money is no issue. But if you're not blessed with an unlimited budget, it is worth finding out what is and is not included.
Basically every single teen travel company in the world claims they're different from other teen travel companies because they teach students to be travelers, not tourists.
How, specifically, do they do that? Ask what specific skills the child will learn. Ask about the ways in which the child will be independent. Ask about their cell phone policy (I personally don't think kids should have their phones with them during the day, or even necessarily at all during the trip).
Because some companies claim they'll make your child a traveler... then force trip leaders to be more "personal photographer," less "mentor in becoming an independent traveler." Or to constantly entertain teens by having them do group cheers and play icebreakers and games at tourist attractions. Which... I don't know. Maybe the teens like that? I feel like I wouldn't have, but I'm a sample size of one. Either way, it seems a little more "tourist," and a little less "traveler."
Anything I forgot? Let me know in the comments. And if you want help with college applications or other education consulting needs, don't hesitate to contact me!
Eva Glasrud completed her B.A. and M.A. at Stanford. She is now a college counselor and life coach for gifted youth.