Tips for Writing a Standout Community Service Essay
Through your college applications process, you’re likely to come across the term “community service” many times. In fact, you may be asked to write an essay about it. This post will cover the specifics of a community service essay and how to go about writing one, including what to cover and common mistakes to avoid.
What is a Community Service Essay?
You may encounter the community service essay as you’re writing your supplemental essays for college. These are school-specific prompts that only go to the college that requests them, unlike the personal statement, which goes to every school you apply to. Not all schools require community service essays, but several do. It’s also a common requirement for scholarship applications, especially if it’s a school-specific merit scholarship.
The community service essay is an essay that describes the initiatives you have taken outside of the classroom to benefit your community. In a 2018 survey of 264 admissions leaders across the US, 58% said that community service is a tie-breaker between students who are otherwise equally qualified. The community service essay offers you the opportunity to shine light on the work you have done to make an impact on the world and people around you, and is an additional way to help you stand out among other applicants.
Approaching the Community Service Essay
Understand the essay requirements
As with any essay, it’s important to first understand what is expected of your essay. For a start, elements to pay attention to include:
- Length requirements
- Focus or subject of the essay prompt
- Organization of the essay
Although all community service essays ultimately have the same purpose of having you describe your local service activities, they can come with different types of prompts. Below are three sample prompts. Note the differences in topic specificity, length requirements, and breadth of the prompt.
From the CGCS – Bernard Harris Scholarship Program:
Please describe a meaningful volunteer or community service experience, including what you learned from participating.
From the University of California Application:
What have you done to make your school or your community a better place? (350 words).
From the Equitable Excellence Scholarship:
Describe your outstanding achievement in depth and provide the specific planning, training, goals, and steps taken to make the accomplishment successful. Include details about your role and highlight leadership you provided. Your essay must be a minimum of 350 words but not more than 600 words.
Brainstorming for your community service essay
Once you have an understanding of what is required of the specific you are to write, the next step is to brainstorm ideas for a specific topic. If you have various community-engaged service experiences under your belt, consider the following before you finalize your decision.
The best topics:
Are substantial in length and scope. It’s better to cover a long-term commitment than a one-off afternoon at the food pantry or animal shelter.
Are transformative or inspiring. Although community service is “others”-oriented, colleges are looking to learn more about you. The ideal community service essay topic should be an experience that changed or challenged your perspective, and was ultimately fulfilling.
Illustrate personal qualities or passions that you want to highlight. Given the specific prompt, and taking the rest of your application into consideration, which personal interests do you want to highlight? Which activity illuminates the personal quality that you want to bring attention to?
These are all elements to consider before you begin writing your essay.
Tips for Writing Your Community Service Essay
1. Include anecdotes
Anecdotes are a great way to begin your essay, not only as a way to grab your reader’s attention, but by launching right into the experience of your service activity. You can start with a line about a particularly busy afternoon at the orphanage, or a morning cleaning up the streets after a storm, or the sense of accomplishment you felt when you watched a dog under your care at the animal shelter get adopted.
2. Show, don’t tell
We’re sure you’ve heard this axiom of general writing before, but it applies to college essays just as much as with any other piece of writing. Opt for evocative examples over plain explaining whenever possible. Take this sentence: “There was a lot of food waste at our school cafeteria.” It’s not nearly as powerful as this description: “I peered into the tall, gray trash cans to inspect the mountain of Styrofoam trays and discarded food. There were countless pizza crusts, globs of green beans, and unopened cartons of milk.”
Anyone could write the first sentence, and it’s not a unique experience. In the second description, we’re shown the scene of the writer’s lunchroom. We get a peek into their perspective and life, which makes the writing more vivid and relatable. Aim to bring your reader into your world as much as possible.
3. Share your responsibilities and accomplishments.
The more tangible your community service activities feel to the reader, the more powerful your essay will be. Concretize your work by stating the basic details of what kind of work you did and what your duties involved, where it was based, when you began working, and the amount of time you spent working.
Be sure to quantify your work and accomplishments when possible; it’s better to say your fundraiser yielded 125 books than “a large number” of books. It’s important to also elaborate on why the work you did matters. Why was it important? Did the books you collected or purchased after the fundraiser expand the library of the local orphanage that they already had, or did it offer the children easy access to books that wasn’t available previously? Be specific and detailed.
4. Highlight what you learned and how you’ll use those lessons moving forward.
Towards the end of your essay, you’ll want to share how you benefited from the community service work you did. This is an important part of the essay, because it shows how you are able to distill your experiences to applicable lessons in your own life.
Think of this section in two potential parts: skills you learned, and personal development. Did you gain any hard skills, such as public speaking, poster design, or funds management? Then think about how you developed as an individual. Are you more empathetic or patient now?
Things to Avoid in Your Community Service Essay
1. Don’t list out everything that happened.
You want to keep your essay well-structured and concise. This isn’t a résumé, or a play-by-play of the entire experience. Stick to the most telling details and anecdotes from your experience.
2. Avoid using a pretentious or privileged tone.
Humility goes a long way, and entitlement can be smelled from afar. The purpose of this essay is not to paint yourself as a savior of any kind, but rather to show what’s important to you in your non-academic life, and how you approach solving real-world and interpersonal problems.
3. Avoid clichés.
It may be tempting to quote famous people, but doing so can easily seem like a shortcut, plus it shows little of who you are. Try also to steer clear of trite and vague life lesson lines such as “I learned that people can be happy with so little,” or “I learned the importance of giving back.” Not only do they carry a tone of privilege, they are also sweeping general conclusions and don’t convey anything specific of what you learned.
Community service is only a part of the college application process, which can be daunting and confusing. CollegeVine will help you navigate each step of the process, from building a college list, to calculating your chances at each school using our chancing engine. Create your free account and get started now!
Want more college admissions tips?
We'll send you information to help you throughout the college admissions process.