One of the personality traits of applicants that appeals most to top colleges is altruism. They want to populate their freshman classes with students who are aware of and sensitive to the world and people around them. This is why admissions officers are drawn to applicants who signal their altruism with a strong record of community service. They expect that a student’s heartfelt sense of duty to others will persist through their college career and life as an alumnus.
A survey of admissions officers by Businesswire found that community service can be a deciding factor in admissions. Of those surveyed, 53% said that service is a potential tie-breaker between two equally well-qualified applicants.
The Value of Community Service to an Applicant
Top colleges take a holistic approach to admissions. While the student’s academic record may be the principal qualifier, community service is one of the “soft factors” that make up an applicant’s profile. Top colleges see more and more applicants every year whose academic records make them eligible for admission, so soft factors have become increasingly important to determine which students in the pool of qualified applicants should be admitted.
The fact that top colleges value service is evident in these essay prompts:
MIT: We bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe a way in which you have contributed to your community.
Princeton: Princeton has a longstanding commitment to service and civic engagement. Tell us how your story intersects (or will intersect) with these ideals.
University of California: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
Using Community Service as a Hook
An applicant may choose to highlight their community service as a hook, which is leverage that applicants choose to use to boost their chances of admissions to a top school. But to succeed, a service hook must be truly extraordinary.
Students should select a service as an underclassman and, if possible, stick with it throughout high school. The beneficiary of the service can be one person, a few, or multitudes. It doesn’t need to be something of cosmic significance — it just needs to be important to the student. The worthiness of the service isn’t a factor to colleges because it’s a subjective choice. Importantly, long-term service can reveal deep commitment, hard work, and devotion to a cause. Dabbling in many services doesn’t impress admissions and makes an applicant seem superficial.
A student should reflect a sincere dedication to their service so that it can reveal their genuine convictions. Using it as a hook also presents the opportunity to show compassion, creativity, intensity, and leadership, all characteristics that colleges value. Working within a large service organization helps students who wish to show a progression to leadership, which is also valued.
The Common Application
In the Activities section of the Common App, applicants may enter up to 10 extracurriculars in which they participated during high school, including community service. They must be concise because there’s a 150-character limit for each entry. The hours spent on an activity and a description must be included. Below is an example of a 150-character entry for a service:
Title: After School Tutor – Bronx HS
Hours: 5/week; 30 weeks/year
Description: Tutor for students in physics and biology; assist with homework; create study plans and class materials
Essays About Community Service
If a student chooses to highlight community services as a hook, it may be wise to devote the Common App essay to it. However, community service is a common essay topic, so it’s difficult to write an essay that’s truly exceptional. Applicants should avoid the shopworn approach of extoling their cause’s worthiness and concluding with a valuable lesson they learned through the experience.
It may seem counterintuitive, but applicants should write about themselves in essays about service because that’s what colleges want to see. For the purposes of admissions, colleges aren’t interested in illiteracy in the student’s home county or the lack of adequate housing in rural Cameroon. To rise above the commonplace, the essay should integrate details about the student’s life, such as their motivation in taking up the service in the first place. The writer’s retrospective views on the impact of their service is a fit topic as is the reasons for ongoing devotion to it. Details should be cited in the essay that make the story personal. The essay must be original while revealing something about the inner self of the student.
Students should convey their passion for their chosen service clearly and consistently throughout their entire application. To the extent possible, a consistent message should be embedded in essays, personal statements, interviews, and letters of recommendation. Aside from the essay, no part of the application should dwell only on the service, but the message bears repeating. Repetition makes a message memorable.
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