Capstone College and Career Advising

Community service that counts

June 4th, 2014 by

Over the past decade or two, the value of community service on a college applicant’s resume has increased in importance. In fact, for some admissions officers, it’s now the fourth most important factor, coming in above reference letters, interviews and family legacy.

I’m not just making that statistic up. It comes from a 2011 study of top admissions officers by, a group that helps organize and motivate young volunteers.

And it only gets more important. According to a 2013 survey by Deloitte, a global consulting firm, more than 80 percent of hiring managers prefer to hire college graduates who volunteer.

Area schools and students certainly recognize this. Some private schools even require students to spend a week in the spring doing service projects, both as a way to give back to the community and as a way for students to build valuable relationships and amass those all-important hours.

But I always tell my students: don’t volunteer just because it looks good on your resume. A truly enriching volunteer experience will be far more rewarding, and teach you far more, than you dreamed.

Sure, volunteering with a literacy organization may awaken a passion for becoming an educator. Spending hours helping out at a hospital may help convince you that medical school is where you belong.

More than that, however, the best volunteer work helps you develop compassion, empathy, and insight into yourself and into others – qualities that will help not only through the college experience but throughout life.

Like many of the students I advise, my client “Briana” was fortunate to go on a mission trip with her church youth group one summer. When she returned from the Dominican Republic, she was determined to use the trip as the foundation for her admissions essays. She started outlining her essay to me, explaining that she had helped build a school by clearing ground, putting up walls, and doing other menial tasks.

I stopped her, and asked her to go beyond the surface. What did she REALLY do that mattered on that trip? She thought for a moment, and then started telling a completely different story. She talked about the joy she felt from the shy little girl who started smiling at her every day, the kids she played basketball with at lunch, and the friendships that developed as she informally taught her new friends some English. Which essay do you think would be more impressive to admissions officers?

Making sure your volunteer experience is meaningful is also important in another way. In that same survey, fully half of the admissions officers surveyed reported they felt students could have too many community service hours, and 70 percent preferred students with strong commitment to just one issue. Demonstrating a passion for one or two causes or organizations is far more important than a long laundry list of volunteer shifts completed.