College Admissions: The Environmental College Essay

For all you high school seniors – and the guidance counselors, parents, and college advisers supporting them – this post is for you. Well, this post is really for the student with a strong interest in sustainability as a focus of his or her college experience and that is considering using an environmental college essay concept as part of a college application. I will argue that sustainability can be a highly effective “theme” for the right applicant. This is certainly a touchy, if not controversial subject, so I should add that my professional background includes several years as the founder and director of a private educational consulting company based in NYC, which helped students with all aspects of the college admissions process. (Side note: I’m no longer involved with the business and have some very conflicted feelings about the private, for-profit tutoring/advising industry. But that’s a subject for a different post.)

There are three basic components to my argument that sustainability can make for an effective college application theme: First, every application needs a “theme.” Second, many colleges are looking for sustainability leaders. Third, sustainability can form a compelling basis for an entire college application for the right applicant.

The College Application Theme

Every application needs a theme. This is college admissions 101. The theme is a common thread that runs through your application and connects your interests and experience with specific opportunities at your desired college. Why is this important? Principally, because college application readers spend, on average between 5 and 30 minutes per application. That means applicants need to S-P-E-L-L it out. This can be a challenge for students who are trying to distill 4 plus years of education and experiences into a single, cogent college application. And there are going to be many students who have a tough time putting their finger on their perfect “theme.” After all, as a high school student it can be difficult to articulate exactly what it is that you want to do for the rest of your life, professionally and academically.

Don’t worry too much about grandiose assertions and unifying theories that connect everything you’ve ever done with what you’ll be doing 30 years from now and how University “X” will help you get there. Instead, think about a basic of formula of “these are my interests” + “this is what I’ve done in support of my interests” + “this is what your university has to offer related to my interests” = a strong application theme. The temptation is to load up your application with every iota of credibility building evidence you can think of from your yellow belt in Tae Kwon Do to your tie for 19th place in your school’s semi-annual poetry contest. Instead, know that colleges are looking to understand how a student will “fit” into the campus community. Colleges want a “well-rounded” class, not necessarily a “well-rounded” kid.

Themes come in all shapes and sizes, from the future campus leader to the future chemist. You can bring an international perspective or a small-town perspective to your application and you can be the student entrepreneur, the performer, the risk-taker, the communicator, or whatever it is that defines your personality. The important thing is that you define something and that you are able to substantiate it in your application. All roads should point to your theme in your application: essays, the presentation of your extracurriculars, Letters of Recommendation, interviews, etc. Do this and your application will be memorable to the people reading it. Don’t do this and, no matter how smart and amazing you are, you run the risk of being just another faceless pile of grades and SAT scores.

Colleges Want Sustainability Leaders

Consider these statistics from

  • 82% of US colleges have introduced sustainability into student orientation
  • 47% have programs to encourage sustainable living practices in residence halls
  • 75% offer paid sustainability opportunities for students
  • 45% have a green residence

There are over 100 schools that “score” well on sustainability. This is a diverse group of colleges that include Ivy League schools and state schools; big universities and tiny liberal arts colleges; east coast, west coast, etc.

Clearly colleges want sustainability leaders. Sustainability is likely to resonate with admissions readers who are in tune with the college’s vision and values. Why else should you be interested in using a sustainability theme to structure your college application? Sustainability demonstrates global perspective, an interdisciplinary mindset, and self-awareness. Sustainability as a college application theme positions you as “the global citizen” and the “well-rounded student” without actually saying it.

Are You An Environmental Leader?

This may go without saying, but the biggest pitfall to avoid here is the temptation to fake it. Your college application, above all else, must be authentic. Readers are very good at sifting through the fluff and any application that comes off as phony or hollow is going straight to the bottom of the pile. So what constitutes experience that can form the foundation for sustainability as an effective college application theme? There are many places to draw from. Maybe you’re the president of the school’s environmental club (even better if you started a new club). Maybe you’ve taken AP Environmental Science and got a 5 on the test. Maybe your grade aren’t anything to brag about, but you volunteer at an organic farm, compost food waste at home, have been writing weekly letters to your local government representatives about increasing tax subsidies for renewable energy and conservation initiatives.

Emphasize these activities in your application. Put your sustainability-focused extracurriculars front and center. Ask for a Letter of Rec from a teacher or professional that can speak about your interest in the field. Be sure to bring it up in your admissions interview. Write an environmental college essay. Everything else in your application is secondary. This way your optimizing your chances that the admissions reader recognizes you as the future environmental leader that you are. Of course, this approach is only appropriate for a school that has a strong sustainability initiative. If you play up your interest in the environment to a college that doesn’t even have an environmental science department, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Remember, a strong sustainability theme plus a school’s sustainability initiatives equals a strong applicant.

About Sustainable Summer

Sustainable Summer is a unique learning experience designed to prepare today’s high school students to become tomorrow’s environmental leaders. Our programs combine environmental education in remarkable places – such as an organic farm in Costa Rica or Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest — with leadership development and outdoor adventure. Our mission is to cultivate the next generation of environmental leaders though transformative study abroad experiences and field-based learning.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also want to read this post on college admissions and study abroad, which addresses the effectiveness of study abroad programs, including our own, in the college admissions process. You may also be interested in some of our other posts on the subject of education.