Students and parents frequently ask us how they can highlight their community service in college applications. While community service is not required for admission to highly selective colleges, it is definitely one way to show colleges your involvement in your community, your values and the way you choose to spend your time. Here are five tips to consider as you decide whether and how to highlight your community service in college applications:
Go Beyond the Minimum Required
Some high schools require that students perform community service, sometimes with a minimum number of hours. Given that you will first be compared to the other students at your school, if you apply to the same colleges, you should think about completing more than the minimum number of hours, which will be viewed as “checking the box” for community service, but little more. Students who amass significant hours of community service, with ongoing involvement with local non-profit organizations, have the ability to explain in depth why they made such a deep commitment of their time, and colleges respect this. Additionally, you may find that one of the people at the organization to which you have generously donated so much of your time would be thrilled to write a letter of recommendation for your college applications!
Go Deep – Focus on One Organization or Cause
Volunteering one week with an animal shelter, another feeding the homeless and spending one afternoon organizing canned food at a food bank are good, but they won’t look as good as if you had focused your efforts on one cause or organization. It’s not ONLY about the cumulative hours you have spent on volunteer work – it’s about the IMPACT you’ve had in your volunteer work. Think about it this way: if you took guitar lessons for a month, piano lessons for a month, and oboe lessons for a month, you would have spent some time dabbling in music, but if you concentrated all of that time and spent it learning just one instrument, you’d probably play it better. If you want to highlight your dedication to community service in college applications, think about impact.
View Service as an Opportunity to Improve and Engage With Your Community
Students who write about community service in college applications are telegraphing a message: I care about my community. I saw a problem and jumped in to do my part. These are the kinds of students that colleges want on their campuses! If there’s an issue in your community that you really care about, or want to learn more about, community service is a great way for you to demonstrate your interest in solving local problems.
Wait – what is that??
Well – it’s the word that many college admission officers have coined to reflect the experience that many upper-middle class students have had: you pay a big chunk of money for a 10-day or 2-week junket to an exotic foreign country, where you spend a few days doing some community service activities, learning to appreciate what you have and how “other people” live, and the rest of your time vacationing. Whereas in the past, this type of volunteering was interesting and unique, today it has become so ubiquitous that it’s not looked upon favorably. Some students still write essays about these experiences, and most college admission officers’ response is this: “Are there volunteer opportunities near your house that you can do on a regular basis, instead of this one-time experience?” In short, save your money, and volunteer on an ongoing basis, closer to home.
Connect with College Community Service Opportunities
Many colleges will ask you to write a short essay telling them why you think THEIR COLLEGE is a good place for you. We sometimes abbreviate this to the “why us?” prompt. This is a great place for you to highlight community service in college applications! By finding ways to connect your community service experience with opportunities or clubs each college offers, you can show them that your values are similar to theirs, and those of their students.
The entire purpose of these “why us?” questions is for you to help admission officers see you on their campus. Many colleges take great pride in the community service opportunities they offer to students, so highlighting your community service experience is a great way to make this connection.
One of the most important messages we hope you take from the tips above is that community service is something you should think about as a long-term commitment. If you are able to devote significant time to causes you care about, you’ll be able to show off your community service in college applications!