Sometimes the hucksters are so mind-numbingly feckless that they contradict themselves in the same paragraph of their hard sell, sales piece. Imagine if someone communicated both of the following statements: "I'm mailing your check today" AND "I'm 200 fathoms deep in a nuclear submarine off the coast of Komsolsky."
"How's the mail delivery in the ol' Chukotsky Sea?" You might inquire. "I hope the postal carrier isn't getting her feet too wet out there in the ocean north east of Siberia."
Here's a big, dumb oops closer to home: "Participation in the 2012 University Credit Series will distinguish your student during the college application process and provide a differentiating thesis for college application essays." And then in the next paragraph--in the very same email, mind you--they go on to say that they provide, "educational travel for 200,000 students annually."
Forgive my emphasis on arithmetic, but the numbers don't fib: there are about 2000 colleges and universities in the country the majority of which don't even require an essay; a few million high school grads each year, and UCS worked with 200,000 students last year?*
Which brings us to the following hilarious discrepancy. If UCS is to be believed, pretty much every college applicant in the United States of America IS WRITING THE SAME DISTINGUISHING ESSAY. ("When I first went to Gulagistan, I didn't speak Gulagistanese, but then after meeting Gulaganies of all shapes and sizes, eating Gulagistan food and watching Gulagistany movies, I have come to understand the Gulagistany part of all of us which will always be a part of me because where ever I go I will still have a little bit of Gulagistan stuck to my shoe.")
Can we all be mavericks? Not if we're all writing the same essay about our trip to Gulagistan with UCS.
Harry Bauld, in his brilliant On Writing the College Application Essay, argues persuasively that "there are no bad topics, but there are bad essays."
He wasn't kidding. The essay above S-T-I-N-K-S. (And I've read more college admissions essays than just about any man standing.)
Going to Gulagistan may have advantages. Travel is said to be broadening. Writing an insightful, introspective essay about the experience may even round out the picture of the applicant. But paying a suitcase full of samoleans to University Credit Series will do nothing for an applicant's chances of admission.
Why are my colleagues in admissions offices around the country so interested in the extra-curriculars of student applicants? Because those activities show who the students are and what they can do. Editor of the year book MEANS organizational ability, delegating responsibility, resolving conflict, respecting deadlines, competence with sophisticated software, and creativity to name a few qualities. Going to Gulagistan with UCS demonstrates clearly a student's ability to sit on a plane for an extended period as well as the ability of the student's parent to write a check made out to University Credit Series.
Ethical admissions counselors are all about encouraging our students to make a contribution, to travel, to learn and grow. We are less sanguine about the suggestion that these experiences can only be had in Gulagistan. Last I heard there were meaningful experiences to be had and contributions to be made in our very own neighborhoods.
Which is not to say that mission trips to the Dominican Republic and Honduras aren't valuable. (I know for a fact that my clients from the Dominican Republic and Honduras enjoy seeing American students at the airport as my Carribbean and Central American students travel to the U.S. to do their community service trips.) Only to point out that a student who thinks that traveling to Gulagistan will "distinguish [him/her self] during the college application process and provide a differentiating thesis for college application essays" is doing nothing of the kind.
Real advice for college essay writers: Your topic does not have to be bigger than your heart. That which is real to you will be worthwhile to your readers--even if you haven't been to Gulagistan.
* Interesting coincidence: Last year--the year UCS worked with 200,000 students--I won the Boston Marathon five times; in each victory, I competed the 26.2 mile course in just under two hours.