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Community Service, Reimagined: MCC’s Recommendations for High School Service

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Recently, we at CollegeVine wrote about Making Caring Common, a project of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education that recently released a report containing a set of recommendations for revolutionizing the college admissions process. A large part of the report’s argument focuses on the role college admissions plays in shaping how high-achieving students participate in their local communities.

As getting into the college of their choice is a critically important concern in many students’ lives, it’s inevitable that it significantly influences their actions, decisions, and priorities. The report, entitled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions”, claims that students’ perception of what colleges seek in candidates leads them to focus more on accruing personal accomplishments and accolades than making substantial contributions to their communities.

The report describes the way that students and parents’ typical conception of what colleges consider to be impressive community service is becoming increasingly different from what colleges actually value – and that it’s necessary for colleges to do a better job of communicating what they’re seeking to students. In this blog post, we’ll reflect upon the difference in perception between what MCC states are usually considered strong community service activities and what the report argues are more sustained, intrinsically meaningful, and valuable forms of service.

(Note: this post merely summarizes one of the viewpoints expressed in MCC and does not necessarily represent the views or recommendations of CollegeVine.)

“Valuable” Community Service – and What it Means to Us

 The importance of leadership and celebration of diversity in high school community service has always been emphasized by guidance counselors and adcoms alike. On websites, pamphlets, and in presentations, colleges claim to seek “the future leaders of the world” to fill their classes; “true global citizens” who have left “lasting impacts on the lives of others”. This terminology has led students to form a very narrow idea of what is “valuable” community service.

High-achieving students can be reluctant to take on community service in which they won’t serve in a leadership role or which won’t immediately have tangible, quantifiable results which they can then report to colleges. The report claims that in the rush to prove their leadership skills and rack up personal accomplishments, the pursuit of long-lasting, meaningful community service has fallen by the wayside.

 In their report, MCC describes one sort of service in particular as evidence of the flaws in what most people consider valuable service: “high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to [students] but appear [to them] to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership”.

Overseas community service often takes the form of brief trips abroad, typically to developing countries or countries in East Asia, to build houses or teach English. These trips often cost thousands of dollars for those volunteering, yet students and their families are willing to shell out the money for the boost they think these excursions can bring to their resumes.

What’s the Issue With High-Profile Community Service?

MCC argues that trips like this, along with other high-profile, costly community service activities, are problematic for two reasons. Firstly, they claim that the brief and exotic nature of high-profile programs prevents students from developing the dedication, humility, and intrinsic desire to serve that characterizes long-term service. Because students are for the most part being transported to an unfamiliar place and given only a short time to develop relationships with local communities, they approach their service with the attitude that they are “working for” the communities they serve, rather than “working with” them.

Secondly, the oftentimes high costs associated with such service (travel, food, etc.) prevents less-privileged students from being able to participate. As these sorts of community service are routinely considered to be the best to put on college applications, this can discourage students who can’t foot the bill. Thus, the gap in opportunity between the privileged and the less-so grows.

This is not to say that high-profile community service activities aren’t valuable, well-regarded by colleges, or undertaken with good intentions. The issue, MCC stresses, is that these sorts of activities are almost universally considered inherently superior to other forms of service, especially things like working to support one’s family, watching siblings, or assisting an ill relative.

How Can We Define “Meaningful” Service?

 MCC argues that forms of service like those listed above which falls outside what students and parents typically consider impressive “community service” actually constitute valuable and meaningful contributions to their communities and to society as a whole. The dedication and sacrifice required to complete such types of service exemplify many of the qualities MCC claims colleges should seek to promote, such as individual investment in the common good.

MCC also encourages students to complete community service in areas they are genuinely interested in, not in areas they think will best serve their resumes. Intrinsic desire to serve others and understand how service improves and develops communities is an example of the idea of “working with” communities, rather than “working for” them, that MCC champions: truly seeking to understand the struggles of others and how one’s personal skills and knowledge can contribute to the greater good.

Making Caring Common’s message of community harmony and individuals coming together to serve something greater than themselves is evident not only in their name, but in their recommendations as well. According to MCC, current ideas of what types of service are valuable (and what aren’t) are harmful both to students and communities, and the report calls upon all players in the college admissions game, especially the colleges themselves, to challenge this perception. This recommendation is just one of many ways in which MCC seeks to revolutionize the admissions landscape in years to come.


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Anamaria Lopez
Managing Editor

Short Bio
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.