Little Volunteer Work = Admissions Deal-Breaker?

Question: My daughter has worked hard throughout high school. She is at the top of her class, with almost a perfect SAT and ACT. She plays the piano and does cross country. However, because of our financial difficulties, she has had to babysit and tutor, and work summers at a farm, to pay for her own clothes, etc. Her counselor said she will not get into a decent college because she has only done a little volunteer work (working on Obama’s campaign). I explained that she has had to work 3 days a week, and this combined with taking 4 APs and helping me out with her little brother has given her little time to do much else. I feel so discouraged for my daughter. After all that she has done, it seems this is going to limit her chances. I don’t know what to think.

Your counselor sounds like an idiot. Well, okay, maybe that’s a little strong, but “The Dean” just had a second cup of coffee and probably should have stopped at one. 😮

For starters, I don’t know what the counselor means by a “decent” college. But, regardless, the minimal volunteer work on your daughter’s résumé won’t be a deal-breaker anywhere. Her paid work experiences (plus helping you at home) will look every bit as meaningful to admission committees as a volunteer job, especially when she points out that the money she earned was for necessities, not for luxuries. The summer farm gig sounds especially interesting (far less common than tutoring and babysitting) and might even be fodder for an essay.

In any case, your daughter should make sure that admission officials know about her work experiences and the reasons behind them. The “Additional Information” section of her applications provides a place for this explanation, if she needs it. I also encourage students to submit an “Annotated Activities List” to the colleges that will accept unsolicited materials (and almost all will). This “résumé on steroids” provides not only a list of a student’s activities and achievements but also offers a brief explanation of those that aren’t immediately obvious. So this is a spot where she can explain her assorted jobs and why she does them.

Since you’ve told me that your daughter is a top student who will need significant financial aid, she may want to consider an Early Decision application. Because your counselor has already proved to be ill informed, he or she might also tell you that “ED” is only for students who aren’t worried about cost. But, conversely, the most selective colleges that offer ED also have excellent financial aid, so your daughter might benefit from giving herself the admissions-odd boost that ED provides. If she is admitted via Early Decision but the aid award is not sufficient, she can back out of the “binding” Early Decision commitment without penalty as long as she does it promptly. (Some of the most sought-after universities offer “Single Choice Early Action” instead of Early Decision. This gives some admissions-odds boost but not as much as ED. So if your daughter prefers one of the SCEA colleges, this is a route she might consider as well.)

Moreover, there are hundreds of colleges that I would call very “decent” that would practically send a limo for applicants with top grades and near-perfect tests … even those who barely leave their bedrooms outside of school hours! So your daughter will have many options, even if she never does a lick of volunteer work again.

But, finally, you must keep in mind that the Ivies and other “elite” colleges turn down roughly nine qualified applicants for each one they admit. Strong grades and test scores will get a candidate to the outer gate, but then the admission folks have tough choices to make as they decide who goes beyond it. So if your daughter is not accepted by her favorite colleges, I promise you that it won’t be because of the paucity of volunteer work on her application, despite what her school counselor claims.