A student recently asked me, "How do volunteer work and service-related clubs look on applications? Do they, too, strike admissions officers as a sign of a complacent student whose main goal is to look good? What kind of specialized service opportunities TRULY give kids an edge in college and beyond?"
The answer... is that it depends. Some schools really want students who have demonstrated commitment to their community; others are going to care much more about your grades.
Not very helpful, huh?
But here's some information that you will find very helpful:
Many students focus their energy on "what" they're doing -- community service, AP classes, varsity sports, etc. But one of the most important questions admissions officers have about you isn't "what" -- it's why?
Why are you doing what you're doing? Why is that an enriching experience? How will it help you accomplish your goals?
So let's apply this to community service.
What: You volunteer to pick up trash at a park every month.
What: You volunteer as a receptionist at a local hospital every week.
If you don't have a good "why," schools won't be hugely impressed by your service. They're looking for people who find and develop passions. They're looking for people who want to change the world.
If your application is full of whats and void of whys... that tells them you're not looking to change the world. You're looking to get into college.
So as you're planning out your schedule and figuring out how you want to spend your time, think about service opportunities that are truly meaningful to you -- and that can truly enhance your life, goals and opportunities.
For example. If you're studying Chinese, volunteer as a Chinese language tutor. If you're studying Chinese and you want to be pre-med, volunteer for the Asian Health Foundation. Volunteer to raise money or awareness of the hepatitis B prevalence in Asian American communities.
If you're worried about mental health in your school, spearhead a campaign to make real change. Start a blog. Gather signatures on your petition. Write an op-ed. Start a student group that conducts surveys on student well-being, homework load, and health. (This will be especially impressive if you're planning to indicate an interest in Psychology, Sociology, Social Work, Public Health, Education, or another related field.)
Here's another tip:
Never, ever write an essay about how such-and-such a volunteer experience "changed your life" if it didn't actually change your life.
Don't say your summer spent building schools in El Salvador changed your life... if you went back to school and kept doing the same things you were already doing. If it truly changed your life -- show that it changed your life.
Take a Spanish for Medical Professionals course online or at a local community college. Volunteer for a labor or immigration issues groups. Join a grassroots effort to legalize drugs in your state, if you think that will make a difference to the orphans you worked with!
(That could actually be a super edgy and memorable college essay -- something to the effect of, "If I learned anything from working with orphans in El Salvador... it's that we need to legalize drugs in the United States." See also: If You're a Vegetarian Who Uses Illegal Drugs, You are THE HUGEST Hypocrite.)
Finally, I'll say this:
There's nothing wrong with getting involved with a cause you care about through a paying job.
You don't have to not get paid in order to show colleges you care about your community or you want to change the world.
If you care about supporting the arts, take a job in the ticketing office at your community theater. Take a job hanging posters on windows and billboards downtown. Take an internship running the theater's social media account.
A job actually gives you an additional opportunity to show who you are and why this is important to you. Beyond contributing to the community through your work, you can spend the money you make in a way that teaches you something or enhances your life.
What: I worked in the ticketing office at my community theater.
Why: Because I love theater and playwriting, and want to support the arts.
And then!: I used the money I made to go to a summer playwriting workshop; I used the money I made to buy season tickets to the opera; I used the money I made to produce my own (extremely low-budget) one-act show; etc.
Colleges love to see students who are willing to work for what they want. Because of that, a job can be just as impressive as a service opportunity.
Here's the tl;dr:
Volunteering for the sake of volunteering can backfire by indicating to colleges that you are a hoop jumper and a box checker, rather than a curious and passionate individual who wants to change the world.
So be mindful. Self-reflect. And seek out jobs and volunteer opportunities that a) are meaningful to you, and b) connect with your other passions, goals and interests.
Do you have questions or comments on this article? Share them in the comments! Or contact me to set up an appointment or discuss my services.
Eva Glasrud completed her B.A. and M.A. at Stanford. She is now a college counselor and life coach for gifted youth.