How important is community service in college applications & admissions?

Since the number of college applications is on the rise, and more and more students with similar SAT/ACT scores and GPAs are applying to each college

there’s no question that admissions committees often look at non-academic factors when making final decisions. One factor that many students and parents sometimes overlook is community service. If you’re a freshman or a sophomore, you might be asking, “How important is it for me to start doing community service—and what kinds of activities should I get involved in?” If you’re a junior or a senior, you might be wondering, “Will it hurt my application if I don’t have any community service on my resume?” As with every issue, each person’s situation will be different. But there are a few factors regarding community service that most colleges agree on.

Students who show sustained and active involvement in community service are more attractive to colleges than those who just did a few weeks of community service to put it on their resumes. Volunteering with just one organization over the course of several years is much more valuable than multiple short-term activities. In fact, a recent survey by DoSomething.org found that 70% of college admissions counselors would rather see intensive activity in one organization than casual volunteering for a variety of causes.

Admissions officers especially like to see unusual service projects—those that are fueled by the student’s own passions rather than an attempt at resume-building. If you have created your own service initiative, all the better!

For example, a dean of one college remembers taking extra notice of a chess club president who decided to teach chess to inner city students. If you’re going to volunteer, follow your heart, not your resume.

Students who attain leadership positions in service organizations are seen as very valuable to colleges.

The more selective the college or university, the bigger the service needs to be. If you want to impress Harvard officials, you can’t put down “Toys for Tots” on your application—unless, of course, you were running your local chapter, and not just donating a few toys every holiday season.

For students who are more interested in politics, volunteering to work on a political campaign is considered community service—as long as the student wasn’t paid for their time.

If you’re a freshman at a college or university that you plan to transfer out of in the coming year, don’t consider the temporary nature of your situation a reason not to volunteer. Colleges love seeing applications from transfer students who have gotten involved in their college communities.

All that said, if you haven’t been able to participate in any service organizations—perhaps because you’re heavily involved in a sport, or work part-time after school—you shouldn’t be at a huge disadvantage. Being involved in any activity long-term looks good to colleges, and they’re not going to judge you for not volunteering if all your spare time has been spent earning trophies and leadership roles in a sport or another activity.

The bottom line? Volunteering in the right ways will absolutely help your chances—but make sure you’re not just doing it to put something on your application. If that’s the case, you’re better off getting involved in something else you truly care about!

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