The Dark Underside of Community Service in the Quest for College Admission

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One of the most common questions I receive from parents and prospective clients is about the importance of community service on college applications.  For years, colleges and universities have been sending out signals that they value community involvement among their applicants, and that these sorts of contributions will be favored in the admissions process.

As a response, many high schools have instituted community service requirements for graduation.  Similarly, one of the main attractions of the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum is its emphasis on community action through its CAS program (“Creativity, Action, Service).

Coincident with these trend is the rise of “voluntourism”, by which well-off adults travel to Africa or Latin America or Southeast Asia to do “good works” in a poor community during their vacations.  These programs also build upon similar efforts organized by churches and other religious organizations.  This demand has created a significant niche of the international travel industry that caters to altruistic adventures.

To grossly oversimplify, the idea is for folks in wealthy countries like the United States to see how others live and to contribute in some way to the development of a less well-off community. From the standpoint of college admissions, these sorts of “voluntourism” programs have become increasingly common.  Many affluent families routinely send their kids off on some sort of community service adventure to work in an orphanage, dig latrines, or paint school buildings in poverty-stricken communities around the world.  Invariably, these experiences become fodder for college essays.

From the admissions standpoint, these pay-to-play experiences are so common–and so superficial–that their impact in the admissions process is negligible.  Given that so many kids write about such experiences, the resulting essays can even become a strike against the student.  I’ve heard admissions officers crack jokes about the insipid essays that emanate from these international volunteer experiencs.

To give you an idea of the essays I’ve seen kids write about such experiences, I offer the following made-up example (warning: I am exaggerating for effect…):

“My life changed when I spent two weeks digging ditches in Upper Slobovia last summer.  I never knew that people who were so poor, who ate bugs for dinner, and who used a tin can as a potty could be so happy and generous.  These unfortunate people taught me so much about life: especially, how lucky I am not to be one of them.”

Obviously, I’m not really a fan of these “voluntourism” programs.  I studied international relations in graduate school, and spent a good deal of my time thinking about poverty alleviation in developing countries.  I also have many very close friends who spent years of their lives doing “real” development work, living in hardship in places like Guyana, Malawi, and Laos, actually delivering well-developed, well-funded development aid.  And many of these friends will confide that they were never too sure that their efforts really amounted to much.  So how could a teen with a shovel actually do any real and lasting good during a two week drive-by trip to the Dominican Republic?

Actually, these teens could be doing do more harm than good.  A recent article published on Al-Jazeera America caught my eye.  It highlights the growing demand in the rich world for altruistic vacation opportunities.  Both in the teen and adult markets, scads of companies have cropped up to feed this demand, and more and more rich white folks are traveling to poor places where the dominant skin tones are several shades darker.

The overall tone of the article is fairly critical of “voluntourism.” The author cites several egregious examples of voluntourism gone wrong in South Africa and Haiti and elsewhere.  However, the author does soften the critique a bit by saying that such volunteer experiences abroad can be improved through due diligence, better awareness, and a more realistic attitude on the part of the tourists that what they are doing can have negative as well as positive consequences for a community.

When asked by parents whether such volunteer opportunities for teens are really worth it, I tell them that they have become virtually worthless in the admissions process. The only people who can really go are those who can afford to fly to Timbuktu and back again.  Colleges might actually prefer to hear from applicants who have done something significant and important in their own local communities.  Certainly, such efforts may lack the “wow!” appeal of teaching English to kids in South Sudan, but what colleges want to see  is an activity that has a measurable impact–and not the experience that took place that even Google Maps cannot find.

To be fair, I have had a small handful of kids write excellent, reflective, and balanced essays on their time abroad as volunteers.  Generally, the best ones are written by kids who spend four or more weeks in a community, during which time they actually begin to see beyond the superficial level of what poverty means, and begin to connect with people in a more interesting and fundamental way.  Not all “voluntourism” is horrible.

But don’t latch on to such opportunities as the quick way into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale.  These universities will be much more impressed your impact, your capacity for reflection, and your intellectual and personal curiosity much more than the stamps in your passport.


Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant


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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  1. hi Mark–

    Greetings from a fellow Dartmouth grad and IR PhD (UCLA, in my case)!

    This is a great post. I think applicants should definitely be disabused of the notion that patently superficial volunteer work–or any type of activity, really–will get them anywhere in the college admissions game, especially at the highest levels. Admissions officers are smarter than that. If you haven’t demonstrated real dedication to your service work over a significant period of time, I agree that talking about it can actually be worse than not doing it at all.



  2. Thanks, Steve. I appreciate you having taken the time to comment. It seems that we have a lot in common. Hope to be able to connect offline soon!

  3. Hey, Mark–
    Interesting post–thanks. It’s funny, perhaps, that while I am an enthusiast of such trips generally, I am ambivalent about them as they play into the admissions process. They cannot be a means to a greater end but a valuable end unto themselves. Fortunately, I think many admissions officers can distinguish between those two scenarios as they digest the student’s commentary.

    As with so many things in the ever-changing world of admissions, time will tell what’s been widely beneficial and what has not. Even the applicants who serve with dubious motives may report back, decades from now, and tell us the trip to Timbuktu made all the difference as they matured.

    A couple of years ago, I heard an excellent podcast about community service. I wish I could remember the name of the speaker or organization. Its message was that students should–to paraphrase Mother Teresa–do what’s in front of them. Address obvious needs and don’t wait for someone else to do it. Tutor the neighbor who is struggling in fifth grade, or pick up all the trash at the football field. Do what needs doing.

    Thanks again for the post. Food for thought.

    Leigh Moore

  4. Hi, Leigh,
    I agree that these trips can be beneficial for young people, and I’m glad kids are interested in widening their worlds and that they have the urge to serve. But I am not ambivalent about the role these voluntarist trips have in admission: they have very little impact. They are expensive and therefore available for only a small sliver of our society. As you point out, “doing what needs doing” is a much better way to impress an admissions officer. No one needs to pay–or travel to Timbuktu–to perform service. And if you want an intercultural adventure, how about volunteering to work with recent immigrants, refugees, or those who are different in our own communities? Sometimes the greater and more lasting impact comes from more modest roots–from the heart and soul of our kids. And colleges with experienced admissions officers will always prefer the kids who developed their own service programs to those whose parents were able to pay for the flights to Timbuktu (on the other hand, colleges also like kids whose parents can pay the tuition bills…but that’s a story for another day…).
    Thanks for writing in.

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