by Alexa Broida
Director, Mitzvah Corps
As we travel the country, speaking with Jewish communities, families and teens about how they spend their time each summer, what they’re looking to accomplish, and the motivational factors behind their decisions, we hear over and over again that getting into college is a top priority. That sentiment is often followed by a frustrated acknowledgement that there simply isn’t enough time for teens to be teens, to pursue what they’re passionate about, to be free of the burden of college applications.
At Mitzvah Corps, we believe that college-bound students can do it all; explore the world, develop a sense of self, enjoy a new experience, make incredible friends, and build out a resume to look good on college, internship, and job applications.
TIME Money used survey data from the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) to identify the top 12 things that college admissions officers are looking for. Below, we’ve quoted the takeaways from the article, and outlined the corresponding 12 ways that Mitzvah Corps programs connect those dots.
#1. A rigorous high school curriculum that challenges the student and may include AP or IB classes.
Mitzvah Corps can’t provide academic credit, but we do provide opportunities for students to demonstrate that they seek out challenging experiences.
Our curriculum is designed to expose teens to the complexities of the world around them, and to think differently about the role they play as agents of change. Meaningful and dynamic conversations about privilege, power dynamics, strategies to support local initiatives, when to donate funds and when to donate time, and more, are prevalent throughout the program.
#2. Grades that represent a strong effort and an upward trend. However, slightly lower grades in a rigorous program are preferred to all A’s in less challenging coursework.
While Mitzvah Corps doesn’t give grades, we do provide opportunities for students to demonstrate growth throughout their experience and prove that they value a challenge.
#3. Solid scores on standardized tests (ACT, SAT). These should be consistent with high school performance.
There are the parts of standardized testing that involve formulas and logical reasoning, and then there are the parts that we learn on Mitzvah Corps programs: demonstrating the ability to think outside the box, create strategies to solve problems, and articulate thoughts in ways that are comprehensive, cohesive, and palatable.
#4. A well-written essay that provides insight into the student’s unique personality, values, and goals. The application essay should be thoughtful and highly personal. It should demonstrate careful and well-constructed writing.
Mitzvah Corps provides a subject matter to write about that demonstrates the student’s values and goals, the way that their unique personality engages with large, global issues, and their ability to be thoughtful and personal in connecting to the experience.
#5. Passionate involvement in a few in- or out-of-school activities. Commitment and depth are valued over minimal involvement in a large number of activities.
Colleges will review countless applications that list community service activities taking place both within and outside of school. What sets Mitzvah Corps alumni apart is the depth to which they’ve engaged in social justice beyond just community service. To take time to travel, to immerse oneself in an environment as intensely dedicated to changing the world, and to be willing to delve into the causes of institutionalized and systemic oppression and poverty alongside traditional hands-on work, is to demonstrate a true commitment.
#6. Demonstrated leadership and initiative in extracurricular activities. Students who arrive on campus prepared to lead clubs and activities are highly desirable.
The choice a teen makes to step outside of their comfort zone and participate on a Mitzvah Corps experience demonstrates initiative.
Mitzvah Corps prepares students to return to their home communities – schools, congregations, clubs, teams, families, and more – and be leaders of ongoing change initiatives. From launching their own fundraising campaigns and projects, to getting involved with existing programs, Mitzvah Corps alumni use their summer experience to launch a deeper involvement with social justice causes, as leaders.
#7. Personal characteristics that will contribute to a diverse and interesting student body. Many colleges seek to develop a freshman class that is diverse: geographically, culturally, ethnically, economically, and politically.
High School students rarely have control over the demographic background of their schools and home communities. What they can control, though, is how much effort they’ve taken to expose themselves to national and global diversity, the intentionality with which they approach building a diverse network, and thus the familiarity they have with building diverse communities by the time they get to campus.
Mitzvah Corps helps teens engage with a diverse array of peers, organizations, and leaders; They’re exposed to opinions that differ from their own, and a passion for seeking new information and perspectives.
#8. Demonstrated intellectual curiosity through reading, school, leisure pursuits, and more.
Mitzvah Corps goes above and beyond simply demonstrating intellectual curiosity; it provides the opportunity to not only learn in-depth about social justice issues around the world, but to immediately combine that knowledge with direct action.
#9. Demonstrated enthusiasm to attend the college, often exhibited by campus visits and an interview, if offered admission.
Mitzvah Corps’ domestic programs are all based on college campuses*. Teens have the chance to live in the dorms, eat in the dining halls, explore Jewish life, and enjoy the recreational facilities, participants can opt in to formal campus tours. While it may not be the exact college that the student is applying to, it demonstrates the ability to take a deeper interest in campus life, and to create a baseline experience from which to draw opinions and preferences.
*The single exception to campus living is our traveling Civil Rights Journey, although that program offers campus tours on universities along their route.
#10. Letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselors that give evidence of integrity, special skills, positive character traits, and an interest in learning.
Many Mitzvah Corps alumni request and receive outstanding letters of recommendation from their program staff. These letters are unique in that the writers have not only seen the student within the context of a particular school or extracurricular activity, but they have lived alongside them in an immersive setting. The staff will have seen them celebrating at their best as well as navigating challenges at their worst, and observed them living the values they espouse through informal and social interactions with peers and local community members. Throughout it all, they will have tracked their intellectual progress as they grapple with tough concepts, and supported them through the transition to take their most critical lessons home with them.
#11. Special talents that will contribute to the college’s student life program. Colleges like to know what you intend to bring to campus, as well as what you’ll take from your college experience.
One of the core components to the Mitzvah Corps curriculum is the exploration of how one enters, builds, and leaves a community. Being able to balance the ability to listen, learn, and absorb, with the capacity to step up, contribute, and shape, is the hallmark of community engagement.
#12. Out-of-school experiences including work, community service, youth organizations, religious groups, etc. Again, passionate involvement is meaningful to the admissions office; casual memberships are not.
Work, community service, youth organizations, religious groups. Check, check, check, and check! More importantly, there’s nothing casual about participating on a Mitzvah Corps program. It requires time, energy, financial investment, and a willingness to leap far from one’s comfort zone.
Whether you’re looking for an experience to challenge the way you see the world, or one that looks good on an application, Mitzvah Corps affords you the chance to check both boxes at once. Come see for yourself!