Will High School Study Abroad Experience Improve College Admissions Outcomes?

There are hundreds of opportunities available to college-bound high school students looking to spend their summer months in productive ways: pre-college academic enrichment programs, science and tech programs, internship programs, and, of course, high school study abroad programs. For every opportunity, there are good reasons to invest time (and money) in that experience. There are also some reasons that are, perhaps, oversold.

We think a high school study abroad experience is great for so many reasons: cross-cultural understanding, challenge and adventure, an opportunity to develop independence and language skills, and so many more. Will a high school study abroad experience also improve your college admissions chances? To read the marketing materials of many companies offering high school study abroad programs, the answer appears to be a resounding “yes.” On the surface, it sounds obvious. After all, many universities tout such features as their campus’ inclusive, global community and their robust study abroad program in their own marketing materials. However, the implicit edge that a high school study abroad program provides in the ever-competitive college admissions race is nowhere near as measurable as some might think. Usually. Here’s why:

The strongest college applications tell a story and have a consistent theme to them. Admissions officers look at thousands of applications every year. In general, one summer studying abroad in high school is not going to help an application standout, especially when many other college applicants also have high school study abroad experience. It’s certainly not going to hurt your application, but for that high school study abroad program to have even the slightest chance of tipping the cruel scales of college admissions justice in your favor, it needs to be one thread in a carefully woven story.

Let’s look at an example:

Let’s say you decide to go to Ghana (or Guatemala or Thailand or Ecuador) to do a service learning program. Good for you! It’s an opportunity to travel in the developing world and give back. Perhaps you spend 3 weeks working with a group of other teens building a new roof for a community center. You make great friends, develop global perspective, and learn a lot about yourself. By all accounts, it’s a great experience. And it can make for an important aspect of a compelling college application if your “story” is all about your community service involvement, your plans to start a NGO focused on international development, and how your dream school’s resources and expertise in that area will help you do just that.

But unless you have a deep and demonstrable commitment to community service in other aspects of your life, that study abroad experience is just going to look like one more thing on your “brag” sheet, along with playing the cello, student council, your part-time job, or whatever it is that you do when you’re not being a student. Like I said before, it’s not going to hurt, but it’s not really going to help. This 2010 Washington Post article supports this assertion. I don’t want to diminish the value of the high school study abroad experience. An authentic study abroad experience can be impactful in more long-standing, important ways than college admissions. So get out there and find a high school study abroad opportunity that aligns with your interests and objectives, whether as part of a service learning program, a cultural and language immersion program, an adventure travel program, or something altogether different.

We think Sustainable Summer falls into the latter category. One might call it “environmental study abroad.” Sustainable Summer is an exciting alternative to a standard service learning or adventure travel program for any high school student interested in environmental issues, ecology, food and agriculture, renewable energy, natural resource management, biodiversity and wildlife conservation, development economics, social justice, and global issues.

Will studying abroad with Sustainable Summer help improve your college admissions outcomes? It depends. For students that possess a demonstrable interest in the aforementioned subjects, Sustainable Summer will dovetail well with your college application story; assuming that you plan on applying to schools with strong environmental science programs, that are pioneering on-campus sustainability initiatives, or similar. But studying abroad should be about a whole lot more than just padding out your college application. It’s an opportunity to experience life in another country and learn about yourself. Go Sustainable this summer and discover a new way of thinking about the world and your place in it.

If you liked this article, you may enjoy these other posts on high school study abroad.