The “voluntourism” essay is something of an inside joke to college admissions officials.

These essays follow a similar pattern:

  • student travels to a developing country
  • student volunteers for a short period of time
  • student realizes that others lack the privileges and resources student has
  • finally, student commits to making others’ lives better

This kind of essay may well be rooted in real and meaningful experience. However, the prevalence and superficiality of these essays tends to put off admissions officers. While a good essay serves to differentiate a student from other applicants, a voluntourism essay may have the opposite effect.

Wait, what?

For many high school students, the notion that an essay about volunteering could potentially harm their application seems to totally contradict the advice from both high schools and colleges, both of which encourage and sometimes even require students to volunteer to graduate or gain admission.

So what’s the issue with voluntourism?

Let’s start with what voluntourism actually is: typically, it’s when a person, in this case a high school student, travels somewhere for both sightseeing and volunteering. The nature and length of the volunteering portion of the trip can vary considerably. Some voluntourism trips involve a few hours of service whereas others may include days or even weeks of volunteering.

The point is that not all voluntourism programs are created equal; not all programs genuinely help those in need. Truth be told, some programs are more concerned about those serving than those being served.

Take, for instance, this New York Times article, which describes American tourists spending thousands of dollars to travel to Haiti and construct a building while Haitian masons watched. The amount of money spent by the amateur builders could have been used elsewhere, like classroom or medical supplies. Or the masons could have been paid to do the work for which they were trained. One might argue that those who traveled to Haiti may be more likely to give—and give generously—to future causes there after seeing some of the country’s challenges firsthand. But the benefits of voluntourism for the people it is intended to serve is debatable.

The point here is not that voluntourism is inherently misguided; we think that with thoughtful planning or reflection, it can serve as a meaningful experience for students. Like other forms of service, voluntourism can facilitate the development of self-awareness and empathy; in fact, those are the kinds of skills that colleges hope students can bring to their campuses!

So, maybe you are signed up for a voluntourism program for a forthcoming school break or summer. Or perhaps you’ve already had a voluntourism experience. How can you make sure you have a meaningful experience, or are able to reflect on the experience you’ve had in a meaningful way?

As with all extracurriculars, it’s important to bring an open mind to this activity. Noticing your feelings and reactions to what you encounter, particularly anything that challenges you, is a goldmine of insight. You can learn a ton about yourself and what gets you going—as well as what brings on the boredom or discomfort. If you’re going on a trip, take a journal or keep a blog: do something that requires you to reflect on your experience. If you’ve already gone on a service trip, spend a morning or afternoon recounting what you did and saw, and then spend even more time considering why you remember what you remember, and why that may be important to you.

Though you might hesitate to center your college essay on your voluntourism program, you shouldn’t discount the experience you had. With intentional reflection, you can render the experience meaningful to you as well as others.

Looking for more tips on the personal statement? Check out Signet's Guide to the Essay.