student making a video call

by Kara Courtois, former admissions officer at Barnard College

“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.”  – Coretta Scott King

As we settle into another week of trying to slow the spread of this virus nationwide, I’m having more conversations with students who have started to adopt a routine with schoolwork and accept a “new normal” for learning. But this will continue to be an emotionally taxing time for everyone, so it’s important to look for ways to relieve anxiety—and giving back can be a great way to do that. Way before COVID-19, research showed that stepping outside of ourselves to help someone else is a great way to stave off loneliness, boredom, and stress. As an educator for the past 25 years, I can truly say that I have never met a student who didn’t feel better after volunteering.

Whether you’re a veteran of community service or have never volunteered, now is a great time to squeeze in one or two simple commitments on your own—or with your parents, siblings, or friends.

Before you get started, consider these questions:

Do you want to continue one of your existing commitments?

Many non-profits are more in need than ever of volunteers, both virtually and in-person (if it allows for safe distancing). For instance, if you have volunteered with a local animal shelter, reach out to your contact there or get on their website and see what they need right now. Our local shelter needs animals fostered, as well as food donations. Could you rally your friends and neighbors to collect a bunch of animal food? Don’t forget to post a notice on your social media to let local friends know how you’re soliciting help.

Are there any volunteer options that might help you explore your academics interests?

For example, if you have an interest in education, reach out to a teacher from your elementary school to see if they would welcome supplemental materials, like a video of you reading a book, or personalized virtual tutoring services for struggling students. An interest in science could lead to contacting local zoos to see what they need, or emailing local professors to see if they have any online research opportunities.

Do you have skills or talents that would benefit your community?

Posting a notice in your online school or community board suggesting that you are skilled in robotics or computer programming, fixing bicycles or gardening: Whatever your talent, you can offer to assist someone virtually or at a safe distance right in your own community. My daughter, who enjoys art, has started creating cards and pictures for a local hospital aiming to provide inspiring visuals for their staff and patients. If you like to write, see if any local senior homes have pen pal programs.

Some suggestions to keep in mind before you proceed to virtual volunteering:

  • Consider the time you have to offer: Non-profits often rely up to 80% on volunteers, so if you’re going to make a commitment to volunteer weekly or more, make sure what you are offering is sustainable within the context of your schoolwork or home commitments. Start with a smaller commitment and add more time if you like the work.
  • Start locally: One way to feel more connected to our world is to think locally before you expand your efforts. It’s great to offer assistance to organizations globally, but if you’re just starting out, you will find plenty of opportunities in your area.
  • Be mindful of age restrictions: Some opportunities require that you are 18+, so be mindful of age requirements when reading descriptions of volunteer options.
  • Grab a partner: You might have more fun if you invite a friend to explore volunteer options with you and make a plan to collaborate rather than take on a solo endeavor.

Finally, I imagine many students and parents may consider the question, “Will these volunteer hours “count” as something you can indicate on your future college applications?” The simple answer is, YES, but you will want to keep in mind that the volunteer commitment is going to have more impact on you and your future application if it’s an activity or organization that you’re naturally interested in and committed to. A positive result of this virus could be the ability to look back on this time and know that you made a difference in someone’s life.

Online resources for finding remote volunteer options:

Check your local library’s website for additional options!

Our College Admissions Experts

Written by Kara Courtois
Kara Courtois is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Kara holds degrees from University of Notre Dame and University of Portland; she completed her graduate coursework at Teachers College, Columbia University and Steinhardt School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Kara was a senior admissions officer at Barnard College. Visit our website to learn more about Kara Courtois.