Last week I came across this article in Forbes about a survey of admissions professionals at colleges and their attitudes about community service. (When I began writing about college admissions a year and a half ago, I never thought I'd come across so many articles in Forbes. But as expensive as college is, it makes sense that a magazine about money management would cover college.) The survey reconfirms what we all already basically know: the majority of the admissions officers surveyed think that community service works in favor of an applicant. At the very least, it can act as a tiebreaker between two otherwise equal candidates.
The fact that colleges look favorably on community service isn't really that new or interesting. The fun part is the reasons they give. It's not that serving your community makes you more deserving, demonstrates your passion, or shows that you're more committed and therefore more likely to graduate. The top three reasons given for considering community service are that it shows you are "likely to be active in student social life outside the classroom," are "likely to contribute to the school’s mission," and are likely to share the "school's values."
In other words, their focus on community service has little to do with you and a lot to do with their own needs and values.
For a lot of high school students applying to college, this makes no difference. You volunteer your time and talents to some cause or group because it's important to you. Even if colleges were to report that they don't care about community service, you would do it anyway. If you're that type of student, good for you! Plus, it may help with your applications.
But for a lot, the difference is huge. If the main--or only--reason you perform community service is because you think you need to in order to apply to college, it's likely to show. And it's unlikely to impress the colleges. If they can see that you're not necessarily interested in being active outside the classroom, contributing to a mission larger than your own ambition, or furthering your values, then that service isn't actually what they're looking for.
Can schools really tell the difference? Not always, but often. Ask yourself if you can tell the difference between someone helping you because they genuinely care and helping you because they think they have to in order to get something out of it. The difference shows. Telltale signs: your resume has a smattering of volunteer hours, but there's no common theme; you demonstrate that you volunteered exactly 30 hours per year of high school; your introduction to your application essay explains that your school makes you volunteer. If you're volunteering just to pad your resume, that's not going to be helpful to you--not many schools include "selfish obedience" as a core value.
I don't want to dissuade you from volunteering your time and energy to help others. Please be a part of your community, volunteer, demonstrate that you're interested in a group larger than yourself. Take some time to figure out what values are important to you, and then give of yourself to further those values. It can be religious, social, legal, humanitarian, artistic...any kind of group that reflects your values. But if you're just doing random events to "get your volunteer hours," it's probably not going to really do much good for your community. Or your application.
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