Community Service: How is it really valued?

Yet another article is making the rounds aimed at amping up the pressure on students and their families. Headlined "Community Service Work Increasingly Important for College Applicants," it appeared in the US News and World Report Money section. Promoting the results of a "scientific report," it states that "admission officers place a high value on a student's long-term commitment to a cause or organization." Of course, that's true at face value. But the article goes on to imply that that "cause or organization" must be community service.

As these articles usually are, it's confusing and provocative, offering advice such as this: "Applicants need to take care in how they position their volunteer activities." The implicit message: You had better have community service on your list of extracurricular activities or you will suffer consequences.

Deans do place a high value on consistent commitment to a cause or organization -- or activity, pursuit or involvement -- but that does not translate to community service specifically being necessary to add to the list of everything else students are doing. It is one of the many ways students' lists of activities can reflect their commitments and passions and is not, for most colleges, a stand-alone by itself.

We asked Doug Christiansen, Vice Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions at Vanderbilt University to weigh in on how admission officers view community service -- or any involvement -- when evaluating a student's list of extracurricular activities.

To Volunteer or Not Volunteer?  That is the Question…

While it is true that being involved in activities outside of the classroom is critical toadmission at highly-selective colleges and/or universities, what is not necessarily true is that the involvement come only in an area of community service or that community service is viewed at a higher level in the selection process.  What is truly important, regardless of the activity, is the student's level of commitment and engagement.  Admission officers want to see dedication to an organization or group -- a personal commitment that has lasted over time, not just a two-weekend visit to a soup kitchen that looks good on paper.  What is critical is the personal investment by the student to something meaningful at his school or in her corner of the world. 

We want to see how involvement in the activity – be it work, sports, music, art, performance, or community service – changed the student’s perspective of the world and how the student changed that organization, team, or performance because of his or her involvement. What insight and learning did the student acquire as a result of participating? Did the student make a meaningful contribution?  In other words, not only is the difference the student made to the organization important, but also the difference the organization made within the student.  Did the participation and leadership give the student some personal insight or a different perspective of his/her personal situation?  Did his or her outlook on life or priorities change as a result of being involved with this group?

Being dedicated and passionate about something other than class work is critical, not only as a college applicant, but as a human being, and colleges and universities want to see that in the application process – but this involvement and leadership can happen in many, many areas and is not tied to one specific endeavor. We are not looking for a checklist but are truly looking for engagement and sustained passion.  While community service is wonderful, many students serve their community – their school, their peers, their families – in ways that are not linked to a specific organization or activity.  In the current economic climate, there are many students who simply must work to help their families make ends meet, and those students are deeply engaged in that activity and may not have a moment to volunteer after working, studying, and attending classes.  Other students who are musicians, athletes, entrepreneurs, or artists are deeply engaged in activities other than service, and their time commitment makes volunteer work almost impossible. 

Having passion and intensity about the extracurricular activity a student participates in is the most critical component -- not trying to create an assortment of activities the students believes the college or university is looking for.

Articles like the US News piece also highlight how important it is for students and parents to be savvy consumers of media. Note that the "scientific report" promoted in the article was co-sponsored by, whose goal is to make community service more popular and widespread. We applaud the goal of promoting community service. But such "scientific reports" and articles obscure the very real importance that service can play both in the lives of young adults and our country by conflating it with "getting in."

So, students, there is no need to run out and volunteer this weekend -- unless your heart is in it. As Christiansen notes, it's not about what you do but what you give to and get from something. That is deeper and more important than “positioning." It comes from true reflection and integration of an activity whether it's a hobby, part-time work, sports, the arts -- or community service.

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