Can a Summer Trip Abroad Boost Your Chance to Get Into College?

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By now, many college applicants understand that getting into college extends far beyond GPAs and test scores. Extracurricular activities, community outreach, and personal passions are all distinguishing factors in the application process. But what about taking a summer trip?

Taking an international trip during the summer for educational, cultural, or humanitarian purposes can be a life-changing experience in more than just a couple of ways. And many organizations exists solely to offer study abroad courses, exchange programs, and international trips for students looking to broaden their high school experience.

So, can an excursion abroad boost your chances of getting accepted to your dream school?

Well, it depends.

There’s a significant degree of skepticism and cynicism among college officials when it comes to summer trips abroad and, more importantly, how they’re used in college applications. Most admissions officers read several essays every day that depict an applicant’s life-changing trip to a foreign land, which can leave them (understandably) jaded about the authenticity of these stories. At the same time, trips abroad can be genuinely formative experiences, and if traveling internationally changes who you are or how you see the world, then it’s worth including in your college application.

If you’re thinking of spending your next summer abroad with the hope that it will benefit your college admissions process, here are a couple of things to keep in mind.

Find a trip that has specific meaning for you.

College admissions offices have plenty of experience in weeding out authentic travel experiences from mere resume boosters. An essay about an expensive five-day service trip to a third-world country won’t seem genuine if the applicant doesn’t have a prior history of community service in their own hometown.

The best way to be authentic in how you choose to spend your summer is by finding a program or trip that engages one of your established passions or interests. Are you the president of your high school Spanish club because you love the language? Find a program where you can learn from and engage with native speakers in a Spanish-speaking country. Do you play violin in the orchestra and dream of studying music in college? Look for a travel experience that will allow you to immerse yourself in another country that has a rich musical history and culture (like Austria).

An international trip or study abroad program that engages your passion and broadens your horizons in a specific way will not only be enjoyable, but it will also serve as an authentic addition to your college application rather than a mere add-on.

If you write about your trip in an essay, be specific.

For the most part, college administrators don’t want to hear about how great your luxurious trip abroad was. They are more interested in students who made the most of their time and resources in high school than in those who were fortunate enough to have interesting and exciting international experiences.

If your trip abroad ends up being a life-changing part of your high school experience, then don’t feel like you can’t write about it in an application essay. However, the experience should be included as part of a larger theme about who you are and what you’re passionate about. Consider how your trip fits into a pattern of involvement in an area of interest, along with other activities and experiences from your high school career.

Any mention of your trip should depict detailed stories from the experience and how they taught you specific lessons. If you participated in a summer study abroad program with 20 other students, it’s likely that your peers had a similar experience if seen from a broad point of view. Think about a specific encounter or discovery that had personal value for you and write about that, instead of describing the general aspects of the trip that everyone else likely experienced.

High school study abroad programs, and even international vacations, are fantastic opportunities for cross-cultural understanding, learning, and personal growth. For that reason, they can certainly be helpful experiences to draw on when applying for colleges.

But considering that college admissions officials value distinguishing characteristics in applicants more than cool experiences, don’t approach a trip abroad as just another box to mark off on your college app checklist. Rather, see it as an opportunity to further explore a personal interest or passion, develop a skill, or add to the bigger story of who you are and what you care about.