How to Talk About Your Travel Experiences on College Apps

by Mary Ellen Dingley

If you traveled or studied abroad during high school, then you have stories on stories on stories to tell and a bucket of great lessons learned! Don’t let those stories be relegated to small talk! As much as your buddies might laugh about the time you were chased by a llama, those stories can also be used for more serious matters, such as your university applications!

Bamboo Rafting in Thailand

College admissions are famously mysterious. Most experts agree the admissions process includes flipping coins and looking at transcripts through rainbow kaleidoscopes (but that’s about all we know). Who knows what the over-worked admissions counselors sitting around a table sifting through stacks of apps want? We need to be well-rounded, but also focused on one activity! We need to have good grades but everyone else also has good grades so we need go above and beyond to have even gooder grades (and good grammar!). We need to have great test scores but maybe test scores don’t matter as much anymore?

But beyond all that confusion, there are some facts we can hold onto. Most importantly, colleges want to know what you are going to bring to the table. How are you going to add value to their campus? And you will add value, we all have something unique to bring to the table. And your high school travels can be a part of that!

Craft a Narrative

Here is where you are going to craft a narrative. You will write the story about your story and why you are someone who is going to make their college campus a better place. This is a story about how awesome you are, but it’s also about how you became so awesome, and most importantly, how you are going to bring all of your awesome to their university.

We will call it the Story of How Awesome You Are and How Awesome You Will Be (Specifically Pertaining to this College you Are Currently Applying To). That’s a long name so we can shorten it to Your Awesome Story.

Here’s the points you want to make sure you hit in Your Awesome Story: 

  • Introduce your own personal awesomeness
  • Why that awesomeness is unique
  • How your awesomeness will add value to their university
  • How travel helped you reach or refine that awesomeness
Parasailing in Maui, Hawaii

See, you don’t want just a long list of bragging items. Slotting your travel experience into your extracurriculars as just another activity is fine, but it’s a wasted opportunity if travel has taught you something or transformed you in some way. Just writing “Went to Mexico Summer 2015” doesn’t tell us how that Made You Awesome. There are many ways to talk about your travel experience, but the important thing to remember is that it needs to fit into your admissions persuasive argument, to complete the bigger picture of who you are. Admissions counselors aren’t always impressed by just a listing of places you’ve gone and things you’ve done. They will be impressed by Your Awesome Story.

Question Time

So now it’s time to ask yourself some hard-hitting question. Pour yourself a cup of tea, get comfortable, but not too comfortable, this is self-interrogation time. Don’t let yourself slip away with half-baked answers.

Ask yourself:

  • What makes you uniquely awesome?
  • How did you gain that unique awesomeness? How was travel a part of that process?
  • How will your unique awesomeness improve their university? How will you add value to their campus?
  • How did your travel prepare you for university?

Answer those questions thoroughly! I’ll wait.

Ok, got your answers? Good. That’s the backbone for Your Awesome Story. Now let’s think more about writing on the travel aspect.

Writing About Your Travels

How you write about your travel experiences might look different depending on what sort of travel you did. Was your traveling based on study, service, or adventure?

If you studied abroad during high school, that’s great! You could show how that prepared you for a college classroom and how it stretched you intellectually. Maybe you could write about how study abroad accustomed you to different academic expectations. If you learned a second language, you could show them research on how that helps the brain develop. Send a brain scan. Just kidding, don’t send research or a brain scan. But do talk about picking up a second language if that’s something you did!

If you volunteered abroad, you could write about how you came to a fuller understanding of the issues of inequality and poverty. You could demonstrate your understanding of the complexity of international development, and how your experience not only opened your mind to the realities of the world, but also prepared you to study tough topics. Maybe don’t write about the upset tummies or how you smelled after a week of limited showering. But then again, that could set the scene. It’s up to you how personal you want to get, just don’t forget to add it to your resume too!

For any and all types of travel, you can speak about how you overcame fears, how you learned to live cross-culturally, how your mind blew wide open with new possibilities, and how you made the most of your time abroad! Any university wants brave, culturally clever, open-minded students, and with our globalized economy, travel bodes well for your future.

You are preparing yourself to be a global citizen, and that is a truly awesome story right there.
Selfie on top of Sigiriya

Connecting the Dots

So now that you have the backbone of Your Awesome Story and some ideas for how to frame your travels, let’s put all the pieces together!

Dig into your experience, what did your travels mean to you personally? Is there one event you can point to as transformative? Is there one lesson that your transformation hinges on?

Make the connections between how awesome you are, how you can add value to their university, and how your travel experience can demonstrate that awesomeness. Maybe you are awesome because you are a great leader, and you will bring your leadership skills to the clubs and organizations on campus, and you developed those leadership skills on a service trip in South America. Give a specific example of when you used your leadership skills to solve a problem or motivate your team!

Avoid Cliches

Remember, admissions counselors want to hear about you and your story. Plenty of people have traveled, but you have a unique story and perspective. To make sure that your story shines through, avoid travel cliches! Words and phrases like “breathtaking”, “friendly locals”, and “rich culture” have been written plenty of times before. There are also hundreds of articles about learning something from poor people, which, while it’s true that we can learn from others all over the world, can lean dangerously toward turning the people themselves into caricatures.

Be careful of stereotyping foreign cultures! Stereotypes will not show off your intelligence. The admissions counselors will be impressed if you can show you understanding of the complexities that lie underneath the obvious, so peel back the juice layers of your story!

Wrap it up

Time to wrap up Your Awesome Story with a shiny ribbon! You’ve answered the important questions about what makes you uniquely awesome and how you will add value to their college. You’ve delved into your travel experiences and pulled out the lessons you learned. You’ve connected your travel stories with your unique awesomeness.

You’ve avoided cliches, edited thoroughly, and checked for grammar mistakes (right?!). Ask a friend, family member or teacher to read it over for an outside opinion, and then you’re done! Have confidence that you have something special to bring to any university.

Now send those college applications out into the world and take a well-deserved break. Then, maybe start looking at college study abroad? It’s never too early to dream!