Admissions committees at top colleges are not impressed by applicants who are focused solely on themselves. They seek applicants who are aware of the world around them and have admirable personal traits. One particular trait that appeals to them is altruism. Colleges look for applicants with a strong record of community service as an expression of their altruism. To a college, a history of community service indicates that a student is prepared for a college career and lifetime of compassion for those less fortunate, which embodies the type of student they seek.
A recent survey of college Admissions Officers (AO’s) by Businesswire found that community service is often a deciding factor in admissions. Of the AO’s surveyed, 53% said that service can be a tie-breaker between two otherwise equally qualified applicants.
Community Service Is Valued
In a college’s holistic approach to admissions, community service is looked upon as a type of extracurricular activity, one of the “soft factors” that make up an applicant’s profile. Top colleges see more applicants every year whose academic records exceed their entry requirements, so soft factors have become a significant means of distinguishing individuals in the applicant pool who are most worthy of admission.
Top colleges look upon service as a desirable aspect of an applicant’s profile, as these essay prompts attest:
MIT: “At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community.”
Princeton: “Princeton has a longstanding commitment to service and civic engagement. Tell us how your story intersects (or will intersect) with these ideals”
University of Michigan: “Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.”
University of California: “What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?”
Princeton Exemplifies Commitment to Service
Princeton is an example of the commitment of a top college to service, which is central to the mission of the university. Service infuses the passions and pursuits of students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Christopher Eisgruber, President of Princeton University, has stated that, “Princeton University has a longstanding commitment to service, reflected in Princeton’s informal motto — ‘Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity’ — and exemplified by the extraordinary contributions that Princetonians make to society.”
Princeton continually emphasizes its role in helping students and alumni use their education for the benefit of society. The university pushes students to consider how their research, education, and lives will benefit the nation and humanity. It gives them the support and resources they need to put their service ideas into action.
Princeton’s Service Focus Program builds a commitment to service and civic engagement at the undergraduate level. It consists of a summer service internship, service-related courses, and opportunities for students to engage with faculty and peers to learn what it means to be “In the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” An applicant to Princeton who has already demonstrated a strong commitment to service will be looked upon favorably.
Service as a Strategy for Admission
You can choose to highlight your community service as a “hook” to help you gain admission, but, if you do, your service record must be extraordinary. It’s best to focus on one service early in high school and stick with it. A record of many, varied volunteer services may make a positive impression on an AO, but it won’t suffice as a hook. The best service record is long-term and demonstrates commitment, hard work, and a devotion to improving conditions in a local, national, or worldwide community. Working within a large service organization is preferred because you can show a progression to positions of responsibility.
In your application, the history of your service should be expressed in a sincere and earnest manner. More than other activities that appeal to colleges, service must genuinely reflect deeply held convictions. It is an opportunity to show compassion, creativity, depth, and leadership, all characteristics that AO’s like to see.
When to Use the Activities Section
In the Activities section of the Common App, you can enter up to 10 extracurriculars that you participated in during high school, including community service activities. You must be concise because there’s a 150-character limit for each entry. You also need to include the total hours you spent on each activity. Below is an example of a 150-character entry in the Activities section for a community service activity:
Title: After School Tutor – Westlake HS
Hours: 5/week; 20 weeks/year
Description: Tutor for students struggling academically in physics & biology; assist with student homework; craft study plans & material
Essays About Community Service
It’s often a good idea to devote your Common App essay to your community service if you wish to emphasize it as a factor in your favor. But be careful. Essays about service are often stale and stuffy. Don’t take the shopworn approach of extoling the worthiness of your cause and then wrapping it up with the valuable lessons you learned.
Some students take trips abroad to help impoverished people in third world countries. This is an unselfish, compassionate act. However, if it’s done to provide the theme for a community service essay, be aware that it’s a cliché that won’t sway an AO. Such a common theme is unlikely to make much of an impression.
In developing an essay about community service, we advise that you start with yourself. To avoid the commonplace, base your story on the specifics of your life. Reveal the motive that led you to take up that service in the first place. Include your opinion about your service’s effectiveness. Explain why you stuck with it.
Your service can focus on something small and inconspicuous. It doesn’t need to be of cosmic significance; it just needs to be important to you. Describe the moment when the service first felt right for you. Use details to make it personal. Discuss how the service shaped you. Reflect on how you plan to continue to serve in the future.
You should convey your chosen service and your passion for it clearly and convincingly throughout your entire application, including essays, interviews, and letters of recommendation. Not everything needs to focus on your service because there are many other points you’ll want to make, but there should be a clear theme running through all of your communications that tells your service story compellingly and consistently.
Admit You to College Helps Parents and Students
If you’re a parent who isn’t sure how to guide your teen in finding a service with which to engage, you should contact us. Your Admit You to College consultant will work with you and your student to identify causes that he or she believes in that are also likely to strengthen their college application.
Community Service Boosts Your Appeal