While it’s true that college campuses seem to be putting more emphasis on community service these days, it’s not crucial that each and every applicant amass hours and hours of volunteer hours.

In fact, a report called “Turning the Tide” from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education advocated a more genuine and sustained form of community service as an essential component for admissions—and this report was endorsed by deans of admissions from many of the country’s most selective colleges and universities.

However, in our view, it is not absolutely necessary that every student complete hundreds of hours of community service in order to get into college. As with so much else in the college admissions world, your community service contributions depend on all the other decisions you make as you prepare for admissions to the colleges of your choice.

Don't just check boxes in preparation for college. Do the things that matter most to you.
Don’t just check boxes in preparation for college. Do the things that matter most to you.

For admissions to the most selective universities, it is ill-advised to spread yourself too thinly.  Perhaps you are a star athlete or a championship debater or first chair trumpet in a regional youth orchestra.  If so, you are a very busy person trying to maintain your craft.  You are practicing often, participating in competitions or concerts, and otherwise occupied with becoming truly great by strengthening your talents.  You likely don’t have much time for community service.  Maybe you do some volunteering around the edges.  Maybe you volunteer a few hours per year to maintain your membership in the National Honor Society, or you belong to a service club at your school in which you serve your school on occasion.  But your focus is elsewhere.

University admissions personnel will admire your focus and your achievements.  They will not expect you to to be an acolyte of Mother Theresa AND a star athlete, championship debater, or virtuoso trumpeter.

On the other hand, if you really enjoy community service, and you find joy in serving your community in one way or another, we heartily recommend that you continue to pursue those commitments.  But here are a couple of rules about community service and the admissions process.

  1. Don’t count hours: measure your impact.  Your goal is not to spend more time making a difference.  Instead, you want to make a measurable difference that others can see.
  2. Focus your efforts on a single organization—or a single cause.  Volunteering for short periods at a large number of organizations will dilute your efforts and reduce your impact.
  3. Don’t focus on service that is far from home.  You need not travel to Madagascar or Malaysia in order to find needy people or worthwhile causes.  You will likely have more opportunity to have a measurable impact and create a sustained commitment if you stick close to home.
  4. Get to know people who share your commitment.  Connect with the leaders of the organization with which you volunteer.
  5. Don’t forget the learning component of service learning.  As you spend your valuable time helping others, spend time reading about the issues you are addressing.  If you’re volunteering at a homeless shelter, read about the causes and proposed solutions for homelessness.  If you tutor in a school, learn about how poverty has a measurable impact on kids’ ability to get an education. If you volunteer at a library, learn about the trends in libraries today, and compare with the historical role of libraries in our community.  In other words, remember that every service opportunity is related to serious social, economic, and political issues—and take the time to educate yourself.

If you’re not sure whether you should pursue community service, or if you are looking for ways to increase your impact, you might consider setting up a consultation with one of our counselors.  We advise our students—especially those aiming for the most selective colleges and universities—about how to develop priorities and manage their time so as to make themselves as attractive as possible to admissions officers.  We can help you build a customized plan that will maximize your fun, enhance your chances, and—most important—help you make your mark in your community.

Or you may want to consider our video courses on the admissions process.  They are reasonably priced and a great way to educate yourself on how get the most from your high school experience, identify the best schools for you, and create winning applications.  Check us out at the Great College Roadmap!

Published by Mark Montgomery

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

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