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International Students: The Role of Volunteerism in American College Admissions

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Rebecca Besthoff

Written by Rebecca Besthoffon April 25th, 2018

I joined College Coach after working for many years in college admissions at various institutions. I began my career at my alma mater, Bowdoin College, where I was in charge of applications from northern California, Colorado, Texas, Georgia, and the New England states, as well as the transfer admission program. While I was an associate director of admission at Cornell, I oversaw recruitment in New England for all seven of Cornell’s undergraduate colleges. I reviewed every application that came from the region and sat on the selection committees in the College of Engineering and the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. At Harvard, I personally evaluated every application for Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and international territories. I enjoyed being a strong advocate for students in an extremely selective admissions process. My most recent position was senior associate dean at Barnard College, where I was responsible for all aspects of the international admission program. I recruited in the US, Europe, and Asia.
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Volunteering is extremely common in the United States. In fact, many American high schools, both public and private, require students to perform a certain number of community service hours before graduation. This custom gets young people out in their communities, contributing time and talent to help others. Your level of service in high school sends a message to colleges that you will also be a generous, thoughtful, and giving member of their campus family. What does community service look like? Well, pretty much anything goes. If there’s a way you can serve without getting paid for it, you are volunteering. That means the options are limitless. You can offer your time in any number of ways, so think about your current interests as a way to start. If you love technology, you might teach senior citizens in your community how to use a smartphone or the apps that would make their lives easier. If you are interested in the medical field, you could reach out to your local hospital and see if you can spend time working alongside patients, nurses, or doctors. If you have an athletic, academic, musical, or artistic talent, you could become a coach or tutor. And if you would like to assist your neighbors in need, consider serving at the local homeless shelter or soup kitchen. The benefits of volunteerism are numerous and different for everyone. Depending on where you choose to focus your energy, you can learn invaluable social and professional skills for life. You might get exposure to a career field that you are considering to see if it’s truly a good fit. You might learn how to interact with a wide range of people from backgrounds much different than your own. Many students report how much they grow and mature when they step outside their comfort zone to work with others in need. If you are already in the US, community service is one of the best ways to learn about the language, customs, work habits, and organizations that exist in this country. We are often asked if colleges require volunteer hours in order for candidates to be competitive for admission. While colleges do not expect every applicant to have pursued community service experience, they definitely see its value. There is also not a specific number of volunteer hours colleges expect to see; it’s more about the quality and consistency of your contribution rather than the sheer volume of time given. You should list your volunteer hours in your application, describing the population you served and the skills you acquired. It’s important to note that many schools with a religious affiliation may reward candidates with lots of quality volunteer experience over candidates with less service because altruism is such a large part of their missions. But, in general, we recommend pursuing volunteerism simply to gain exposure to the world around you and for your own personal growth. Find out ways you can contribute in your community, and know that U.S. colleges will view that as time well spent. International-CTA

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