Do I Need Community Service for My College Applications?
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While most colleges do not require community service for admission, there are still many benefits to participating, including showing colleges that you are involved beyond academic courses, giving you the opportunity to earn leadership positions and awards, and, most importantly, positively contributing to your community.
Volunteering makes a great extracurricular activity; if you are contributing to your community while you are in high school, you may want to continue these activities in college — not to mention colleges want to accept students who are involved and contribute positively to their schools and the schools’ surrounding communities. In this blog post, we’ll talk about how to get involved in community service in high school, and the role community service activities play in your college applications.
Community Service as an Extracurricular Activity
As we discuss in What You Should Be Thinking About as a Junior — Part II: Extracurriculars and Summer Activities, community service can serve as an excellent extracurricular activity after school or during summer vacation (and of course, it doesn’t need to be limited to your junior year). Some high schools require a certain number of volunteer hours for graduation. If you go beyond this requirement and contribute additional hours, you are showing colleges that you are participating because you truly care — not just because you need to complete the hours out of necessity.
Community service activities may not benefit you academically — although some might — but they do have a lot to offer you in the way of personal growth. As with your other extracurricular interests, look for activities that complement and utilize your strengths both academically and personally.
For instance, if you are interested in teaching or pursuing an education-related major or career, you might consider tutoring at your high school, a local after-school community center that provides programming to youth, or other programs in your area (many nonprofits offer after-school programs to students of all ages and are likely to welcome volunteers to work with their students). If you are planning on majoring in biology as part of a pre-med track, look into volunteering at a local clinic or hospital. There are numerous possibilities.
If you are not sure where to start looking for ideas, try looking online for local volunteering opportunities, asking teachers, family friends, or your guidance counselor, or approaching local nonprofits.
For more information on choosing volunteering or other extracurricular activities, check out our comprehensive guide.
Nontraditional Community Service
In 5 Takeaways from Harvard Ed School’s ‘Making Caring Common’, we discuss MCC’s argument that you should emphasize the personal impact of community service, rather than merely focusing on quantitatively impressive values such as leadership positions and awards.
Additionally, the project — whose recommendations for overhauling the admissions process have been endorsed by the deans of all 8 Ivy League schools — suggests that students pursue activities that have some value to them, such as taking care of one’s family or siblings. While this type of community service may not necessarily seem like a valuable addition to your college applications, the experiences show dedication and discipline, two traits colleges look for in candidates.
Ultimately, you should seek out community service opportunities that are worthwhile not just because you can boast about an award you received on your college application; they should have intrinsic value to you beyond that. Additionally, discussing out-of-the-box community service may serve you well in other areas of your application beyond the activities section; for instance, it might make a great essay topic.
That doesn’t mean that leadership positions you have held in or awards you have won through community service organizations are not valuable or will not contribute to your own personal growth; rather, it is important to remember that not all community service carries an obvious label or quantifiable component.
Reporting Community Service in Your Application
In general, the activities section is the best place to report your community service projects. Select “Community Service/Volunteering” as the activity type, and provide the position you held and a description of no more than 150 characters. Keep in mind that you are limited to ten activities in this section, so be sure that the activity you are including is truly meaningful to you and best exemplifies your contributions outside of school.
You should also use facts to illustrate your accomplishments wherever possible; for instance, if you raised a certain amount of money through a project, include the figure. Or if you instituted a day of service at your school, list the number of participants and various sites they visited. For more advice on how to list and describe the activities, read our post How to Fill Out the Common App Activities Section.
There are additional sections on your application where you may wish to describe your community service. As mentioned above, you might discuss a volunteering project in your essay. Some of the prompts from the Common Application and the Coalition Application lend themselves particularly well to community service projects or accomplishments.
For instance, the Common Application asks:
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
The Coalition Application asks:
Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
Before you delve into the intricacies of your community service organization, bear in mind that there are probably many applicants describing their own community service activities, and you need to set yourself apart. Show your creativity by using an innovative approach or an original angle. Follow the links above for more tips on responding to these essay prompts.
Many individual college supplements ask questions about community service as well. Check out our college essay breakdowns for specific schools to find out the best ways to answer these prompts.
If you held a leadership position or received a local, state, or national award for your community service accomplishments, you may also want to report these honors in the Honors/Education section of your application. Some community service accomplishments may fit better in the description of the project or position in the activities section, but discrete awards, such as a scholarship that recognizes you for exemplary community service, may be included here.
You should also include community service awards or leadership positions in this section if you don’t have many academic awards, or if you don’t have enough space to include them in your activity descriptions. For more advice, check out our guide on describing your accomplishments.
Your interview is another place where you might want to expand on a community service activity or leadership role. Your interviewer may ask you about community service specifically, but even if he or she does not, you might mention a particularly inspiring or meaningful activity when discussing your extracurriculars.
In addition to awards, many scholarships recognize students who have made substantial community service contributions. Even scholarships that are not based on community service may still include requirements that you have participated in some number of volunteer hours in high school. Check out our guide to finding scholarships to learn more about these opportunities.
Community Service Ideas
The possibilities for ways to get involved with your community are virtually endless.
Here are just a few ideas:
- Teaching at an after-school center or inner-city program
- Volunteering at a local library
- Volunteering at a local hospital or clinic
- Volunteering at an animal shelter
- Starting a community service organization at your high school
- Organizing a food or clothing drive
- Fundraising for a state or national cause
- Organizing a team for a walk to raise money for charities
- Participating in projects like Habitat for Humanity
- Participating in local government events
- Participate in park, beach, garden, or other cleanup initiatives
- Organizing a day of service at your high school
- Volunteering at a homeless shelter
Some opportunities may be limited to adults eighteen and over, so be sure to look into all requirements and procedures before you start making plans. As noted above, trying looking online or asking around if you are having trouble finding an activity that suits your interests.
Ultimately, what is most important is that you are doing something that is truly meaningful to you, and that you are demonstrating a real commitment to a project, cause, or organization. That means participating in the activity over an extended period of time, not just putting in a few hours during your senior year in order to add something to your college application; instead, colleges want to see that you are truly invested.
Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academics, choosing courses, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and much more!
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