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College-bound students know to focus on their grades, standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities, but one key component of a strong college application is often overlooked: community service.

Colleges consider numerous factors when assessing applications, including the ways in which students give back to their community. In one survey of college admissions officers, 58 percent of respondents said community service positively impacted a student’s chance of being accepted.

For this reason, many high schools require that students log a certain number of community service hours every year. But why exactly does community service matter for college applications, and how can students find the right service opportunities to strengthen their candidate profile? Read on to find out.

Why do colleges care about community service?

Most colleges have no explicit requirement for volunteer hours, but community service can tell them a lot about who a student is and what they have to offer. For instance, long-term involvement with a nonprofit organization displays a high level of dedication, while impressive fundraising efforts demonstrate a strong work ethic and promising business acumen.

By and large, admissions officers view students with a strong community service record as responsible, values-driven, dedicated, and capable of long-term commitment. Depending on the extent of a student’s involvement, volunteer opportunities can even qualify as leadership experience.

More importantly, many schools see community service as an indicator of future involvement on campus — every college wants students who will be actively involved in student organizations, school-sponsored programs, and community groups, so high school community service reflects well on the role a student might play in their college community.

Lastly, community service builds a more complete picture of the student by showing what matters to them and how they choose to spend their free time. For example, if a student has expressed that they intend to major in biology and become a veterinarian, volunteering at an animal shelter one day a week will confirm their passion for animals and demonstrate their dedication to their professional future.

What kind of community service involvement do colleges want to see?

As with anything on a college application, students should aim for quality over quantity in community service. Rather than trying out a handful of different volunteer activities a couple of times a year, students should pick one or two things they’re passionate about and devote consistent time to those involvements.

Furthermore, students should choose service activities that they’re genuinely excited about or passionate about. Not only will this make it easier to keep up with their commitment, but it also makes it more likely that the activity will align with their other interests, extracurriculars, and long-term goals. This will help the student develop a cohesive college application that gives admissions officers concrete insight into what kind of person they are.

For instance, students interested in English could tutor younger students in an after-school literacy program. Students who intend to pursue a career in medicine could volunteer at a hospital. Students interested in environmental science could spend one afternoon a week working in a community garden.

Colleges are particularly interested in service activities where the student has taken on a leadership role; not only does this show long-term dedication, but it also doubles as leadership experience, an attractive element of any robust college application.

Lastly, the best community service endeavors are the ones students can continue, particularly on a college campus. Since colleges are hoping to admit engaged students who actively contribute to a more vibrant campus culture, students can stand out by participating in ongoing service commitments that could easily translate to campus activities.

Where do I list my community service on college applications?

Students will generally be asked to describe community service in the activities section of their college application, so it’s wise to keep track of crucial information like:

  • title of each organization they volunteer with
  • their role and responsibilities in the organization, or a brief description of their involvement
  • average number of volunteer hours per week
  • average number of volunteer weeks per year

Students can also talk about their community service in their college application essays. Many college essay prompts ask students to reflect on something they care about, something they learned, or an experience that impacted them. These essays can be the perfect opportunity to elaborate on their volunteer experience and what it means to them.

How can I find community service opportunities?

Students looking for new volunteer activities have plenty of options. Websites like VolunteerMatch and Idealist can help connect students to local or fully remote volunteer opportunities. Many high schools have lists of organizations that work with students regularly.

Local volunteer opportunities will also depend on the type of activity a student wants to do. Most cities are within driving distance from a hospital, clinic, food bank, animal shelter, or senior living facility, so students can approach organizations like these directly to see what help they might need.

If students can’t find an organization to volunteer with, they can also create a service opportunity of their own. Fundraising for a charitable cause, assembling care packages for homeless shelters, or picking up trash in a local park are all great ways to give back.

Can community service help me get a scholarship?

In the same way that community service catches the eye of college admissions officers, consistent volunteer experience can also help students secure scholarships to fund their education.

In addition to making students more attractive candidates for scholarships in general, community service unlocks unique scholarship opportunities in other ways as well.

For instance, there are numerous scholarships specifically for students who are actively involved in their community, including the Equitable Excellence Scholarship and the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. Depending on where the student volunteers, some nonprofit organizations even have internal scholarships reserved for their volunteers.

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