Monday morning Q&A: Community service and college admissions

Nicole asks:

“How much weight do schools place on service trips? It seems as if they are reaching an over-saturation point, that I might call ‘excessive volunteering.’ Do colleges see through most of these ‘checkbox’ items on a resume or application?”

Good question, Nicole. This is a tricky subject because a strong argument can be made that volunteering anywhere for any amount of time is a good thing regardless of any purported college admissions impact. But your specific question is about the “weight” schools place on these commitments, so let me focus on that part here.

First, you’re right. Many students are approaching community service hours like checking a box–as if it were a prerequisite for admission. Some high schools even require a minimum number of completed service hours to graduate. But most colleges don’t expect that every successful applicant will have worked at a blood drive or served soup at a homeless shelter. There’s no penalty imposed on students who choose to do other things. What colleges look for is evidence that a student has made both a commitment and an impact doing things he or she cares about. That might be volunteering at a non-profit, teaching illiterate adults to read, or training guide dogs for the blind. But it could also be working at Burger King, playing softball, taking photos for the yearbook or playing the bassoon. Impact can take many forms (more on that here).

So, a student who’s spending the bare minimum time and effort just to rack up some community service hours to list on their application could reasonably consider rededicating that time someplace else without any negative admissions ramifications. If your heart’s not in it, you’re not really giving—and the people you’re serving aren’t really getting—your best self in the name of the cause.

The one potential exception to this rule is if you’re applying to a school whose mission includes serving others. For example, some religiously affiliated colleges expect that an applicant will have dedicated time to her church and embraced the tenet of service. A student who’s chosen to spend the majority of her time in church-related activities that have included serving the less fortunate will likely have an admissions advantage over the student who spent that same time running track and taking art classes. The former student is more likely to accept an offer of admission and to thrive on campus because she’s already demonstrated that she’s aligned with the mission. When in doubt, read your college’s website carefully, as these schools won’t hide what they stand for.

And no matter where you apply, never, ever ask a college admissions officer how many community service hours are “enough.” That’s like fingernails on the chalkboard to that audience.

Thanks for your question, Nicole. I’ll answer a different question next week. Here’s the form for readers to submit one of their own.