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Margaret Weinberg

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Trying Not to Be a Travel Cliché

Posted: 11/04/11 10:28 AM ET

Travel essays have become cliché for a reason. An increasing number of high school students are going abroad, and finding their lives and perspectives changed in exciting ways. I'm included in this population, having spent a summer in China with the Experiment in International Living two years ago, and I know how tempting it is to write about my experiences for every paper requested of me. After all, I'm not the same person I was when I departed America, and I want people, including college admissions staff, to see that! Yet I often am warned against it, told that it is "unoriginal" and that I need to find a more effective way to make myself stand out.

The truth is that there is a reason my peers and I are warned against the travel essay, and it's a good reason, too. Though our experiences are unique, we often come back changed in similar ways -- a little more mature, daring, or wise, with perhaps a new appreciation for what we have, or a new cause to rally around. We come back wanting to see more of the world, and wanting to make more of a difference in it. And this common growth is what forms a bond between us, the alumni of abroad programs. But this common growth is also what makes our essays unfortunately redundant. There may be truth behind every word about the value of a home-stay or interaction with an impoverished population, but it's a common truth, and there is only so much of the same story a college admissions officer can read.

However, it would be ridiculous to silence our experiences. The strategy should not be to avoid talk of travels, but to embrace creativity in deciding how to present it. A month ago I did a photography project with a friend -- a 12-hour photo shoot sitting in the same spot outside our local co-op. From sunrise to sundown we saw life progress from the perspective of one location, hoping to capture the story of one day. It was more challenging than we anticipated, and at first we found ourselves with too many perfect landscapes and posed portraits -- despite our nice pictures, we felt we weren't accomplishing our goal.

Eventually we learned that the story didn't lay in the broad view, it laid in the seemingly mundane -- in a discarded coffee cup, the heel of a foot stamping out a cigarette butt, or a child feeding the pigeons. At the end of the project, as we began to string our pictures together, we found the meaning of that day in the small bits that came together to form the compilation as a whole.

My advice to my fellow seniors who find themselves told to stray away from writing about abroad programs is to avoid becoming a cliché instead. Focus in on the smaller details of your trip -- find something seemingly unexciting and use it to convey your larger point. You can show a college admissions officer how you were transformed without telling a story that's already been told, and if you can connect something simple to a more complex idea, it's a great way to put your creativity and writing skills in the spotlight as well. Study abroad programs can seem repetitive on the surface, but there are small, unique aspects of every journey as well, just waiting to have their true value revealed.