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students working on a community service project, spreading mulch, while others pick up trash.
Photographer: Josh Hild | Source: Unsplash

In this article, CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expert Michael gives best practices for doing community service and including it in your college applications. For more guidance on the college applications process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

As you look for ways to strengthen your extracurricular profile, you may find yourself interested in community service.

Community service can be incredibly meaningful for young people during the college process and beyond. However, many students engage in community service just to pad their résumés, gain references and recommendations, or have an easy topic for their college essays.

In this article, we’ll examine the ways that community service can be both helpful and harmful to you in the admissions process.

The Dos of Meaningful Community Service

If you choose to participate in community service, it should not just be for your college applications. It should be because you care about your community and the work you choose to do.

That being said, meaningful community service can strengthen your college applications. You just have to make sure that you choose the right projects and address them in the right ways.

Here are some tips to ensure that your involvement strengthens—rather than undermines—your college applications.

Find service opportunities that support your interests

When applying to colleges, you’ll create what we call your candidate profile: a cohesive application theme that showcases your academic, extracurricular, and personal interests and how they overlap. Your community service experiences should align with this profile.

Say you have an incredible passion for education and you want to become a teacher. You might find ways of tutoring your peers, or you could work with a company that provides educational resources to underserved communities. If you want to become a healthcare professional, you might volunteer at the Red Cross or your local hospital. And if you’re interested in environmental science, you could organize local gardening initiatives or participate in cleanups. No matter where your interests lie, the possibilities are endless!

Make an active effort to contribute to your community

Maybe you’re not thrilled with the service opportunities available in your community, but you still want to give back. In that case, consider creating your own club, organization, or initiative!

Admissions Officers love when students take their extracurriculars into their own hands and create their own opportunities. And this doesn’t have to be too official—grab some friends, brainstorm some ideas, and get to work.

Remember, of course, that no matter what you do, you should be passionate about your contributions to your community. You should also be able to clearly explain why you chose to pursue this specific service project.

Show a demonstrated interest in service

Maybe you’re just passionate about community service and contributing to social good overall! This might mean that you’d rather participate in many smaller projects than commit to larger, more specific initiatives. That’s all right, too! You can likely find many clubs—perhaps your school’s Key Club or National Honor Society—with this exact purpose.

If this is your speed, make sure that you display a demonstrated commitment to these clubs or service projects. Participate in as many projects as possible, and help in any way you can. You may even look for leadership roles within these clubs to maximize your involvement.

Highlight your specific impact

When you write about your community service experience in your applications, be sure to highlight your specific contributions.

Let’s say you participated in a fundraising event that raised $5,000, and you personally brought in $2,000 of that through cold-calling potential donors. You would definitely want to highlight that achievement! This shows Admissions Officers your passion for your projects as well as your drive to make a tangible difference.

The Don’ts: Wrong Strategies for Approaching Community Service

While community service can strengthen an application, you want to be careful that it doesn’t seem like you’re doing it just to impress colleges. Here are some of the ways that community service can hurt you in the admissions process.

Participate in just a little of it

If you want to use community service as a part of your candidate profile, truly commit to it! Too often, applicants will focus on a community service experience where they went away for a week or so (Habitat for Humanity and Doctors Without Borders are great examples of this) and never thought about it again. While these organizations do meaningful work, a week-long service trip will not add to your profile or illustrate your passions.

If you choose to participate in a short-term service opportunity, brainstorm how you can supplement that experience once it has finished. Ask yourself what you liked about that experience and how you might continue doing similar work. See if there are other ways you can become involved in the organization, even if you can’t return to the “front lines.”

Additionally, be wary of entering other people’s communities. If you choose to go on a service trip to another country, do so with respect and self-awareness.

Write about how community service made you grateful

The whole point behind community service is to serve the community, and the whole point of your college essays is to show how your experiences have made you the person that you are. However, Admissions Officers have seen too many essays where students write about their gratitude after helping others in need. While this is a great takeaway, it is one that almost everybody who has done community service experiences!

When writing an essay about service, focus on how it has impacted your life and future. Did a project inspire you to continue doing similar work on your own? Did an initiative reveal to you your desired academic and professional path? Or did you make an active effort to recruit your family and friends because you felt so passionate about the cause?

Rely on passive actions

Passive actions (such as donations) can be deeply impactful for service organizations. However, in the admissions process, these passive actions do not add to your candidate profile. As with any extracurricular, you should be actively involved in your community service experiences.

For example, a monetary donation of any amount is a stellar way to support a cause, but someone can give money with a simple click of a button. It doesn’t take much thought, time, or real action. We’ll want to be sure to stay away from mentioning any actions that didn’t require you to specifically give your time and energy.

Additionally, some students will sign up to participate in community service clubs just to be a member. They’ll show up to a couple of meetings, but they’ll never actually go to any events or contribute in any meaningful way. If this sounds like you, you definitely don’t want to mention it in your applications.

Final Thoughts

As you can tell, community service can improve your college applications quite a bit—but only if you’re smart about it! Ultimately, Admissions Officers are looking to see that your extracurriculars support your candidate profile: that they make sense in relation to the interests that you have and the values that you hold.

Conduct some research to see what service opportunities are available to you, both in your school and in the community. Make sure that no matter what you decide to do, that you are making a demonstrated effort to positively and actively impact your cause.

This article on community service was written by Michael Miller, University of Pennsylvania ‘18. If you want to get help with your college applications from CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expertsregister with CollegeAdvisor.com today.