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Colleges Don’t Care About Community Service

Ian Fisher College Coach

Written by Ian Brook Fisheron November 21st, 2019

I began my career in admissions by walking backwards as a student intern, giving guided tours, interviewing students, and reading applications for my alma mater, Reed College. After graduating, I began full-time work in admissions, reading thousands of applications primarily from the Western United States, especially Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. (I got to eat the best food on my travel!) In my last three years at Reed, I directed admissions for the entire continent of Asia and served as the director of marketing and communications for the admission office, honing our official voice for web, print, and social media. This helped me to develop a sharp eye for what works (and what doesn’t) in college essays. While Reed is not known (at all!) for sports, I was able to find my competitive outlet with the ultimate Frisbee team as a player and, when I graduated, a coach. After nine wonderful years at Reed, I left Portland to pursue a M.A. at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. When I graduated and joined College Coach, I was living in Palo Alto, California, an experience that helped me learn so much about the UC and CSU system and high school programs all around the Bay Area. In the end, I missed the rain too much, and moved back to Portland in the summer of 2016.
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Some years ago on a soccer sideline somewhere, or maybe in the chatty pre-show moments of a high school theatre performance, a mom or dad started the dreadful rumor that one must complete hundreds of hours of community service in order to even be considered for admission to the top colleges and universities in the country. Since that day, this misinformation has been taken as gospel by college-bound high school students and their parents. But they’re wrong. Let’s all pause for a moment and say this together: there is nothing extra special about community service. Now that I’ve said that, let’s throttle back from the edge so you can understand what I mean. When colleges and universities consider a student’s extracurricular profile, they are looking for the ways students have made an impact on their communities. One student might run track. Another might join the wind ensemble. A third might tutor elementary school kids. A fourth might volunteer at the local soup kitchen. As a college admission officer, I had no preference for one of these students over any of the others. Instead, I was interested in learning about the depth and reach of their impact. How much time did they commit to their activities? To what degree did they interact with and lead a group of their peers? What kind of recognition or acclaim did they receive for their work? How much of what they accomplished was independent: self-sought and self-fulfilled? I would guess that at least half the families I speak with on a daily basis ask about community service, and nearly all of them give it greater weight in the admission process than I ever would have when I read applications. The fervor around service has even caused high schools to impose minimum hours for graduation. This practice may make a positive net impact on a local community, but it minimizes the role of service in the application (required experiences are never as impactful as those students elect to complete) and teaches students the wrong lesson about the reasons we serve our community. It’s okay if community service is not your child’s thing! Colleges want students’ extracurricular profiles to reflect their interests and personalities as much as possible; they’re not looking for the same cookie-cutter applicant with the same number of service hours completed as everyone else. When you start to think about opportunities for your child to get involved, abandon this idea that community service is the most important, most impactful activity in the college admissions process. Encourage your children to think about their skills and their interests—to pursue opportunities where they will find success and stimulation and growth. There are so many ways to do this that students should feel empowered to find a path that will be personally engaging and yes, even look good on their college applications. Every student is different, and the exploration and cultivation of those differences can create truly powerful college communities. In the end, that’s what admissions committees are looking for.


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