Nowadays, getting into a top-rated university is no easy feat. Applicants are expected to have a near-perfect academic record, stellar test scores, an impressive extracurricular profile, and compelling essays. In extremely competitive college applicant pools, every detail about an applicant’s experiences could make or break them. And in recent years, one activity has become increasingly important to admissions officers: community service.
In a 2018 survey of 264 admissions leaders in U.S. colleges, 58% agreed that “A student’s community service experience has a positive impact on his or her acceptance to our higher education institution” 53% even said that “community service was essentially a tie-breaker between equally qualified students.”
This should come as no surprise, given that colleges often emphasize that they are looking for kind, passionate students who will contribute something meaningful to both the school community and the world at large. Furthermore, many colleges are making standardized testing optional or even forgoing it altogether, so extracurriculars are becoming more important in distinguishing an applicant. Community service is a great way to demonstrate your ongoing commitment to helping others and previewing potential contributions you could make to their school community. Plus, you could discover a passion for service that could continue long after your high school years.
But not all community service is made equal. As with other extracurriculars, the rule of thumb here should be quality over quantity. It becomes obvious when a student has taken on an activity for resumé-building purposes or overinflated the number of hours they may have worked. It’s also not enough to simply meet your school’s service hour requirement — the best kind of community service engages with a community on a long-term, intimate basis to make a real difference.
Here are some questions to consider when looking for community service opportunities.
What issues can be addressed in your community? Look for high-level and high-impact positions that will help get involved and stand out. Colleges aren’t looking for the same cookie-cutter applicants, so think about the issues that may be unique to where you live. Talk to friends and family to see if there are ongoing service projects with which you could help.
Why does the type of community service you’re doing matter to you? Maybe you have a personal connection to the organization you’re helping, such as a loved one afflicted with a disease or a hardship endured by a friend. Even if you don’t have a connection like this, consider what causes matter most to you and why.
What is the potential impact and reach of your activity in your community? By the time you’re filling out an application, you’ll want to know that the work you’ve done has positively impacted others. You should also be able to describe that impact to others, such as in an essay or activity description, and that it could possibly continue after you’ve graduated from high school. The rule is still quality over quantity when choosing the activity, but it's important that students are able to quantify the quality of their work whenever possible.
While you should look for ongoing opportunities that already exist, be wary of pay-to-play volunteer programs and “voluntourism,” or short-term service trips in exotic locations. Not only can those activities be unnecessarily expensive, self-serving, and even damaging to those communities, it can also hurt your application by sending the wrong message to admission officers about your intent in doing this service. That being said, not all travel-based volunteering is a bad thing — church-based mission trips and certain study abroad programs, for instance, could be an eye-opening and positively impactful experience.
Community service is one part of your application, so think of it within the larger context of your experience and goals. How has your community service changed you and impacted others? Is it related to your academic pursuits or influenced them in any way? There are lots of ways to turn your interests into service. If you want to enter a pre-med program, contribute to public health efforts, especially during COVID, or help fundraise for cure-finding research (don’t just volunteer at a hospital). If you’re interested in politics, look into local activist groups and legislation being championed in your area. You could even start your own non-profit, but just note that starting a non-profit in and of itself won’t make a student stand out. What matters is the reach and depth of the project, so strive to find unconventional ways to showcase your abilities while making a significant contribution to others.
Regardless of the kind of service you choose to do, the important thing is that the cause you champion matters to you and that you are able to help your community in your work. If that’s the case, it will be a memorable part of your college application.
If you’re still struggling to find a community service opportunity, consider joining H&C’s Incubator program and receive one-on-one guidance from our leadership specialists as you develop your own service project or organization.