A student walks into my office and says: “I am in big trouble. I need a lot of help with my college application. My biggest problem is that I have very few volunteer hours and hardly any community service. What do I do? Where can I go? Can you sign me up for some volunteer hours? Because, otherwise, I cannot get into college.”
Questions about volunteering and community service are a topic that comes up all the time in my line of work.
Of course, I understand when colleges say they want to see volunteer service from their applicants. But are volunteer hours really as important for college admission as most people believe?
While volunteer hours are relevant, they are nowhere near as important as many make them out to be.
Before I explain why I believe students have a misconception about volunteer community service, let me share two major disclaimers.
Major Disclaimers About Why Community Service Is Important
1. Colleges Are Committed to Being of Service & Want Students That Are Likewise Service-Oriented
It is no secret that most universities and colleges in the United States are deeply committed to serving people, communities, the environment, and the world in general. It is one of the foundational pillars of their very existence, whether they are public or private schools.
Of course, that means these colleges and universities want to see their incoming students likewise as committed.
Highly selective schools, like Harvard University, for example, value applicants with strong test scores, great grades, active community service and extracurriculars, great letters of recommendation, great essay writing, and an interest in being of service.
In fact, this recent quote from a Dean at Harvard University is just the latest example of precisely what colleges believe: “We’re looking for people who are genuinely curious. Not just those who do well on exams but actually want to learn and have an integrative capacity. We’re looking for people who are service-oriented.”
2. Service Upholds Personal and Family Values
Naturally, being of service to others or the world can be important for personal reasons. Every community, family, and individual makes personal choices about their level of commitment to a focus on certain activities.
Not for a moment do I think being of service to the world and other people is wrong. In fact, it upholds the values that most families are trying to encourage in their children and students. What families want to do and decide to focus on, they should do wholeheartedly.
Based on my experience as an admission officer, in the eyes of most colleges, all extracurricular activities are created equal.
For the most part, they do not judge extracurricular activities as being more or less desirable when you apply to college. Whether you do sports, play music, volunteer at a hospital, hold a part-time job, or care for your siblings after school to help working family members— no one activity exceeds the others.
Therefore, do what you enjoy doing, what you want to do, or what you need to do in your respective family or community.
The Importance of Quality Over Quantity
While all extracurricular activities are created equal, the quality of your extracurricular engagements does vary greatly.
For instance, many volunteer opportunities are not particularly challenging. They are just measured by how much time you spend, not by what you achieve, how much you improve, or what you contribute. And, sadly, when you put too much emphasis on only racking up volunteer hours, you have little more to show than that.
Thus, if you imagine that you will impress an admission officer by simply spending a certain amount of hours doing volunteer work, you most likely will be disappointed.
Plus, focusing on quantity over quality, you often miss out on opportunities for real, high-quality extracurricular time.
Conversely, you will serve yourself far better by taking on extracurriculars that offer more of a challenge to you personally. Try activities that present you with the opportunity for increasing responsibilities, improving performance, and becoming more skilled over time—such as holding a job. Or activities that also allow you to validate your achievements by winning awards and gaining recognition through formal competition—such as being on a team.
Achieving the Right Balance
By no means am I saying that volunteering is bad, that you should ignore it, or that you should do anything else except community service. The matter is not just black and white.
There is a sensible balance to achieve.
Ultimately, you should put challenge first, then find ways to channel that into a service-oriented approach. Do not start out with simply doing community service alone.
True, colleges want to see students who are applying their hard work to make the world a better place. But first, they need to see your capacity for that hard work.
They want to know if you have the ability to learn, struggle with and solve problems, challenge your thinking, work with different people, and confront real-world issues. You should demonstrate a willingness to take on leadership roles and hone your skills with a service-oriented perspective. Not simply show that you are willing to log hours.
Believe it or not, many students have great admission results with little or no community service hours because they focused on developing those kinds of qualities.
If you would like to know how my expertise as an Independent Educational Consultant can help with choosing the right focus on extracurricular activities, please learn more about my college counseling services.