Does Community Service Matter in the College Application Process?

We get these questions a lot from parents and students alike: should I be doing community service? If so, how much? How does it look on my application? Unfortunately, there’s not just one answer because it depends on a lot of things, but our inclination without having more information is to say: “no.” Here’s why:

Community service can take the form of a lot of different things, but usually students do community service that looks like a service-learning trip or hours logged in a food kitchen. The latter and the former are oftentimes community service for the sake of saying you did something to “give back” but is not a consistent activity when you look at the rest of your application. Spoiler alert: community service for college admissions sake is extremely obvious and transparent to college admissions officers. They see thousands of applicants who have logged time doing something that is laudable, sure, but not truly meaningful. It doesn’t look good.

All of that said, we would never say, “don’t do any community service” as a rule. It can add some depth to your profile if it fits with an aspect of your interest in a certain topic. We advise that every student invest in 2-4 areas of broad interest. These interests can be anything from engineering and coding to business or architecture. Whatever floats your boat. From there, we recommend that our students truly invest in these interests by dedicating a significant amount of time and energy to them so that they become experts in whatever their interests are. Random community service hours are the antithesis of this approach.

Passion appeals to college, and time spent and executed well shows passion. The same goes for community service. Ideally, you can incorporate an aspect of community service into whatever work you’re already doing to progress your interest on a topic. For example, let’s say you’re interested in engineering. Incorporate your talent for technical knowledge by volunteering for Engineering Projects in Community Service for IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), a volunteer branch of the organization that partners with communities to engineer practical solutions to community-specific problems. Taking this sentiment and expanding it to every other area of focus, the most valuable contribution you can make when doing community service is putting a system in place or becoming the head of what you’re doing. Instead of showing up interested in sustainability, create a sustainable food delivery system and implement partnerships with local farms. Begin a compost. Create a participatory garden. Come up with a system that is meaningful and long-lasting. It’s harder, yes, and it’s much more time-consuming, but it’s ultimately more valuable to create something that has a legacy rather than to contribute to an existing system.

Alternatively, if community service is in and of itself a passion of yours and can stand on its own as an interest, then that is something we encourage our students to pursue in a structured and logical fashion so that it tells a story. Bottom line: your time is precious and you have to spend it wisely to create a compelling profile. Application readers can smell disingenuousness from a mile away, so save your one hour a month volunteering at the ASPCA and re-allocate it intelligently. Your time can be well-spent giving back to others and pay off in the long run, too. The key is: your community service needs to make sense and fit in the context of your application.