What does it mean to give back and what does it have to do with your college applications? Giving back is helping someone else in hopes that your aid will propel them on a better path. And not only is giving back good for others—it’s good for you, and that’s okay. Colleges value the integrity, commitment, and skills involved in volunteering. It proves you’re aware enough to see the world’s problems and capable enough to act on improving them. What college wouldn’t want that kind of student on campus?
But just volunteering isn't enough—you need to know how to properly highlight your volunteering efforts on your college applications. If you present it in the wrong way or emphasize it too much over other important aspects of your application, it could come off the wrong way. Let's explore the importance of volunteering and how best to show it on your college applications to present your best self.
Why should I start volunteering?
Volunteering benefits everyone involved. The people you help will receive what they need as well as the sense that someone cares. As a volunteer, you’ll enjoy a great sense of satisfaction and likely learn some helpful skills along the way. In fact, volunteers can also experience improved mental health by giving their time to others. And if these reasons aren’t enough for you, here are a couple other big ones.
You stand out on more than just college applications
Although colleges don’t require volunteering, it does help you stand out. They’ll be looking for diversity as well as dedication. Volunteering in the same place regularly, whether it be once a week or once a month, demonstrates your commitment. But do you know what might require volunteer hours? Some scholarship opportunities. Since it’s an unpaid and willing investment of your time, volunteering proves you’re motivated. You might need to build things, work with lots of different people, or get creative in other ways, which can teach you important communication and problem-solving skills. And because solutions often emerge from teamwork, volunteering shows you can collaborate. All of these things are really important traits for scholarship committees to see you’re committed to your personal growth.
You set yourself up for the real world
Volunteering also helps you make connections between what you’re learning in school and the real world, and you might discover or fine-tune your career aspirations. If you want to work with animals, try volunteering at a shelter or zoo. If you want to work in ecology or the environment, you could volunteer with recycling programs or at a local park. It will also introduce you to new people who could serve as future references or even employers. Don’t limit yourself, though, to the things you know you like. Try helping in different ways and exploring new things. What you enjoy may surprise you. Or it could further affirm that your dream major or job is still your dream. Either way, diverse volunteering shows you’re open minded and well rounded.
How can I get involved?
So, how do you find, sign up for, and act on these life-changing opportunities? It may be simpler than you think. Keep an eye out for posters around local libraries, churches, your school, or your town in general. Do a search online for “volunteering opportunities near me.” Most high schools even offer clubs you can join to help with the search. My school’s Interact Club meets once a month to discuss local needs. Don't stress about joining clubs and attending meetings, though, if it doesn’t fit your schedule. If you can’t stay after school for those clubs, like I can’t for Interact Club, talk to the teacher in charge. You can always get information from the teacher during school, your friends who are involved, or online. For example, Interact Club has a Facebook and Twitter page that announces upcoming events. Community service clubs are not exclusive societies! They are open to anyone who wants to help and are typically very flexible. Town websites often list opportunities too.
What will volunteering look like?
When most people hear the words volunteering they think of soup kitchens, trash pick-ups, and donation centers—which are all great opportunities! But volunteering will look a little different for everyone. You can help neighbors with yard work for free, tutor other students at the library, coach a youth league or perform music at childcare centers or retirement homes. Websites like DoSomething.org even give scholarships for small acts of kindness, like posting encouraging sticky notes on your friend’s locker.
If you have a hard time getting out into the world to volunteer, colleges and future employers often accept non-traditional definitions of service too. Taking care of your siblings or working a job to support your family can be considered a service. The internet offers a plethora of virtual opportunities to get involved in causes that matter to you. Colleges are looking for applicants who work hard and care for others. If volunteering outside your home is hard, be truthful about your limits and the other commitments you have to make. Colleges will appreciate your honesty and admire your determination.
How should I talk about volunteering on my applications?
When it comes time to discuss volunteering on your college applications, it’s not enough to just say did it—you have to explain why you did it and how you committed to it. Colleges to know how the experience affected you. How did you perceive this area of service before volunteering? How do you feel after volunteering? For example, the first time I volunteered in my town’s food pantry, I was looking at it as a “me” experience. But after being there no more than 10 minutes, I realized it was an “us” experience, me and the people I was helping. Some thanked me, and some looked down ashamed. Some brought their children, who talked to me as if I were their best friend. They were people: teenagers with cell phones, men with baseball caps, and women with colorful purses. I wasn’t helping needy people. I was helping people, like me, who needed help—plain and simple. Here are additional questions to ask yourself that can help explain your experiences:
- How did you discover the opportunity, and why did you choose to do it?
- What did you expect from yourself and the opportunity?
- What did you see when you arrived? Literally! Were there a lot of people? Who were they? What did the room look like? You’ll need details.
- What exactly did you do? What were your tasks? What did you think of your job?
- Would you do it again? Why or why not?
You may not need to answer all these questions, but they can help you get started.
Volunteering is one of the most valuable and rewarding acts—because it equally benefits the people being aided and the individual doing work. Learn how to highlight that hard work and how it’s driving you toward a career path that will allow you to help others even more. Follow this advice to find the right opportunities to get into the college of your dreams and on the path to a successful future.
Want to find colleges that will value your volunteer work? Use our College Search tool to learn more!