fbpx

Volunteering and Authenticity

Volunteering, and doing so abroad, is seen as a right of passage for many high school students. We’ve covered the topic of volunteering locally before. Today, however, we’ll be talking about another aspect of volunteering: how to be authentic in your efforts, and not appear privileged or out of touch.

There is increasing media interest in the phenomenon of voluntourism: a merging of a tourist excursion and volunteering experience. This discussion is often critical, and while we will be taking a nuanced look at the subject, college admissions officials are increasingly wary of the trend, and what it implies.

In this article, we’ll be looking at the troubles associated with volunteering abroad, traps to avoid, and how to volunteer (and write about it) authentically for your college application.

What is Voluntourism?

Voluntourism is a term used to describe volunteering trips taken overseas that don’t do much actual good for the people they are intended to help but do provide some great photo opportunities. There is some difficulty with this, as the definition is highly subjective, and what one person may hold up as an example of legitimate help another may deride as inauthentic. 

It is often hard to determine how helpful a volunteering activity actually is, especially for high school students, who lack experience in the broader world.

We recommend using the following questions to evaluate volunteering opportunities: 

  • Who does this opportunity help, directly or indirectly?
  • Which group is organizing the opportunity? How legitimate are they?
  • How much does the opportunity cost? Where is the money going?
  • What will you accomplish by doing this?

There is also a misconception that the authenticity of an opportunity is linked to the hardship undergone while volunteering. I have volunteered around the world and slept in four-star hotels and on the floors of houses without running water, kibbutz guest lodging, and government offices. None of these were any more legitimate or more inherently good; the hardship you undergo, or lack thereof, is not what makes an opportunity good. What matters is what you are doing, and why.

Volunteering Intelligently

There is a lot of money in volunteering overseas, and where there’s money to be made, unscrupulous individuals follow. While there are many legitimate charities that organize trips abroad, many others care more about your money than actually helping anyone.

Searching for the names of charities and organizations can tell you a lot about them. Relatively new companies are tricky to evaluate; if you are uncertain we recommend sticking with more established organizations.

Many high school students see traveling or volunteering overseas as a right of passage, and we don’t want to discourage the process entirely. We do want to make sure that if you are volunteering, you are actually contributing to the communities you are trying to help. 

There is also no shame in simply traveling abroad to immerse yourself in culture as a tourist. There are benefits to volunteering abroad, but that is not the only “right” way to experience foreign cultures.

Regardless of your approach, the more research you do, the more certain you can be that you will be likely to actually contribute something meaningful.

Authenticity in Volunteering

What admissions officers are looking for, and what leads to most criticisms of voluntourism, is authenticity. At some level, volunteering will always be someone who has something helping another get access to a thing, and expecting nothing in return. This is a definition which is very broad, but that is necessary due to the breadth of possible volunteering opportunities.

A lack of authenticity can come from two places. The first is volunteering without checking to see if you are having any real impact at all, or even caring much about your impact. The second is consciously or unconsciously displaying your own privilege in a way that is deemed gauche. Both of these can be avoided, but it will take active effort on your part in order to do so.

A lack of impact is a constant struggle with volunteering. While it is possible to make sizable impacts on the lives of individuals, creating systemic and lasting changes is a slow and boring process, with progress often imperceptible on an individual level. That said, some volunteering is very helpful to locals, some has negligible impact, and some is actively detrimental. 

For your own volunteering, you should try to participate in activities that are actively helping individuals, or which are contributing to systemic change. We should note that some activities which are popular while volunteering are not always the most helpful. By making sure your work has an actual impact, you will avoid some of the common criticisms leveled at voluntourism.

Now we have to address the elephant in the room: privilege. It takes significant economic resources to travel overseas to volunteer; there is no shame in this. Yet it is something which must be acknowledged, or else you risk appearing naive; blind to the opportunities which are open to you. This is not something you need to apologize for, merely be cognizant of while doing volunteering.

Writing About Volunteering

Your experiences with volunteering, be it abroad or domestically, can make for good essay topics, so long as you handle them carefully. A poorly written essay can hurt an application, just like a well-written one can buoy it. When writing about volunteering, a gentle touch is needed.

There are two things you need to avoid in your essay above all else:

  1. Cliche
  2. Obliviousness

A cliche is something to avoid generally in essays but can be especially harmful when writing about your volunteering experiences. You should always avoid the following phrases: 

  • I thought I was helping them, but actually they were helping me. (Don’t use the word “teaching” here either).
  • I found myself.
  • I learned we really are all the same. (Or variations on this)

There are countless phrases like these, and the ideas contained in them aren’t necessarily bad, but they are incredibly overused. If an admissions officer has seen this kind of essay a hundred times before, they won’t be particularly impressed when they see it again, and it won’t have a major impact on them.

Further, most of these cliches speak of significant naivete, and this brings us to the second thing to avoid when talking about volunteering: obliviousness. Nobody expects you to know everything as a high school student, but you should also avoid appearing naive, and many essays about volunteering come across as incredibly naive.

The trouble is that a new perspective on the world can be a large revelation to you, and still make you sound naive. There are depths of poverty and suffering in the world that do not generally intrude into the existence of high school students; many of whom encounter these for the first time while volunteering. The revelations from these often feel revolutionary, but merely serve to highlight your prior naivete.

