Preparing for College

Should Community Service Trip to Costa Rica Go on College Applications?

Question: My son will be going on a community service trip to Costa Rica this summer. Clearly the trip is a vacation, not just service, but I encouraged him to select a trip that had enough hours of service to make it a more meaningful experience. I understand that this type of volunteerism is less impressive than local community service but should it still be listed on the extracurricular list as volunteer service or will it be looked at negatively?

Even though your son may not get any college admissions "brownie points" from his Costa Rica junket, it won't be a negative either, and he shouldn’t have any qualms about including it on applications.

Some application forms provide a separate space for summer activities. In such cases, your son can enter it there. Other applications (including the Common Application) ask students to list their most meaningful undertakings in order of importance. If, upon return, your son feels that the Costa Rica trip was a life-changing experience, he can add it near the top of the roster. If not, he can insert it toward the bottom, assuming that there's room. (For instance, the Common Application provides spaces for 12 activities. For many students, this is more than enough. Others, however, have to eliminate some activities.)

It's certainly okay for your son to list this trip as a "Community Service" endeavor. However, he should probably steer clear of writing one of his college essays about it. Admission officials are glutted with submissions from (usually privileged) students who write about foreign travels and invariably wrap up with predictable conclusions like, "Even though I was there to help these people, they were the ones who helped me" or "My trip made me appreciate the advantages I have at home." Even when such conclusions are true, admission folks see so many of them that they can become pretty jaded.

Yet every once in a blue moon, a student does write a terrific essay about a summer community-service trip. So if your son is motivated to give it a try, you need not scare him off entirely. But he should also be warned that, while it's fine to include his trip on his application and to mention the community service component, he may not want to make it the centerpiece of his applications, unless it was such a momentous experience for him that it inspired future related endeavors.

¡buena suerte!

(posted 3/1/2011)