everyone applying to a top business, public policy, or law school has traveled quite a bit. International travel has become nearly as commonplace among my clients as having an undergraduate degree. Traveling in and of itself is not something that is going to significantly differentiate you from the thousands of people applying to your dream schools. Here’s what I really think matters to admissions committees, which can be achieved through travel but can also be achieved while staying right in your home country.
Valuable experiences you can gain from travel but that you can also gain at home:
An awareness of your privilege: Traveling or living in a developing country can help open your eyes to the many ways in which you are privileged. Whether it’s the lack of running water, nonexistent or inconsistent electricity, or drastic differences in access to nutritious food, the average person living in a developing country encounters problems on a daily basis that you may never have even thought of. However, working with marginalized and vulnerable communities in your own home country can also increase your understanding of inequality and the many ways in which you are privileged. In fact, many of my clients live in developing countries, and can merely walk a few miles in their own city to witness or experience these challenges. The ability to bridge language and culture: It’s a humbling and often frustrating experience learning to communicate in another language and work within and around the cultural expectations of another country. I can still remember the time an old Ghanaian man sputtered, “What’s wrong witchu?!” when I handed him a pen with my left hand. (This is a big no no in West Africa.) I can also remember my frequent moments of embarrassment while living in Cuba when I’d realize I had been saying something wrong in Spanish for weeks without being corrected by my native speaker friends. My friends figured, “Hey, I get what you’re trying to say, so it’s all good.” As fun as it might seem to have your own personal moments of language humiliation abroad, it’s likely that right in your own city you already have experiences to learn a new language and operate within a culture that is significantly different than the one with which you identify. Achieving results within a resource-constrained environment: “Achieving results within a resource-constrained environment” is a fancy way of saying, “getting shit done when getting shit done is really, really hard.” Whether it’s lack of infrastructure, funding, transparency, or something else, you can find an organization in which to be of service right at home where you can experience the joys and challenges of making things happen in the midst of resistance, disorganization, or even corruption.
So are you saying I shouldn’t travel?
No, I’m not saying you shouldn’t travel. Travel is often fun, enlightening, and can be life-changing. In fact, I met my now-husband while traveling as a volunteer before graduate school. However, I don’t recommend that you travel with the sole objective being to stand out to the admissions committee of your dream school. Travel because you want to—not because you think you should.
Yeah, yeah, I get it. But I really want to travel. So what kind of travel do you recommend?
For the purposes of making an impact with admissions committees (but remember you don’t have to travel to make an impact!), I would recommend: longer travel (months or years) vs. shorter travel (days and weeks) travel in emerging and/or fast-growing economies vs. travel in established economies (though this is not a bad thing) traveling for work or for community service vs. solely travel for pleasure
So why do you hate travel so much?
I don’t hate travel! I just don’t want any of you out there to stress yourself out thinking that you need to travel in order to “make the cut” in grad school admissions. Travel as much as you like whenever you like, but make sure you aren’t using travel as a shortcut to possibly more meaningful experiences you can have in your own area of the world.