How to Use AT Experiences in College Application Essays

Jess Myer02 Nov, 2023

Fall is the season for pumpkin spice, colorful leaves, and apple picking, but it’s also the season for college applications! For Adventure Treks students with college in their future, a unique and well-written personal essay is an important part of the process.

Adventure Treks students are talented, active, and community-oriented people with busy lives and many interests. Being involved in a variety of activities (being “well-rounded,” as college admissions folks might call it) is a great way to prepare for college, but in the age of most high school students balancing a jam-packed schedule, it might not be the thing that makes a student stand out to their favorite schools. Of all of the students applying to college this fall, many play high school sports, many take AP and honors classes, and many are involved in community service projects. How many backpack in Alaska or summit Mt. Adams on their summer break? (Hint: due to our low student-to-staff ratio and community focus, it’s a select few!)

Application essays may seem like one more step in an already lengthy process, but they provide a unique opportunity for aspiring students. Quick stats like grades, number of AP classes taken, and extracurricular activities are great, but they don’t provide any information on who you are as a person. Some schools no longer judge a prospective student on grades, rather turning to essays and interviews. The essay is a chance to explain why you’ve done well in school, how you learned to trust yourself as an athlete, or what exactly makes you a good fit for the particular university you are applying to.

Though parents generally pore over every page of the Adventure Treks website to learn as much as possible about the program they are sending their child to, students often miss learning more about Adventure Treks’ core values until they experience them on a trip. For a quick refresher, and a great basis of topics to highlight in your essay, check out this blog on the Great 8 Outcomes we strive to inspire.

Essay prompts are generally vague, so it is helpful to brainstorm a couple of topics you feel comfortable writing about before diving in. Think about an experience that was difficult on your last AT trip—maybe it was climbing Mt. Shasta in the wee hours of morning—and narrow down why that particular experience made an impact on you. Did you learn what mental resilience looks like? Did you find a way to help out a friend even when you were struggling, too? Did you advocate for yourself or your group? Did you achieve something you didn’t think was possible? How did this experience change your view of the world?

Another thing to keep in mind when writing about your experiences is what college admissions officers are really looking for when reading through your application. Demonstrating independence, creativity, passion, and commitment are all bonuses that will highlight your application. As the author of the above blog notes, after interviewing a college admissions officer, “fewer kids are prepared with the independence or life skills needed to thrive away from home. Experience on an extended wilderness trip demonstrates an ability to thrive in difficult and often uncertain situations and a level of independence few kids possess.” Show independence and resilience through writing about the challenges you overcame and new skills you learned while on your AT trip.

If this still seems a bit vague, that’s okay! The process of writing a personal essay should be yours alone, and there is no one way to guarantee success. Here are a few examples of how former AT students have used their experiences to craft essays that gained them admission into their chosen schools.

AT alum Michaela from Durham, NC, was asked to reflect on a time when she exhibited resilience: 

Even as an experienced backpacker, the uphill switchbacks of the Klamath Mountains felt grueling, and I began to doubt my ability to complete the five-day backpack. But I pushed through, growing stronger each day and seeking encouragement from those I’d just met in my trip group. My new friends and I embraced the physical and mental struggles of the hike by cracking jokes and singing songs, knowing that we’d eventually reach our campsite each night. Through this experience, I found new confidence in myself and learned to prioritize positivity when faced with challenging situations. I’ve been more willing to lean on friends and family for support when needed and view adversity as only temporary.

Michaela’s longer personal essay was about her experience with carrying the largest cooking pot as part of her group gear. She detailed her own thought process, from disbelief at the size of the pot, to discomfort and resentment while hiking, to the realization that her attitude could influence the group, and acceptance of and pride in her role as part of the community. She tells a story that shows her ability to overcome a challenge, even a small one, and reflect upon it meaningfully.

AT alum Audi from Ely, IA, wrote about her experience with getting her first outdoor education job away from home: raft guiding for the summer. Rather than using her Adventure Treks experience directly, she referred to it a couple of times throughout the essay:

I was not scared. I was absolutely ecstatic to be in a foreign place with strangers I was now forced to meet to survive. It brought me back to my days at the camp I had been going to for years prior to this and that had actually led me to this job in the first place.

In the summer of 2020, I attended a WFA (wilderness first aid) class through this camp. I was fascinated by how to help people when supplies were scarce. I filled a notebook with questions and studied my notes like I had never done in high school every night. This certification helped me get [the job I was hoping for] and I was very proud of myself that I had acquired such a certification. Not only did this camp help with getting me the job, but it taught me social skills in ways I could never have imagined. I knew people from around the world. Two boys from France, one girl from Panama, one girl from Canada, and one boy from the UK were among the many others. It was mind-boggling to me that I actually had friends in far away places.

If you feel stuck, try reading more about how to write a college essay or what makes essays stand out. Highlight some moments at Adventure Treks that felt big for you—moments when you learned something about yourself or grew in a way that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Think about the skills and values you possess, and how you came to have them. What are you passionate about, and how do you follow that passion? Why are you excited to head to college, and what do you hope to continue learning while there?

The Adventure Treks admissions process is designed to create groups of kind, inclusive, diverse students who will support and inspire each other throughout their trips. Our students are tough, active, and creative, and choose to spend their summers sweating as they backpack long distances, or singing together to pass the time on chilly sea kayaking trips. In comparison to the other ways you could spend your summers, simply choosing to participate in an AT trip gives you a wealth of opportunities for successes and failures to write about in an application essay that shines with a unique sparkle.


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