Don't submit that Mission Trip essay!

If you’re finishing up your college application essay and it has to do with a mission trip you were part of, I’m going to ask you not to submit it. At least not yet.

Some of the most common complaints against the Mission Trip essay is that it is cliché and therefore admissions officers are really tired of reading it because all the mission trip essays sound the same. To be clear: both these things are true. But I really don’t like that as a reason to avoid the Mission Trip essay. It reinforces the idea that your job is to write something the admissions officers will like, so they’ll like you and admit you—if you know they don’t like that essay topic, then you shouldn’t write about.

But your job isn’t to be a product that you’re “selling” to the colleges, and you shouldn’t change what you write about based on the idea that your meaningful experience isn’t valuable because colleges are tired of hearing about it. That’s part of the “Am I Worthy?” mindset, and that mindset is dangerous. The truth is, most high school students have similar experiences. Common, shared experiences are some of the most meaningful things we have in our lives, and we should’t downplay them simply because they’re common and shared.

The reason that I urge you to avoid the Mission Trip essay is because most—not all, but around 80%—of the Mission Trip essays I’ve read were self-congratulatory, condescending, and often self-defeating. They were just bad essays. If I could combine all the elements of the not-very-good Mission Trip Essay, it would sound like this:

I have it so good. I’m humble. My life is fantastic, and I’m relatively wealthy. I mean, not as wealthy as I want to be, obviously, but pretty lucky. And because I’m so lucky, I think it’s important to help others who aren’t as lucky, at least once in my life. Probably more often, but at least once.

And it’s for this reason that I signed up to go on my church’s mission trip to a poor country in Central America. There are a lot of poor, unlucky people down there, so it’s a good place to go to help.

When I first arrived, it turned out to be so much poorer and less lucky than I even imagined. Most of the buildings in the village had no electricity, and most homes had outdoor latrines instead of running water. Yuck! They gave us the best lodgings in the village, because we were their guests and they felt obligated to give us the best, even though we are much wealthier and luckier than they are. But still, my phone ran out of charge pretty quickly into the trip.

After spending some time in the village, however, I noticed a few things. The kids of the village all played soccer together in the afternoon and seemed to have a sense of community. All the people in the village were kind and generous to us, at least as kind and generous as they could be. People seemed to really enjoy having us there to help them. They smiled, and didn’t feel the pressures of the modern world. They had a type of rustic happiness that I’ve never known in my busy life in the United States. It’s a type of happiness I could almost envy.

On my trip I learned to really think about helping people. I had kind of thought about it before, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone on the trip. But I extra-thought about it. I learned that the people we help also have things to offer us. I want to continue helping other people and learning what they have to teach me.

Most importantly, I want to learn to help other people in less-lucky places by going to your college. There’s not really anybody quite that poor at your school, and I hope to make myself even more wealthy and lucky by attending your school. Who knows, maybe even a lot more wealthy. But I still want to find small ways to help people while I’m there. It’s important to help people and to learn from places I’ll surely never visit again. Because, as previously stated, I’m humble and like to help people.

Were all the Mission Trip essays I read that bad? No, of course not. But it’s surprising how many did fit this mold.

If you have something valuable to say about your mission trip or other volunteer experience, that’s good. Don’t avoid the Mission Trip essay. But you want to make sure you do better than most. The main thing you want to do is to make sure that you’re grounding the essay in some specific quality that you have that you want people to know about. The point of the essay is to explain yourself, not just tell a story about something you did. The experience you had will be supporting evidence, not the main idea. And hopefully it will be one of several examples, not the only one. I understand that’s hard to do in such a short space, but it’s also hard to be convincing with a single example.

Another mission trip essay that would be good to submit is one that is quite different from the rest. If your volunteering trip wasn’t successful at all, but was in fact a complete disaster with no redeeming qualities—I’d like to hear about that. I’d like to know what you learned about yourself. If your volunteering experience didn’t reinforce and strengthen some of your finer qualities but instead made you question yourself and your values, that would be interesting. If you were on the receiving end of a volunteer activity, not the volunteer, and have something to say about it and how it molded you, that would be very interesting. There are plenty of ways to write a really good essay about a mission trip or volunteering activity. But ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Am I using this story mainly to prove that I’m a good, caring person? And if, so do I have any other evidence that I mention?

  2. Do I talk about the people I’ve helped in one-dimensional, condescending, or stereotypical ways?

  3. Do I talk about myself or my group in one-dimensional, condescending, or stereotypical ways?

  4. Do I talk about the people I helped—or myself—in racist, sexist, nationalist, or other ways that can be hurtful?

  5. Is my essay vague enough that almost anyone else on the trip with me could have written the same thing?

  6. Knowing that many other people will be writing similar essays, am I sure that mine is well-written enough that it will not stand out for its technical errors or lack of editing?

If a volunteering experience, especially a mission trip, is important to you and you think it’s a good way to explain yourself, go for it. Really! Just, please, make sure you’ve gone through these six questions first.

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Photo by Angela Elisabeth

Photo by Angela Elisabeth