Preparing for College

How do Admission Committees Evaluate Community Service?

Question: What do admission officials think when they see community service on an application, and what sets one student's service experience apart from others? How would one best highlight those activities on applications? Are extra attachments to the applications acceptable?

It used to be a big plus for college admission officials to spot community service on a prospective student’s application. Now, however, it’s almost the norm, especially at the more competitive colleges.

While officials certainly will not think ill of any form of volunteerism, they do try to discern a candidate’s level of commitment. For instance, a student who has worked at the same literacy center several days a week for three years will garner more nods of approval than one who has spent an hour a week for just a month, though both efforts are admirable.

Admission officials are also interested in unusual service endeavors or those that required uncommon initiative. For instance, one dean remembers being impressed by an Advanced Placement Spanish student who used her skills to launch an evening English class to Spanish-speaking parents at an elementary school in her community. Another dean recalls being impressed by a chess club president who took her talents to the inner city, teaching the game to disadvantaged children and earning national recognition for her pilot program. Indeed, on rare occasions, students get acclaim for their service that extends beyond their school or local area, and that always plays well with admission committees.

Not surprisingly, the more selective a college or university, the more outstanding a volunteer endeavor must be to make a mark with admission officials. Just as 1,300 on the SAT will wow evaluators at one college and only a near-perfect score will be truly impressive at another, so too will the pickier colleges be flooded with more typical service endeavors (peer counselors, elementary tutors, monthly soup-kitchen servers) and the more elite institutions are looking for atypical endeavors or unusually high levels of commitment.

As an applicant (whether you’re aiming for freshman or transfer admission) it’s imperative that you make your community-service activities (and all your activities, for that matter) clear to admission committees. Those nasty little lines on applications rarely give you a chance to do it, so you’ll need to attach a résumé or activities list. Make sure that this clarifies what you’ve done and how much you’ve done it. Never use abbreviations or acronyms for organizations, etc. unless you’re certain they’re universally known (e.g., UNICEF). If you’ve held any leadership roles or founded a venture, rather than just joined it, be sure to say so. A bit of tasteful bragging may be in order! Don’t hesitate, if warranted. You can also enclose a newspaper article or two about your efforts, if you have one.

Community service tends to be more prevalent on applications submitted by high school students than those completed by transfers, and admission officers are especially glad to see that college students are contributing to a community where they may be only temporary residents.