“On the volunteer trip I took, I realized that not everybody is as fortunate as me. The local people we met didn’t have many of the things we take for granted, but they were still so happy. It was an inspirational experience that totally changed my perspective.”
Have you heard this story before? It is among the most common of Common App responses.
This year, like every year, thousands of admissions officers across the country will read thousands of essays about the volunteering trip a given prospective applicant took to South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, or Africa. They will also read about how camp taught a given student about leadership, and how winning their final Color War was emblematic of their growth over time. These students, like generations of applicants before them, had incredible summer experiences that they want to write about. Unfortunately, they are not alone, and many of the essays that feel most compelling to an individual can come across as trite or clichéd to a committee that has to process thousands of applications – especially when they’ve just read several very similar submissions that happen to take place in slightly different settings.
Summer is an incredible time for having the experiences you will ultimately write about in your college essays. During summer, students try new things and learn new skills. They explore new places and meet new friends. Summer is when interests evolve into passions, and when new passions are born. And when children and teens hopefully challenge themselves. There is a vital aspect to the story above – for many students, it is entirely true. There is a reason this essay topic has become a cliché – for many students, age-appropriate teen programs represent the first exposure to life outside of their bubble. These students did have a transformative experience – this developed perspective is one of the major benefits of attending a teen program of this type. Similarly, camp does help kids grow and mature, develop community, and ultimately take on leadership roles – after all, there is a reason parents send their kids to camp summer after summer.
The issue, however, is that when a student describes these shared experiences in a college essay, they do so in a way that causes them to blend into, rather than stand out from, the rest of the application pool – and if they leave an impression, it very well might be negative. Of course, this doesn’t mean that students should avoid writing about their summer experiences – summer can provide incredible fodder for essays. In fact, I wrote my own Common App essay on an experience I had on a teen program. However, your approach must be crafted to avoid the pitfalls of cliché, and to focus on a student’s unique experience, and a student’s unique development. So what can you do to avoid a clichéd essay?
In short, you must tell your own story – and the emphasis should be on yourself, not your program. It’s not about the building project you worked on with twenty, thirty, or forty other teens – but about the one real relationship you forged with someone who was scheduled to move in once construction was completed. Not about the class you taught in English, but about how you earned a nickname from the students. Not about the coursework you did, but about the street food you sampled. Your story may not have an entirely unique arc or trajectory, but it is still a unique story. You need to use your essay to highlight the aspects that make it unique.
And, if you want your words to stand out, then back them up. Did teaching children open up your eyes about the need to give back? Then sign-up for one of the many child-centric volunteering opportunities that are available. Did you have an incredible, transformative experience growing up at camp? Perhaps you can work as a CIT, or get involved in a Campership program. Did that street food expose you to the variance in global cuisine? Maybe it’s time to start a food blog. Your college essay is an opportunity to write about something meaningful – and if your summer experience was truly meaningful to you, it won’t be limited solely to one summer.
There is nothing wrong about wanting to write about your camp or summer program in your college essay – these are oftentimes powerful experiences that really do reflect the individual a student has grown into. However, be careful when composing your essay that you deal in the truths and details of your story, rather than falling into the trap of relying on broad clichés regarding personal growth and development. You have a story to tell – make sure it’s about you, and that it’s one worth reading.