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Why Service and Abroad Experiences Matter to Colleges

I started my career in the university environment almost 30 years ago. In that time, dramatic shifts have occurred for our young adults regarding the admission process. “What college should I attend?” “What matters to universities THIS year?” “Should I take all AP classes?” “Should I start a nonprofit?” The bottom line is how will our young adults make themselves stand out and express their uniqueness?

Anyone who has worked with me or has heard me speak in public knows the #1 thing I’m most passionate about is flipping the conversation on how to decide on next steps after high school. In our society, we select the university first, the major second, then the career. Why do we do this? Because it’s the easiest way to make decisions. The correct way to do this is to determine your potential career pathways first, the major second, and then find universities that have your degree that align with your academic ability. This is done through formal career exploration, aptitude testing and a comprehensive conversation with the young adult and parents. And yes, it is possible to determine career pathways in high school, but it takes a serious and in-depth conversation.

The statement almost every single parent says to me is, “I’m so concerned about my child getting into X university. How can they be the most competitive?” Although I don’t assist young adults in getting into college, I live in this world every single day. It changes every single year depending on the universities’ “needs” that year. Need students from Alaska? Check…5 are selected. Need international students from X countries…check! I’m not oversimplifying this decision making process which is why parents are so frustrated and full of anxiety when it comes to understanding how to “play the game.” So, what can a young adult do to put the odds in their favor? Stand out.

We are a global society and organizations like Summer of Service (SOS) in San Antonio, Texas give young adults direct insight into broadening their worldview. I had the pleasure of meeting the founder, Amir Samandi, when I toured the CAST Tech High School. We instantly connected because I lived abroad for 6 years and have traveled to over 38 countries. When he shared what he did with his organization, I had to learn more. This led to a 3-hour breakfast which seemed like 30 minutes. During that time, I learned how his organization gives young adults the opportunity to volunteer while gaining exposure to countries, individuals, and environments they may never have had prior to their involvement. In addition, they meet other young adults whom they have never met. How does this involvement translate into colleges considering a young adult who participates? This is why it’s important.

1. You Are More Than Your Grades

I can’t tell you how many young adults I work with who only have high GPA’s. My high achievers love learning! They love reading. They love pushing themselves to do their best. But often, they don’t have any outside “passions.” Universities consistently say at college admission conferences I attend, they want “well-rounded” students. They want students who express they care about other things/people/activities more than just themselves. They want students who are going to contribute to their campus and potentially make their university even better. Organizations like SOS give young adults exposure to a host of communities’ needs which helps them identify opportunities where they want to spend their time. Be well-rounded and have some B’s, if it means you get to grow as a person. And don’t have a 20-page resume dating back to kindergarten (yes, I’ve seen these when judging scholarships). Don’t try and pad your resume with things that don’t matter to you because universities see it immediately. They also don’t want to see a single volunteer experience. They want to see a strong commitment to community service. They want to see why you engaged. What was your motive behind it? And does it tie directly into your future goals within your career? Show a focus on something that is consistent. I call it your “Story of Seriousness.”

2. Good for Mental Health

We are currently in a national crisis right with the stress our young adults are under. Mental health is at an all-time high and professional counselors on college campuses, as well as in private practice, can’t get a handle on it. This is a hot topic every single year at counseling conferences. When we get out of our own heads, put the phones down and engage in meaningful experiences, it changes who we are. It allows us to not focus on “me” but to focus on “others.” It gives us perspective. It shows we are willing to donate our time to help others and what’s the real gift? It helps us. Do it because it fulfills your soul. Do it for the right reasons because that’s where personal growth happens. College is challenging and pursuing positive mental health is key to establishing good habits. Admission teams can see unbalanced young adults, so you demonstrate to them you are staying balanced.

3. Traveling Changes YOU Forever

I 1000% believe traveling is the most important thing anyone can ever do in their lives. It gets you out of your comfort zone. It challenges stereotypes. It forces you to reassess how you were raised and ideals given to you from your background. It helps you to see we are all more alike than different.

Universities want to know you have pushed yourself outside of your comfort zone because that is where learning begins. They want to know you are open to new experiences. Going to a country where you don’t speak the language is incredibly intimidating. Getting on a plane for the first time is exhilarating, but also frightening, all in the same emotion.

My daughter studied abroad and completed an internship last semester in Berlin as part of her college experience. It was life-changing. When we lived in Europe she spent a week in Turkey with a host family during a school theater trip. She had fun, but she also learned to love the culture. While selecting a college internship in Berlin, she had the choice of working with a company who sells almost expired food to the local community by delivering it directly to their homes or working with refugees who had fled their country to help start a business, so they could sustain their new lives. She picked the refugees. She worked with mostly Muslim men to help them develop their pitches, so they could promote their products. All of the signs in this area of Berlin where she worked were in Arabic, not German. This blonde hair, young American girl took the bus to and from work every day to help mentor refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Israel.

Had she not stayed with a Muslim family in Turkey, she may have missed the opportunity that turned out to be the best experience of her entire college experience. Her worldview continued to be expanded and I believe she has been forever changed, perhaps leading to a shift in her career path. Time will tell.

4. It’s A Great Essay Topic

The college essay is going to be the most important body of work a young person writes in their high school career. It’s hard to stand out based on all of the thousands of essays that are submitted each year to a university. Young adults struggle to identify how they are special or how they have impacted society. Often, they feel they don’t have anything to contribute that’s worthy of consideration. Community service and traveling abroad offers life-changing experiences to tap into. Colleges want students who are going to make their campus better. They want students who have a global perspective. They want students who give to others. Writing about experiences that are life-changing need to be written honestly. Essay reviewers read stories all of the time where the “heart” isn’t in the piece of work. But if written well, is authentic and honest, it could lead to an acceptance letter from your dream school.

5. Lastly, It’s FUN and Expands Your Worldview!

I’m afraid our young adults aren’t having much “fun” anymore. They are participating in activities because 1) it’s expected, 2) they’ve done it since they were four, 3) they need “something” on their high school resume, and 4) their parents make them. This isn’t fun.

Community service and traveling are fun. It gets young adults out of their routines. It allows them to take a break from their current reality. If it’s not fun for the young adult, they shouldn’t do it. Find something else that they do. Find fun because they need more of it in their lives, especially during the stress of their high school years.

Finally, high school is really the minor leagues for what comes in college. What these experiences provide, which is translated into college consideration, is creating a citizen who isn’t afraid, looks for ways to help others and continues to see the good in other cultures. We need this more than ever. It changes people forever and this is why I firmly believe participating in programs like this in high school will make you a better person. The college that is right for you, will see this! I promise.

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