Admission News

How Colleges Look at Volunteering

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Involvement in the community can certainly supplement a college application favorably. After all, colleges want to know an applicant they are accepting will contribute to the college’s community in a positive way.

But, there is a caveat. College admissions people can distinguish volunteer experiences that are done to pad the resume from legitimate ones.

Consider some of the tell-tale signs of fatuous volunteering.

• A student checks in and out of a state politician’s local campaign office but has no course work or activities that revolve around an interest in government or politics. This volunteer experience falls flat for admissions people because it has no context.

• A student spends two months during his junior year doing eco work in Haiti. But, the student is only able to do so because his parents can afford the costs of the trip, food, and shelter. The work is great, but not everyone can afford a summer frolic. This applicant’s volunteer inclusion could look like an opportunity not a commitment.

• A student works for local non-profits, but it is part of the high school requirement for graduation. Admissions could interrupt this volunteer experience as mandatory, not charitable.

• A student writes about her world experience because she has traveled with her parents in Europe. But, there is certain homogeneity in experiencing even world travel, and human emotions that can impact a student can be experienced just as well at home.

So, applicants should understand that admission people are looking for a broad experience and an array of interests that can include volunteering, but they also want it to be part of a larger context that shows the applicant as someone with a legitimate interest. The experience should impact the student in a significant and meaningful way, not simply be a way to check off one more thing needed to make the application look good.

Pamela Paul in her article from The New York Times Education Section shares six words that admission officers apply to test the quality of an applicant’s volunteer experience: “commitment, leadership, passion, engaged, meaningful, and transformed.”

Colleges are looking for students to distinguish themselves, but they can also distinguish what is real and what is for show. Most important is for an applicant to show s/he does something meaningful with his/her time.