College Admissions Secrets: Will a Summer Trip Abroad Get You into Harvard?

Courtesy of The Experiment in International Living

On a sunny June afternoon, a suburban 16-year-old arrives in rural Ghana. She’s greeted by a family with whom she’ll live for a month, while working at a local orphanage, teaching English, and helping out with construction projects. Along with a dozen fellow American high school students, she’ll visit historic slave trade fortresses, learn traditional crafts, and take language lessons in Ashanti Twi.

For this, her parents will pay close to $10,000, in hopes that the experience will boost her chances of admission to the country’s top colleges.

Over the past two decades, as applying to college has become—at least for the well-off—a process as calculated and expensive as Olympic training, dozens of elaborate programs have cropped up to meet the growing demand for summer language study, cultural immersion, and community service abroad. The programs range from four-star vacations (a two-week trip to the resorts of Southeast Asia), to serious language learning (a four-week Turkish homestay with classes), to humanitarian missions (a month building a schoolhouse in a Costa Rican village). Exact numbers are hard to come by, but it’s safe to say that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students go abroad with these programs each year.

The trips are often expensive—weeklong programs can cost $1,000, while longer journeys to Africa and Asia carry nearly-five-digit price tags—but they hold obvious appeal for teens and their parents: outdoor activity, exposure to new cultures, maybe a class or some manual labor. And, of course, the promise of an enhanced résumé.

The question is: Do these summer programs offer truly enriching experiences that improve admissions chances, or are they merely high-cost boondoggles foisted on the wealthy, anxious, and gullible? More immediately, will sending a teenager to build a community kitchen in Tanzania get him into Harvard?

According to experts: probably not. “People shouldn’t feel they have to do something exotic to impress admissions committees,” William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid, told The Daily Beast. “There is no magic bullet.”

When they aren’t envying the kids who go on these excursions—monitoring Grevy’s Zebras in Kenya? Working on an organic farm in Belize?—skeptics roll their eyes at their indulgence and seeming inauthenticity. One might wonder what, exactly, apart from impaired liver function and a tan, a teen will gain from three weeks of “immersion” in the South of France. Meanwhile, the community service programs can elicit more complicated reactions. The brochures for some read like USAID literature, with pictures of preppy white teenagers hugging African children, alongside earnest testimonials about culture and perspective. The premise of paying for community service can be difficult to swallow.

For many critics, the problem with such programs isn’t just their indulgence, but their inauthenticity: paying to do community service isn’t the same as doing it on your own.

But do admissions offices roll their eyes, too?

Indeed, in some circles, showcasing these trips on an application may work against students. "There is some cynicism about these programs,” said Fitzsimmons, but cautioned: “I think it’s important for admissions officers to get beyond that kind of cynicism. Students are listening to a wide variety of people. Sometimes a parent or counselor believes that the key to getting into college is an exotic program."

Instead, admissions officers urge, the real key is either old-fashioned well-roundedness, or—for less than half of Harvard admits—what the school’s admissions officers call a “DE,” or “Distinguishing Excellence,” like concert piano playing or tremendous math ability.

As for summers, “What we care about is that students have done something that means something to them,” said Richard Shaw, Stanford’s dean of undergraduate admission. “It’s not a good idea to engage in something because the student or family believes it will augment their ability to get in.”

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Shaw also drew a cautious distinction between embarking on a “three-to-five day experience to see what poverty looks like” as a sort of mea culpa for never having been involved in social or community issues, and students for whom summer programs are part of a “pattern of involvement.” Admissions officers say these trips can fit into a narrative of service or work abroad. “Sustained or meaningful involvement comes through,” Shaw said.

Bill Mayher, a counselor and consultant for private high schools around the world, specializing in admissions, echoed Fitzsimmons and Shaw, stressing that summer programs are not a “magic carpet” into college, or a panacea for lackluster résumés. Admissions counselors "want to give everybody a fair shot," he said. "They don’t want to be swayed by ersatz experiences for hire.”

The elaborate programs appeal to some teens because of the fodder they provide for admissions essays—but admissions officers often discourage students from writing about their trips, because such testimonials can ring insincere. They also stress that an essay should reinforce the student’s wider admissions “story.”

“The summer abroad experience does lend itself to some very important essays that students write,” said Augustine Garza, deputy director of admissions for the University of Texas at Austin. But, he said, “Just having gone is not enough. That they took the opportunity given to them and made something of it, and how they tell us about it, is important.”

“We appreciate those individuals that have the means to go abroad to look at other cultures,” Garza said, adding that, in their training, UT admissions officers learn to gauge the numerical value of summer programs in the context of each student’s résumé.

And for those who don’t have the means—or don’t choose to spend them on pricey trips—officers maintain that students needn’t spend a dime. Debra Chermonte, dean of admissions at Oberlin College, said that while a summer abroad “certainly does add dimension to a student’s background and perspective on the world, there are also important opportunities for students to gain perspective right across the street.” Examples can include working at a 7-Eleven, doing filing work at a non-profit, and volunteering at a soup kitchen.

In Princeton, New Jersey, I met with Sam Kelly, a high school senior who’ll enter Tufts University in the fall. Kelly has gone on three trips with Putney Student Travel, one of the oldest and best-established companies. Founded in 1951 by the parents of Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, Putney offers dozens of trips around the world, often led by recent college grads. Putney also provides financial aid, offering scholarships for students from low-income households.

“You have to take something from it,” said Kelly, who acknowledged that some go on the trips because their parents push them, and plenty find ways to avoid work and get drunk. (Kelly’s parents were enthusiastic, not pushy, about his trips.) After a summer carrying cinderblocks to install a sewage system in Ecuador, Kelly traveled to Rwanda, where his group toured a hospital designed by Partners in Health—the Harvard-affiliated NGO founded by Paul Farmer—visited clinics, met with USAID representatives, and spoke with survivors of the 1994 genocide.

“That was sort of where service became a really important part of my story, in terms of college admissions,” said Kelly, who said he struggles with the ethics of American involvement abroad. Genocide has become an area of sustained academic interest for Kelly: he spent his spring designing a course on the subject for his senior project. For Kelly, the trips likely improved admissions chances, but they were also deeply formative.

“There are very good programs that are very expensive. That doesn’t make them bad,” said Mayher. “It’s only bad—I should say ‘foolish’—if students expect that the name of the program or a brief description of the program in their résumé or essay is somehow good enough to change an admissions decision.”

Above all, admissions officers urge perspective and calm. At the end of the day, said Shaw of Stanford, “Students should be transparent and honest.” These summer programs, like summer jobs, can be boiled down to what adults have been urging teens for time immemorial: just get off the couch and do something.

Then again: maybe some couch time would be OK. “Hanging out and reading is just fine,” said Fitzsimmons, noting that today’s overextended students are often in need of a few weeks off. Hard as it may be to believe, Fitzsimmons added: “You don’t have to account for every moment of the year.”