How I Picked a Topic for My College Application Essay
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How I Picked a Topic for My College Application Essay

Riely McCullough, of Seattle, Washington, traveled with Rustic in 2015 and used her experience as the topic for her college application essays. Read about how Riely chose her essay topic and what led her to Rustic in the first place. 


When I was 12, my dad died. Most people have their adult lives to prepare for losing a parent and even they struggle with it. His death life changed my life forever.

It was two years before my mom, brother and I felt like we figured out how to cope without dad. Grieving was tough and I knew I needed to take a breather. I spent months trying to find a volunteer program that traveled to a Spanish-speaking country and would take a 14-year-old.

I wanted to get to know people with different backgrounds and I thought learning another language would be a good skill to have and maybe lead to new opportunities. I found exactly what I was looking for with Rustic Pathways.

In June 2015, I left Seattle for Costa Rica. I had handwritten 75 letters and created a GoFundMe page to help pay for the trip. After two weeks of service and adventure during Summer Camp Leadership in Costa Rica, I returned to Seattle with new interests and a new outlook on where I wanted to go in life and who I wanted to become.

whitewater rafting in costa rica

Riely, second from right, and members of her group in Costa Rica.

Fast forward to May 2017, finals of my junior year at West Seattle High School. I had to write a draft of the Common App essay. I hadn’t received any significant awards and my hobbies don’t define me or anything like that. But I did overcome the loss of my father.

I didn’t just want to be another sob story. Instead, I wanted to describe how my experience with Rustic helped me grow but I’d never expressed that very clearly to anyone. I didn’t write the essay about my dad—I only used what had happened to him and how it affected me in order to show the bigger picture of my learning and growth.

When I was able to write what felt right in my heart, that’s when the best writing took place.


Are you applying to colleges this fall? Check out Travel and College: 5 Tips to Make Your Essay Stand Out for more information about how to feature your Rustic Pathways experience. If you’ve already completed your essays and have tips of your own, leave them in the comments below. 

About the Author

Elizabeth Cortese

Social Media and Influencer Marketing Manager

Liz first developed a passion for travel while summiting Mount Kilimanjaro as a Rustic student. This taught her at an early age the importance of experiential education for students around the world. She has since graduated with a bachelor’s in marketing communications from Emerson College in Boston. When Liz is not hopping from restaurant to restaurant in San Francisco or buried in a New York Times bestseller, she can be found packing her bags to spend time with family and friends.