College Applications and Volunteering / Community Service

As competition among college applicants has become more dog-eat-dog, high school seniors are more pressured than ever to distinguish themselves from other applicants. Volunteering and community service are great ways to do exactly that.

What to Avoid
Many students nowadays make it obvious that they are volunteering simply because they have to in order to get into college. Many of our students volunteer at one of two places: the library or hospital. When asked why they are volunteering at these locations, they answer, "To get into college."

It is important to choose a cause close to your heart. If you love animals, volunteer at the animal shelter. If you are passionate about helping those without food or a place to sleep, volunteer at a homeless shelter. The point is, whatever you do, have a good reason for doing it. It will make you stand out on a college application.

How Long to Volunteer
Commit to a single cause over a long period of time. Do Something, an organization that encourages young people to volunteer and contribute to their communities, surveyed admissions officers from 32 of the top universities in the country, ranked by US News & World Report. 70% of those queried said they prefer to see a student who sticks with one cause, not one who dabbles in a variety of volunteer opportunities.

"It is clear that passion and commitment to something bigger play a key role in their decisions," the authors of the survey noted. "Taking the lead to bring about change in a community will help set a student apart from his or her peers, but communicating depth in that experience is also a determining factor for admissions' officers."

Where To Volunteer
Of those surveyed, 92% said they are more impressed with a candidate who spends four years volunteering at a shelter than with someone who commits a short period of time to helping out with a project abroad. But don't let that statistic deter you from building wells in Africa. They'll approve if you manage to turn a brief experience into a long-term mission once you return home.

"Dedication is the true measuring gauge," one officer noted.

How To Write About The Experience
College admissions officers warn that simply rattling off the places a candidate has volunteered, without sharing personal anecdotes, can sound insincere.
"Get personal," the authors suggested. "Focus on how you've changed, don't just list what you did, how many hours you volunteered."

For the applicant who has volunteered for a slew of organizations, consider explaining how all of the experiences fall under one larger issue, such as poverty or human rights. While writing your essay, the officers recommend using such "power words," as "initiative," "personal change" and "leader." But, they recommend avoiding "danger words," which include "showed up," "forced" and "required."


Michael W.

UCLA Instructor / SAT ACT Expert

400+ hours
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