“Sustainable Development in South Africa” by Steve Schwartz - Issues

50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays - Tanabe Gen, Tanabe Kelly 2009

“Sustainable Development in South Africa” by Steve Schwartz

Columbia University

As i sat at a table in the corner of a cafe, hunched over a press release I was writing, I asked myself, “Why is a youth advocate from Long Island, halfway around the world in South Africa this summer, debat-ing issues of sustainable development at a United nations conference?”

I needed to meet a deadline for the Youth Caucus at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) after an exhausting but exhilarating day of lobbying. My goal was to help persuade world leaders at the largest United nations conference in history that pursuing sustainable development is essential for the future of our planet. Because I had attended a previous Un conference about children’s rights, I understood the importance of sustainable development in this context. Then, I was chosen to represent SustainUS, a national network of American youth, at the WSSD. I raised all of the money needed for my trip. I was thrilled to witness the human spirit in its purest sense, taking collective action to care for the less fortunate around the globe.

It was one thing to debate language in the conference document about goals set to provide people in developing nations with access to water. It was quite another to visit Soweto, only a few kilometers away from the conference, and to meet poor Africans living in shanties with limited access to water. This observation embedded in my mind the seriousness of my work in a way that no statistic could describe. The challenge on paper seemed quite different from the harshness of Soweto and Alexandria and the long-suffering faces and pleading eyes of the beggars there. I reminded myself that I needed to work around the clock while I was in South Africa to help these impoverished people.

After arriving in Johannesburg this past August, I traveled to the International Youth Summit. I drafted the youth declaration which was used for lobbying, and I helped to write a statement from the youth delegates for government representatives to read and consider while negotiating. While at the WSSD, aside from writing daily press releases that became Associated Press and reuters articles, I drafted speeches which were presented to the delegates, including over one hundred heads of state. I experienced an adrenaline rush when I fielded questions from reporters during a press conference. These challenging situations were new learning opportunities for me and provided me with knowledge much different from what one learns in high school. I want to learn more about the histories of international financial institutions and the ways they interact with national governments.

As a result of my attending the World Summit, I have gained a new perspective on global politics and its effects on people’s lives. The thought that people from around the world can join together to solve a global issue never fails to impress and inspire me.

My participation in the WSSD has taught me more about the convergence of politics, international relations and the environment than I have learned in any other activity or in the classroom. Working with others to reveal the crucial need for sustainable development is essential to our world’s successful future. All of my experiences have helped me to understand how international meetings operate and to accept the responsibility that comes with the privilege to attend and contribute to the solution.


Steve’s essay gives us insight into his experiences as a youth advocate in South Africa and youth representative for the WSSD. This unique opportunity is obviously a great honor. Steve does a good job presenting specific examples of his summer experiences and relating the larger lessons he learned from them.

In his introduction, Steve might have helped contextualize the situation by explaining what it means to be a “youth delegate,” how long the WSSD was going to last, why he needed to write a press release, and what kind of lobbying he was doing. While impressive, the first paragraph in this essay is almost overwhelming because it contains so much information with limited explanation. Additionally, the reference to the SustainUS conference is confusing. It is unclear whether the next two sentences about fundraising for the trip and witnessing “the human spirit in its purest sense” refer to the SustainUS conference or the South Africa conference. Avoid the temptation to inundate readers with information and make sure that what you do write is clear and concise. Think of your college application as a package where you can include information about yourself through many different avenues—the essays are just one channel for introducing yourself to the admissions officers.

The second paragraph of the essay is strong because it focuses specifically on Steve’s experiences in Soweto. The contrast between the conference and the shantytowns is striking. Steve might have elaborated more on his experiences of meeting “poor Africans living in shanties with limited access to water” to further demonstrate why “this observation embedded in [his] mind the seriousness of [his] work in a way that no statistic could describe.” Steve demonstrates his commitment to helping others in his assertion, “I needed to work around the clock while I was in South Africa to help these impoverished people.”

His essay would be even stronger if he could more explicitly relate this lesson to what he learned from the International Youth Summit.

Clarifying the distinctions between the Youth Caucus at the WSSD, the International Youth Summit, and the World Summit would help readers be on the same page as Steve. The ease with which Steve uses these terms clearly demonstrates his familiarity with government and politics. However, it is important to remember that college admissions essays are typically written for the general reader, rather than a spe-cialist reader. Exceptions to this include essays that ask about specific career paths.

The conclusion of the essay cleanly ties together Steve’s diverse experiences and looks towards the future, where one suspects that Steve will consider working towards sustainable development, both in and out of the classroom. Had Steve applied to a school with a strong international development or political science program, he might have also referenced these specific university assets to tailor his essay for that specific university.