Why You Shouldn't Send Your Kid on a Community Service Trip for College

There are a lot of problems with short-term service trips, or voluntourism as it’s often called. There are social problems, there are economic problems, there are cultural problems, and there are problem problems, but none of those are the problems we’re going to talk about here. Analyzing the socio-political side effects of importing unskilled teens into impoverished countries with the (mis)intention of saving the day isn’t our specialty...or it isn’t here, at least. Our specialty is getting great kids into stellar colleges, and so we’re going to focus on why sending your kid on a service trip isn’t going to help make that happen.

In 2016, Frank Bruni wrote a column for The New York Times entitled “To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?” You can probably guess what it said, but the speed version is that admissions officers are tired of hearing about how a kid ‘gave up’ their spring break to fly to a foreign country, participate in (in the best of cases) drive-by charity, and then shared their #authentic experience with their #fam because they are #blessed.  

Bruni isn’t full of it. Admissions officers are exhausted by the annual deluge of stories from teenagers who were suddenly transformed by the young malnourished African boy (because Africa is a country, FYI), who taught them what true happiness is. We’ve talked to the Deans of Admissions at top schools and they’ve said the same thing. You won’t necessarily get rejected for it, but it won’t win you a gold star.

There are a few reasons why admissions officers are sick of voluntourism stories. First is that it’s transparent. If a student isn’t actively involved in community service at home and doesn’t show any other interest in the region where they are traveling to through their academic or extracurricular experiences, it’s pretty obvious that it was a one-off thing designed as a self-indulgent application boost. There’s also the fact that regardless of where you are going, you’re still writing about a vacation. Admissions officers want to know who you are, not how much money your family has to spend on a trip halfway across the world when there are so many more creative things to do during your breaks that actually speak to your character.

On the topic of money, there is something to be said for the disparity between the types of people who go on voluntourism trips (the vast majority of whom are upper middle class or above) and those who are reading their applications. On average, college admissions officers make between $50,000 and $80,000. They aren’t booking a flight to India to hand out health leaflets or a trip to Tanzania to pretend to be a doctor. Reminding them of how you got to jet set around the world while they are stuck sitting at their desk isn’t going to endear your essay, or your application, to them.

The biggest question we get when we rail off on voluntourism is, “but isn’t my kid supposed to be doing community service?” In one word, maybe. We tell our clients to invest in their time in 2-4 extracurricular activities. This is enough that you won’t be pigeonholed while still being focused enough that an application won’t look scattered. Community service can and for some students it should be one of those things.

BUT, and this is a big but (if the all-caps didn’t give it away), the community service a student includes on their application needs to tie into another area of interest. If they are a musician, they might volunteer with a non-profit that bring musical experiences into low-income schools. If they are a math nerd, they might do tutoring. If they are interested in issues of food scarcity in urban areas we want to meet them because they sound awesome and it makes sense that they would spend time at a local food bank or shelter. However, if a student is interested in studying women’s studies, they shouldn’t be writing about a week painting walls in the Caribbean. If a student wants to become a biologist, five days spent fixing roofs on a Reservation doesn’t augment his narrative.

Even when a student lines their service up with their passions, we normally say that it’s a no-go topic for their college essay. There are too many ways that it can come off as privileged, or like the student gained the experience at the expense of someone else.

If you want one final reason not to send your kid on a service trip, criticism of voluntourism as an ethical quagmire that most often fails at creating sustainable positive change has been growing in volume over the past few years. We tell our students to avoid sticky social issues, and voluntourism is one of them. If an admissions officer is against voluntourism, which is more likely at schools of a liberal inclination, it doesn’t matter how well written your essay is. Regardless of how well you spun your experience, all they’re going to be thinking about is how you did something that challenges their moral code. That’s a big gamble to take when you only have 650 words to get things right.

Here are some ideas on how to spend your breaks that are better than going on a service trip.

If you’re frustrated by the in’s and out’s of college applications, drop us a line. From picking extracurriculars to outlining essays, we make the application process easy. 100% of our clients get into at least one of their top two schools so the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.