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Thursday, July 7, 2016
Community Service With a Pricetag
As an editor and consultant, I have read thousands of admissions essays over the past few decades. I'm appreciative of students' various limitations, and try to always read with a clean pair of eyes. Still, I'm human, and can't avoid getting snagged on threadbare irritants. These are the narrative missteps that well-intentioned students make time and again. It's my job to learn how to critique gently and constructively.
Apart from bad grammar and maudlin hyperbole, one of the most frustrating mistakes I see many students make is to spend too much time writing about their community service. While I realize there are a handful of students whose experience is meticulously shaped by their volunteer-work, they are the exception. Resume-padding can be pretty transparent. It's nowhere more obvious than in the pricey hobby of volunteer tourism.
College admissions is already skewed towards wealthy students. In the bid to sound more exotic to admissions officers, more and more students have taken to volunteering overseas. There are an abundance of programs offering organized trips to "underdeveloped" regions for a price. For parents, there is comfort in knowing your teenager isn't wandering foreign lands on their own. For students, an opportunity to travel, help, and create fodder for an engaging essay.
I hate sounding so cynical. I have no doubt that seeing the slums of Mumbai or Guatemala leaves an eye-opening impression on a young, wealthy, western student. And still, it's difficult to write about these experiences without sounding like a cliché.
Admissions officers waffle about the importance of these trips. While they certainly offer points of reflection for young students, they aren't likely to tip the scales in a student's favor, and they don't always make for a readable essay. Instead, they often serve as markers of a student's wealth, and underscore a lack of introspection that is a very real part of being a young teenager.
Like everything else in the college admissions game, these trips-and the subsequent tale of the journey-can have limited value in terms of "getting in", despite their actual cost.
A successful writer will do well to not hang their hat exclusively on this hook.
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