The Admissions Essay Mistake You Can't Make

The New York Times recently revealed a major red flag in the admissions essay: the cliched community service trip. In Frank Bruni's column, "To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?" he explains how disingenuous that idea comes across:

It turns developing-world hardship into a prose-ready opportunity for growth, empathy into an extracurricular activity.

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And he's not the only one seeing through the charade. He interviews admissions officers about why that topic often seems fake. What may once have been an impressive feat of passion is now considered something trite that only affluent kids can afford to do in the first place.

“The running joke in admissions is the mission trip to Costa Rica to save the rain forest,” Ángel Pérez, who is in charge of admissions at Trinity College in Hartford, told me.

The biggest warning sign is how much time you spend on community service and how you got the money to pull it off. If you can afford to fly to Costa Rica for the summer and not make a dime, that raises eyebrows.

But they’re largely reserved for students whose parents are affluent enough to assist the endeavors. And they’re often approached casually and forgotten quickly. “My concern is that students feel compelled to do these things — forced — rather than feeling that they’re answering some inner call,” Farmer said.

In fact, the best topic might be lurking where you least expect it, in the most mundane of afterschool jobs.

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Pérez told me that his favorite among recent essays by Trinity applicants came from someone “who spent the summer working at a coffee shop. He wrote about not realizing until he did this how invisible people in the service industry are. He wrote about how people looked right through him at the counter.”