What is a “Paid Activity” or a “Service Trip”?

The category of “paid activities” includes a variety of things, but to sum it up, it is any activity that costs money in order to participate. Many companies exist for right around college-application-age to conveniently join, where high schoolers can pay to travel to a foreign country and offer their services to the local population.


Originally, service trips were meant to appear as a unique contribution to less fortunate populations. For example, Habitat for Humanity has been one of the largest organizations that offers service trips. Students who would like to participate raise money, and then commit themselves to working for multiple months. But, today, community service trips have become a popular choice for a summer activity, or a vacation. Many new companies have come into being, where families can pay to send their child on an integrated “working-vacation” for a week or two. Students are able to sign up with their friends and travel to a unique part of a different country; what could possibly be the downside to this?!


What Colleges Actually See...


“Last summer, I spent an intensive two weeks in Costa Rica, where I had a life-changing experience working with underprivileged children in the local community.” While this sounds very worthwhile at first, college admissions offices read this as, “Last summer, my parents paid $5,000 for me to go on a vacation to Costa Rica where I spent three hours a day working with children, but the other twelve hours swimming, hanging out with my friends and riding horses,”.


  • While it appears to be a noble endeavor - and don’t get me wrong, the working aspect is most definitely a generous contribution - many students only involve themselves in these trip so that they can be written on their college applications.


  • Additionally, these trips are restricted to a very small group of people. Because it can cost thousands of dollars to join, the trips consist of mostly wealthy students.

    • When it comes to college admissions, it becomes clear that the student who attended the community service trip comes from a place of privilege, as they spent a lot of money to attend, and used this privilege to “look good” on a college application.

      • College admissions cannot look at one student more highly because of the extravagant activities he or she participated in, because then, colleges would be solely comprised of upper-class children, which is not the type of heterogeneous class colleges are trying to build when choosing which students to accept.


Despite the students’ true intentions when signing up for a service trip, unfortunately, it looks like the students were using the poorer countries for their own personal gain, instead of helping others out of good nature. When a price becomes attached to an activity, the students’ motives can become greatly skewed. Colleges no longer see you as a extraordinary individual, but rather, a kid who used their parents’ money to bulk up their application.


What the Common Application is for & How to Do it Right:


  • A large section of the Common Application already shows my background. Colleges are able to see where I live, what type of school I attended, and exactly how much income my family makes every year; my privilege is no secret, it is displayed for all of the college admissions offices to see.


  • Although I can’t control this part of my application, I can manipulate my “activities” section to highlight that I am more than a teenage girl with money. The Common App gives students a chance to become a real person in the eyes of admissions officers, not just a list of numbers.


  • If I were to have focused on activities that put me into the category of “money”, like a grandiose community service trip, I would be playing right into their expectations. Instead, focus on appearing genuine.


  • Listing my annual summer job of working as a cashier proved to be the most interesting part of my application. During interviews, there was no shortage of questions about my life scanning barcodes and weighing apples; this simple, everyday activity helped me stand out much more than a service trip would have, because it was an activity that was not typical for someone of my demographic.


  • If you are coming from a higher class background, colleges don’t want to see how you used money to shape your life; rather, they want to see how you are able to branch out and use your education and knowledge to better the lives of others.


Alternatives, If You Really Do Enjoy Community Service Work:


I’m not here to tell you not to help less fortunate countries. If traveling and bringing new skills and knowledge to a foreign community is a genuine interest of yours, by all means, go. There is a fine line between caring about what you are doing, and doing it because it is fun and makes you look good; if you fall in the category of caring, and you can clearly explain that, do it!


But, if you are participating so that you can write it down on a piece of paper, it is more often a hindrance than it is an advantage. Instead, if you want to do something that a service trip would represent, find a free, or volunteer, option.


For example …

There are likely neighborhoods nearby that need similar help to foreign countries. If you choose the free option, colleges will see that you have helped and expanded out of your privileged bubble, and didn’t spend a dollar in order to do so.


Crimson Can Help… Here’s Why:


Crimson tutors come from all over the world and offer various backgrounds, experiences and perspective. Some will come from privileged backgrounds, some will not; but all of the tutors managed to shape their interests in a positive way that was attractive to colleges.


Crimson Education focuses a lot of the activities section of the Common Application, as it is one of the areas where colleges can truly see what you are like. Crimson’s “extracurricular development” encourages students to concentrate on a central interest, and build extracurriculars around that interest.


For example, if you are interested computer science, don’t write about how you took luxurious private courses over the summer. While those are helpful and sometimes crucial to furthering your knowledge, colleges want to see how you use them. Crimson will help you by encouraging you to use your interest in computer science to create a game, become a tutor or teach yourself new skills on the computer. These activities will enhance your application more than a generic service trip, or a costly activity, would, because they show your particular interests.


Crimson excels at:

  • Finding your main interest

  • Matching you with activities that will highlight your abilities and genuine interests.


Colleges want to accept a well-rounded, down to Earth student, and humble, personalized activities are the best way to show that about yourself.    

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