What it is: The ostensible holy grail of college application essays—a multi-cultural, service-oriented, introspective all-in-one personal statement.
Sample: The road beneath us was slowly decaying; the asphalt had given way to gravel and then to dust. I rested my head against the window of the 14-passenger van as derelict homes whizzed by, one dilapidated blur after another. It was my first time leaving the country. And already, I was beginning to question my decision to come here. Would I be able to offer anything to these impoverished people staring back at me with vacant gazes?
Earlier that year, I decided to accompany my church on its annual mission trip. A small group set course for a small rural Mexican town to assist with the construction of homes and the spreading of the gospel. I wanted to change lives. But I never thought the life that would change the most would be my own.
Why you wrote it: This essay has everything going for it. Writing it gives you the opportunity to talk about your travels, which shows you’re cultured. You also get to shine some light on your service work, which exemplifies your selfless concern for others. Lastly, mission trips almost always leave the missionary with a profound new perspective on life. It’s perfect. Too perfect.
Why admission counselors hate to read it: Almost all of these essays follow the same formula and conclude with a similar sanctimonious reflection on how the author came to appreciate life in a whole new way. Oftentimes these conclusions are derived through extolling a relationship with a child or creating a flat caricature of an entire culture. The instinct to write about something that changed your life is the right impulse, but the mission trip is too broad a brush to paint that picture. Add to this the fact that mission trips are not uncommon adventures among college applicants and the topic is ripe for redundancy. All the perfect pieces are there, but being perfect isn’t the same thing as being unique.
Solution: The most common problem applicants encounter with this essay is mistaking the mission trip for the subject instead of the setting. The few who successfully narrow their scope then find their essays mired by saccharine clichés so sweet they’re gag worthy. If you decide to write this essay, take the unexpected route. Don’t talk about the innocence of a child. Don’t extoll the virtue of helping your fellow man. These are the microwaveable meals of lessons learned abroad—mass-produced, prepackaged parables. For the best writers, not explicitly stating the point will be the best defense against appearing cliché. Be bold. Be experimental. You have to be when writing the mission trip essay.