You’ve done it – you studied, worked, or volunteered abroad and now you want to include part of this in your personal statement. Maybe you want to show that you’ve experienced a different culture or that you’ve managed to go outside of your comfort zone. Maybe you’ve had interesting experiences – met people, climbed mountains, or lived without air-conditioning. Or maybe you had the opportunity to help people who genuinely needed it.
But, at this point, you’ve also realized that many other applicants have similar experiences, and you are right. While the experience may have been transformative for you, requiring you to learn how to operate without your usual safety net in a foreign environment, you need to ensure that your study abroad experience serves a role in your essay as something other than window-dressing.
There’s an old Onion article which jokes that someone’s short work experience in Africa allowed her to post a better Facebook photo, and, without the proper analysis, descriptions of abroad experiences can feel the same way in an admissions essay. Often, I read essays with lush descriptions of exotic scenery and people who speak different languages, yet you the writer – the most important person – stays the same. Without showing admissions committees why a study abroad experience was transformative, these types of stories simply blend together and give the impression that you were there simply to add another notch to your resume.
So, what should you do? Studying abroad can be a pivotal moment in your personal journey, but a personal statement needs to explain exactly why. If, indeed, gaining experience with other cultures was important to you at that stage, what exactly did you learn? It can’t be enough to just give a story about someone you met while traveling, you have to explain why that person changed you. An admissions committee member once told me that it mattered less what an applicant’s experience was, what mattered was how she talked about it. Even the most seemingly dull experience can be transformative to someone who is really paying attention.
Jessica Pishko graduated with a J.D. from Harvard Law School and received an M.F.A. from Columbia University. She spent two years guiding students through the medical school application process at Columbia’s Postbac Program and teaches writing at all levels. Want Jessica to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!