people volunteering at garden

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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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College. Visit our website to learn more about Ian Fisher.