Community Service Boosts an Applicant’s Appeal

Colleges want to populate their next freshman class with students who are aware of and sensitive to the world and people around them. They tend to be less impressed by applicants whose focus is entirely on themselves.

Colleges look for evidence of admirable personality traits. One of the traits that appeals to them is altruism, so they are drawn to applicants with a strong record of community service as an indication of it. A student with a heartfelt sense of duty to others is likely to stay that way throughout their college career and lifetime. This trait is often a key element in a college’s profile of an ideal student.

A recent survey of college Admissions Officers (AO’s) by Businesswire found that service can be a deciding factor in admissions. Of the AO’s surveyed, 53% said that service is a potential tie-breaker between two equally well-qualified applicants.

Community Service Is Valued

In a college’s holistic approach to admissions, service is looked upon as an extracurricular activity, one of the soft factors that make up an applicant’s profile. Top-tier colleges see more applicants every year whose academic records far exceed the school’s admission threshold, so soft factors have become a common means of determining which students in the pool of qualified applicants are most worthy of admission.

Top-tier colleges value service in an applicant’s background, as these essay prompts attest:

  • MIT: “At 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 one 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 Michigan: “Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.”
  • University of California: “What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?”

Princeton — Showcasing Commitment to Service

Princeton is an example of breadth of commitment to service. Service inspires the pursuits of students, faculty, and alumni. As Christopher Eisgruber, President of Princeton University, puts it, “Princeton University has a longstanding commitment to service, reflected in Princeton’s informal motto — ‘Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity’ — and exemplified by the extraordinary contributions that Princetonians make to society.”

Princeton’s Service Focus Program creates a commitment to service and civic engagement in underclassmen. The Program consists of a summer service internship, service-related courses, and opportunities for students to engage with faculty to learn how to be of service to others.

Princeton emphasizes its role in helping students use their education for the benefit of society. It  pushes them to consider how their research, education, and livelihoods will benefit people. The University also gives them the material support needed to put their service ideas into action.

A Princeton applicant who has already shown an extraordinary commitment to service while in  high school has an advantage in admission to Princeton.

Using Service as Leverage

 An applicant may choose to highlight community service as leverage (also referred to as a hook) to boost their chances of  admissions. To succeed, a record of service must be extraordinary. The student should focus on one service as an underclassman and stick with it. Dabbling in many services will make the applicant seem superficial. It will comprise a less impressive record than a deep commitment to only one. The best service is long term and reveals deep commitment, hard work, and devotion to a cause.

A student’s description of their service should reflect a sincere approach to its mission. More than other extracurricular activities that appeal to colleges, community service must demonstrate genuine conviction. It’s an opportunity to show compassion, creativity, intensity, and leadership, all characteristics that colleges value. Working within a large service organization helps if the student is able to demonstrate progression to a leadership position.

The Common App

In the Activities section of the Common App, an applicant can enter up to 10 extracurriculars in which he or she has participated during high school, including community service. Applicants must be concise because there’s a 150-character limit for each entry. The hours spent on an activity 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 those struggling in physics and biology; assist with homework; create study plans and class materials.

 Essays About Service

It’s a good idea to devote the Common App essay to service if the applicant chooses to highlight it as leverage in admissions. However, 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 valuable lessons learned by the student.

Some students take trips abroad to help impoverished people in third world countries. This is an unselfish, compassionate act. However, if it’s also done to provide a theme for a college essay, students should know it’s a cliché. It won’t sway an AO in and of itself. The essay must be original and well executed while also revealing something about the inner self of the student.

It may seem counterintuitive, but applicants should write about themselves in essays about service because that’s what AO’s want to see. For the purpose of admissions, AO’s aren’t interested in illiteracy in the writer’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 in context, such as their motivation in taking up the service in the first place. The writer’s retrospective opinion about the efficacy of their service is interesting and so is the reason for their ongoing devotion to it.

Service can be about something small and inconspicuous. The beneficiary of the service can be only one local person, a few, or multitudes. The service doesn’t need to be of cosmic significance; It just needs to be about something that’s important to the student. Details should be cited in the essay to make the story personal. An account of what makes it a worthy cause or how the service helped form the student’s character are also fitting.

Students should convey their passion for their chosen service clearly and consistently throughout their application. This message should be embedded in essays, activities, interviews, and even letters of recommendation, if appropriate. 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.