Volunteering on Your College Applications

What does giving back mean and what does it have to do with your college apps? Here's how and why you should highlight volunteering on your college apps.

What does it mean to give back and what does it have to do with your college applications? Well, giving back is understanding that others have helped you get to where you are now, and it’s helping someone else in hopes that your aid will propel them on their path. And not only is giving back the right thing to do, good for others, and good for you, but colleges value volunteering and the integrity, commitment, and skills it involves. Volunteering proves you are aware enough to see the world’s problems and capable enough to act on them; it shows you care about other people’s futures as well as your own. And 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 you 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 volunteer?

Volunteering benefits everyone involved. The people you help receive what they need as well as the sense that someone cares. As a volunteer, you enjoy a great sense of satisfaction, and you might learn some helpful skills along the way. In fact, according to the Stony Brook University of Medicine, volunteers experience improved mental health and are more likely to live longer than those who don’t volunteer.

Although colleges don’t require volunteering, some scholarships do, and it does help college applicants stand out. Since it is an unpaid and willing investment of your time, volunteering proves you are 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.

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 passion. 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. 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 are open minded and well rounded.

Then, once you find a volunteering position you enjoy, commit to it. Although colleges look for diversity, they also look for dedication. Volunteering in the same place regularly, whether it be once a week or once a month, demonstrates your commitment. It will also introduce you to new people who could serve as references or even future employers.

So, how do you find, sign up, and act on these life-changing opportunities? It may be simpler than you think, and once you start, you won’t want to stop.

Related: The Gift of Volunteering: 7 Opportunities for Winter Break

What can I do?

Volunteering opportunities are often closer than you think, especially around the holidays. All you have to do is look. Keep an eye out for posters around local libraries, churches, or your school. Do a search online for “volunteering near [insert your town name].” 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.

You might be wondering what volunteering will be like. You don’t always have to stick with soup kitchens and trash pick-ups, although those are great opportunities. Get creative! You can help neighbors with yard work or house work (without getting paid), tutor other students at school or at the library, work as a coach for a youth league, or even do your favorite arts or musical activities with anyone who might enjoy it (at childcare centers, at retirement homes, or in homeless shelters). 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 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 service. Charity begins in the home, and as one admission officer told the Huffington Post, “A good citizen is more than just public service.” Colleges look for applicants who work hard and care for others. That applies to your family too. If volunteering outside your home is a real issue right now, be truthful. Colleges will appreciate the honesty and admire your determination to help your family. Communication is vital for college applications, and it is a substantial part of volunteering.

How do I talk about volunteering on my college apps?

When it comes time to discuss your volunteering on your college applications, it is not enough just to do something; you have to explain why and how you did it. Colleges don’t just want a list of all your past volunteering experiences. They want a personal elaboration in an interview, an essay, or both. Describe how the experience affected you. What did you think before, after, and during the experience?

For example, the first time I volunteered in my town’s food pantry, I thought it would be a one-time deal, something I did because I wanted to help out. I was looking at it as a “me experience.” But after being there no more than 10 minutes I thought it was a “them experience,” about the people I was helping. Some thanked me, and some looked down, ashamed. Some brought their children, who talked to me as if I was their best friend. Then, it hit me. It wasn’t about me or them. It was about us. They were people: teenagers with cellphones, men with baseball caps, and women with colorful purses. I wasn’t helping needy people. I was helping people, like me, who needed.

You don’t have to be an aspiring writer to write about volunteering. Just like I did above, write about what you saw and how it changed your perspective. Here are five questions to ask yourself that can help explain your experiences:

  1. How did you discover the opportunity, and why did you choose to do it?
  2. What did you expect from yourself and the opportunity?
  3. What did you see when you arrived? (Think literally: Were there a lot of people? Who were they? What was surrounding you? And so on.)
  4. What exactly did you do? What did you think of your job?
  5. Would you do it again? Why or why not?

You may not need to answer all of these questions, but they can help you get started. Always be aware of your audience, and be sure you answer the application or essay prompt you’re given.

Related: How to Encourage Others to Volunteer With You

Volunteering is one of the most valuable and rewarding acts an individual can partake in—because it equally benefits the people being aided and the individual doing the volunteer work. And if you’re already volunteering, you should know how to best highlight that hard work you did to drive you toward a career path that will allow you to volunteer and benefit others even more. Follow this advice to find the right volunteering opportunities and how to highlight them will help you to get into the college of your dreams and on the path to a rewarding career.

Don’t know what your dream college is yet? Use our College Search tool to find schools that put heavy value on your volunteer work!

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