You're a teenager who has traveled to another country. Perhaps with your family. Perhaps with some kind of teen travel tour, volunteer, mission or service organization. Perhaps through a study abroad program like School Year Abroad, Island School, or Where There Be Dragons.
You had an incredible experience! You think this is one of the most interesting things you've done in your whole life.
And everyone's telling you not to write your college essays about it.
Lucky for you, those people are completely wrong.
As I wrote in Here's What Colleges REALLY Think of Volunteer Work:
There are no bad essay topics, only bad essays.
You can absolutely write an unforgettable essay about your summer or semester abroad trip... you just have to make sure your essay is so unique and say so much about you, that no one else in the world could have written it.
To that end, AVOID using phrases and themes like:
On their own, these topics are boring and laughably cliche.
If you want your essay to reflect well on you, you need to be strategic -- on and off paper.
Think of it not in terms of what you did on the trip, but in terms of what you want the essay to say about you. Things like:
One key to successfully conveying these messages is speaking with teachers, especially those who are writing your recommendations, about your trip abroad.
Before you go, tell them where you're going. Tell them why you're going. Ask them questions about how the coursework could connect with or apply to the country you're visiting. Ask if they have any reading recommendations that might enrich your trip or get you up-to-speed so you can hit the ground running. Tell them about a news article you read about the region, and ask a question they might be able to answer or discuss with you.
While you're there, send an email thanking them for their reading recommendations. Give them a quick trip update, and mention one or two things you've learned, seen, or done that you can connect back to the topic they teach.
When you return, have questions, stories and examples ready to share with them.
Not only will this make you a wiser, more informed global citizen... it will also demonstrate to teachers how deeply you engage with material and resources... and it will demonstrate to colleges that you're not going to show up on their campus and be a total waste of space. (Learn more in The Two Biggest Mistakes Seniors Make on Their College Applications.)
So, for example. Say I'm a rising senior. I'm interested in majoring in Economics or Business. I just finished taking AP Econ -- or maybe I just plan to enroll next year! And I've been an active member of FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America) since freshman year. I will be going to Italy this summer for a Service and Adventure trip.
In the fall, I will be applying to several schools that are on the Common App, which requires one 650-word essay on one of 7 topics.
Here's how I might answer Prompt 4: Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. (Though this essay could be easily modified to answer 5, 6, or 7, as well.)
With a few modifications, you could answer Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others, if that feels more authentic to you.
...because I am sincerely excited about being able to offer fast, cheap loans to bold entrepreneurs who just want to make a living sharing their passions with the world.
You could also modify this essay to fit one of the UC prompts (remember, all of the UCs, whether UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, or any of the others, all use the same application essays).
Here's how I might answer Prompt 4: Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced. (350 words)
Pizza Napoletana, the essence of Italian cooking! Flavor exploded in my mouth as Giulia, the restaurant owner, explained that the tomatoes must come from the volcanic soil of San Marzano sul Sarno, while the dough must be crowned with D.O.C. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) Mozzarella di Bufala Campana.
Whatever version you go with, it's a powerful and compelling essay. It shows that you build relationships with teachers and mentors; ask questions other students aren't asking; and follow up with action. You're not just some spoiled rich kid whose parents sent them on a trip. You're an active and purposeful scholar who takes nothing for granted.
It shows you are the exact kind of student colleges want -- even though it's a service trip or teen travel essay, which so many people wrongfully think should be avoided at all costs.
Because, once again, there are no bad essay topics. Only bad essays.
Need help turning your service trip essay into a killer essay -- and, eventually, an acceptance letter? Email me, call me, WhatsApp me, or fill out this contact form. I am available for in-person meetings with students in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Skype/Google meetings with students, both nationally and internationally.
But, most important -- have a blast on your trip!
Eva Glasrud completed her B.A. and M.A. at Stanford. She is now a college counselor and life coach for gifted youth.