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Community Service and College Applications: Commitment, Achievement, Leadership

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A hilarious front page article in this week’s The Onion leads with this headline:

Closing of Homeless Shelter Leaves College-Application Padding Students with Nowhere to Turn

Doors Shut on Much-Needed Extracurriculars

Here’s a snippet from the article:

After years for providing hope and assistance to resume-padding volunteers, the Second District Homeless Shelter colsed its doors Monday, leaveing hundreds of desperate students without anything to write under “Other Interests.”

The shelter, long a place of refuge for those in need of extracurricular credit, was shut down this week due to statewide budget cutbacks and a drop-off in private donations. According to sources, the news has devastated countless high school seniors who had come to depend on the outreach center in order to impress prospective colleges.

“Where am I supposed to go now?” said 17-year-old Jeremy Krassner, one of many B-plus students left to wonder about his future. “Princeton only takes the very best candidates, and even schools like Columbia check for community service experience.”

The reason satire is so hilarious is that there is a grain of truth somewhere in the story. So let’s peel this Onion and see if we can get at that core truth.

The fact is that most student do try to pad their resumes with perfunctory community service activities. Many, many resumes I have handled over the years include the Thanksgiving meal at the homeless shelter. The serving and cleaning up after a meal at a soup kitchen. The kids come close enough to witness poverty for an hour or two on a weekend day, but then they hurry back to their comforts and make little connection to the people they serve. Nor do they reflect on the experience. Community service, seen in this light, is a niggling requirement, a box to check, a notch in the college resume.

Community Service Award

Students like the hapless Jeremy Krassner in The Onion story should just forget about this sort of experience. It doesn’t impress anyone.

What colleges–especially the most selective ones–look for is commitment and accomplishment. They also have their eyes open for leaders, for problem-solvers, for go-getters. The student who spends a few hours at a homeless shelter exhibits none of these qualities. And yet, students like the ones depicted in The Onion’s satire slavishly troop down to shelters to serve up meals to homeless in the vain hope their services will get them into college.

I could talk a lot more about the failings of what is usually passed off as “service learning.” Too many kids performance without learning much of anything. And high schools have developed empty requirements for service without requiring the sort of commitment and reflection that could really lead to anything significant–either in the lives of those served or in the lives of those who provide the service. Much of what is labeled “service learning” is a grand waste of time.

So what kind of community service would colleges like to see more of? Again, the key aspects are commitment, accomplishment, and leadership.

  • The student who notes an unsafe crosswalk near a retirement community, where slow moving folks must cross a busy intersection to get to the grocery story across the street. The student helps the community to petition the city council and the municipal transportation department to change the timing of the light and to prohibit turns on the red light.
  • The student who has organized a concert at a local nursing home every semester for three years. The performers are her friends and peers in the school band. For two hours on a Saturday afternoon, the students perform one or two recital pieces for residents. The organizer makes sure student volunteers are appropriately dressed, and are able to stay after the concert to socialize with residents for an hour after the concert. The student leader communicates with the nursing home activities director, makes up simple printed programs that she copies for each resident, and acts as emcee for the event. For her labors, she is awarded a volunteer service award from the nursing home staff, and the director writes her a letter of recommendation.
  • The student who quietly drives a route once a week to pick up surplus food at several neighborhood restaurants that he delivers–with little fanfare–to a homeless shelter downtown. Given his commitment and consistency, the restaurant managers count on him to show up, thereby increasing their donations. And the homeless shelter reduces its food costs, knowing that their faithful volunteer will arrive as scheduled with food enough for at least one full meal per week.
  • The student who spends one week in the summer between freshman and sophomore year volunteering with a trail crew in the mountains to maintain popular hiking trails in the National Forest. She enjoys the experience so much that she becomes a co-leader for a trail crew the following summer, and in the summer before her senior year, she becomes the full-fledged leader in charge of a 10-member crew.

Of course I could come up with more examples of commitment, accomplishment, and leadership. In each of these cases, the student showed dedication to a single activity, and that dedication continued over a period of days, weeks, or even years. The actual amount of time involved may not be that great (as in the case of the once-a-semester concert at the nursing home). The time may be spread out over many weeks, or concentrated in a short burst. But in each case, the student was committed–to the people, to the program, and to the outcome.

The outcome is also the accomplishment: a safer crossing, a pleasant diversion, a tangible benefit to a shelter, or refurbished trails. Students can thus point to something and say, “I did that.”

And in each case, the student showed initiative and leadership in making something happen. They did not passively serve in the soup kitchen. They looked around them, identified needs, marshaled resources, and made things happen.

Finally, the students in these scenarios actually learned something. They had time to develop relationships, build connections, see the fruits of their labors. They learned how small contributions can make a difference in the lives of others. They felt the thrill of giving.

Not everyone has to lead a trail crew or a crusade to change traffic patterns. But you can be more judicious in how you devote your energies, how you give your time, and how you participate in community service. It takes time to consider your options, to develop a game plan, and to actually carry out a plan to serve your community. You can certainly latch on to established organizations–even a soup kitchen or homeless shelter–that may have well-run volunteer programs. Obviously, it’s better to spend a day at the shelter once a month on regular basis than to simply volunteer for a few hours on a single day and log your required hours.

So take the idea of community service seriously. Don’t end up sounding like Jeremy Krassner in The Onion’s story. If you do, it will be more parody than satire.

And to become a parody is significantly less funny than reading a good piece of satire.

Mark Montgomery
College Admissions Consultant
Denver, Colorado

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