College applications are like job résumés—admission offices receive hundreds, if not thousands, of applications from potential students every year, and after a few dozen, most of them start looking alike. You want your application to stand out from the rest, and community service is one way to set yourself apart. Colleges prefer well-rounded applicants who not only want to succeed but enjoy helping others succeed as well—students whose applications contain a mix of good grades, extracurricular activities, and volunteerism.
It might seem as though you don’t have time to fit one more thing into your already jam-packed schedule of homework, extracurricular activities (like band, sports, or drama club), and a social life, but there are lots of things you can do for community service. Everything counts, from clearing tables at a local fire department breakfast to working at an annual car wash for your church to volunteering for just an hour a week at the county animal shelter. The key is to match your interests and availability with the right organization.
Start where you are
If you’d like to get involved but aren’t sure where to start, look at the groups you’re already familiar with. Do you or your parents belong to a church, community organization or civic group like the Lions Club, Kiwanis, or the Rotary club? Ask if you can help out at their next fundraiser or event. This will give you an opportunity to learn more about the group and what they do without investing too much time. If you like the organization, ask about becoming a junior member. Some groups have restrictions on what their junior members are allowed to do because of safety risks (for example, a junior firefighter can’t go into a burning building), but there are lots of other ways you can help out.
Start leading others
It’s great to help at fundraisers and events, but it’s even better to take on a leadership role for a club or group in your school or community. Although leadership styles are different, the best leaders tend to have a few common traits:
- The ability to motivate and inspire others
- Good organizational and problem-solving skills
- A willingness to collaborate
- The ability to see the “big picture”
Maybe your peers see these traits in you and nominate you for a leadership position such as student council or class officer, or your teacher might think you’re a good choice to lead a club. Maybe you don’t see yourself as a natural leader, but sometimes others see things in us that we don’t see in ourselves.
Whether you’re selected or you volunteer, leading a group is a great way to build on your strengths, develop new skills, and gain valuable experience. But being a leader isn’t always easy. You must work with many different personalities, all of whom have different priorities or solutions for reaching a common goal. (Think of it like working on a group project all year long!) But colleges always take special notice of applicants who have held leadership positions in high school—this tells them you have the capability and maturity to work with others and will make a valuable contribution to their campus.
Start something new
You help your community because you want to improve your life and the lives of others, but maybe there’s an important need not being met in your area. What will make your hometown even better? Every day we hear stories about kids taking the initiative to donate their hair to Wigs for Kids or holding collection drives for families displaced by natural disasters or facing serious illnesses. How can you make a difference? This could be a great opportunity to fill a need and start a group that will provide a service to others.
Colleges love to get applicants who are active in their communities. Part of the college experience is learning more about the world around you and finding ways to make your corner of it a better place. Admission representatives appreciate hearing from students who are already doing that.
What other volunteer experiences can students look into? Tweet us some organizations @CollegeXpress!