Instead when writing about volunteering, focus on what you did, and how you grew as a person. Try to bring up unusual or uncommon connections. Showing personal growth is good, and a little naivete is ok, if you acknowledge it. These essays are not always easy to write, but can be quite effective at showing your values, and what you can contribute to a school.

Final Thoughts

Volunteering is a very worthwhile activity, and colleges like seeing that students have used their time contributing to their communities, be it locally or globally. Volunteering can also teach you about yourself and the world at large and provides great material for essays in doing so.

If you want help writing about your own volunteering experiences, or finding the perfect volunteering opportunity for you, schedule a free consultation with us. We have a depth of experience helping students and are always happy to hear from you.

5/5
Wendy Y.
Parent
Below is my son's review. He was accepted to his dream Ivy League school!

From an admitted student's perspective, I am incredibly grateful to have met Sasha - he has been instrumental in helping me achieve my educational dreams (Ivy League), all while being an absolute joy (he's a walking encyclopedia, only funnier!) to work with.

Many people are dissuaded from seeking a college counselor because they think they can get into their desired college(s) either way. Honestly, going that route is a bit short-sighted and can jeopardize your odds of acceptances after years of hard work. The sad truth is, the American education system (even if you attend a fancy private school and ESPECIALLY if you go to a public school) doesn't really tell students how to write a compelling and authentic application. Going into the admissions process alone, without speaking with an advisor, is like going to court without a lawyer - you put yourself at a significant disadvantage because you don't have all the facts in front of you, or the help you need to negotiate the system.

That said, you need a good lawyer just like you need a good college counselor. And that's where Sasha distinguishes himself from the crowd of people claiming they'll get you into Harvard. I came to Sasha worried about and frankly dumbfounded by the college admissions process. I was unsure what to write about and how to go about drafting the essay that perfectly captured my passion, interests, and self. And I was highly skeptical that anyone could really help me. But, damn, did Sasha prove me wrong. From the beginning, Sasha amazed me with his understanding of the process, and ability to lend clarity and direction to me when I desperate needed it. After interviewing me about my background, experiences, activities, outlook, and vision, he helped me see qualities about myself I had not previously considered 'unique' or 'stand-out.' This process of understanding myself was so incredibly important in laying the groundwork for the essays I eventually wrote, and I'm certain I would've drafted boring, inauthentic essays without it.

Looking back, Sasha's talent is that he can see where your strengths lie, even when you don't see them. The truth is, although we don't always realize it, everyone has a unique story to tell. Sasha helped me see mine, and with his big-picture insight I was able to write the application that truly encapsulated my life and vision. He inspired me to dig deeper and write better, challenging me to revise and revise until my essays were the most passionate and authentic work I had ever written. As clichéd as that sounds, that's really what universities are looking for. In retrospect, it makes sense - in the real world passionate (not simply intelligent) individuals are the ones who make a difference in the world, and those are the individuals colleges would like to have associated with their brand.

In the end, I was accepted to the college of my dreams, a feat I could not have achieved without the direction Sasha lent to me. Essays (and the personal narrative you develop through your application) matter so much, and can literally make or break your application. I have seen so many of my 'qualified' friends receive rejections because they wrote contrived essays that didn't truly represent who they were; conversely, I have also seen so many friends with shorter resumes accepted because they were able to articulate their story in a genuinely passionate and authentic way - I fall into the latter category.

As a former admissions officer at Johns Hopkins, Sasha knows what types of essays jibe well with universities, an invaluable asset to have in the admissions process. He is responsive, flexible, creative, positive, and witty. For anyone who is serious about going into the college admissions process informed and prepared, I highly recommend Sasha.
5/5
Arda E.
Student
I used Ivy Scholars to mainly help me with college applications. Within weeks of using this service, Sasha was able to simplify the already complex process. When it came to writing the Common App essay, Sasha didn’t just help with grammar and syntax, he brought my essays to life. Sasha also worked tirelessly to help solidify my extracurricular activities, including research and internship opportunities. Without his help, I would have never had an impressive resume.

Sasha is not only an extremely knowledgeable tutor, but also a genuine brother figure. His guidance, throughout my last two years of high school, was everything I needed to get me an acceptance letter from my dream schools (UC Berkeley, Tufts, Emory).

When it came to testing, Ivy Scholars worked like a charm. Sasha offered a very comprehensive plan when it came to completely acing my standardized tests. Without his test taking strategies I would have never gotten straight 5s on my AP tests and a 35 on the ACT.

Working with Sasha, I didn’t just become a good student, I became a genuine scholar.
5/5
Samson S.
Parent
We worked with Ivy Scholars during my son's senior year. I was concerned that we may be too late to take advantage of college advising but the Ivy Scholars team quickly and confidently directed us through the steps to ensure no deadlines were missed. Sasha's knowledge about schools, what they looked for in candidates, and how to maneuver the application process was invaluable. Mateo and Ryan worked with my son to help him create an essay that would get noticed and I am so appreciative he had their guidance.

Prior to securing Ivy Scholars, we tried using a less-expensive online service which was a terrible experience. As a parent, Ivy Scholars brought peace of mind to an area that was frankly overwhelming. This service was invaluable in the knowledge that we gained throughout the process. He has also met with my freshman daughter to provide guidance for her high school courses, career paths, extracurricular activities, and more.

Prior to signing with Ivy Scholars, I tried a less expensive online service and was very disappointed.

As a result of our work with Ivy Scholars, I am pleased to say that my son will be attending Stern Business School at New York University this fall! I highly recommend Ivy Scholars. Highly recommend!