As you might know, we have a lot of thoughts about community service and the college process. We even wrote about why you shouldn’t write an essay about community service. We’re certainly not going back on our word, but we wanted to delve into a caveat of that opinion. We want to share our advice for the benefit of students who truly believe that they have a specific community service experience worth sharing. It’s not unheard of, but there are a few factors to consider before you decide. First, make sure that you’re well-versed in what to avoid in your community service essay. Namely, most community service essays make you come off as privileged and unaware, as well as basic and cliché. We don’t want that. More often than not, we would strongly advise against writing about community service. Before you take this advice, please contact us so we can tell you if it’s a good idea.
If you’re 110% sure your community service story is different and speaks to your character, here’s how to avoid the typical pitfalls in 5 easy steps. If your Common App essay checks all of these boxes, then you’ll surely come out with a well-written, thought-provoking, and complex essay that you can be proud of.
Tell a story
This is the most important aspect of your essay, because it has to do with the structure and tone. It’s necessary to develop a story that has a beginning, middle, and an end. You need a narrative arch. It’s critical to draw the reader in. You can do this by telling a compelling tale about your experience that shows that you are thoughtful and understanding of the nuances of community service work.
Think small and isolate one event
You can’t fit an entire trip into a personal statement, so don’t even try. Choose one moment or a couple of moments to isolate and focus on, and expand the narrative from there. Wasting a lot of space on background, explanation, and unnecessary details can easily bog down your essay. You only have 650 words. Keep it focused.
Be sure you demonstrate one lesson
In the same vein of keeping it small, make sure that you isolate and demonstrate one meaningful lesson that you learned based on your experience. For example, we had a student write about her experience volunteering in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans for the better portion of her summer. She was rebuilding houses and working with an organization that had created a community center that served meals to local residents and offered them space to hold meetings or have events. Instead of writing a story that may have been more traditionally significant or cliché (completing a house that had been in the rebuilding phase for 3 years), she chose to focus on one conversation that she had with a resident. The lesson was that community building and progress actually stems from the act of listening. She wrote her entire essay about that one conversation and used it to reflect on the importance that communication and the act of listening play in creating social progress. It didn’t matter where the conversation took place and the essay wasn’t used to talk about the community service. Rather, the lesson was small--listening is the first and most important contributor to long term change--but the message made a universal impact.
Create an informed character dynamic
Who was involved in the community service? Who were you serving? Without trivializing the community, make the community into a character and insert telling details that draw the reader in. Community service experiences are most meaningful when you are aware of the power dynamic at play (those who have come to help vs. those who need help) and don’t fall into the very tired dialogue that often comes out of that. You must acknowledge that you are already speaking from a place of privilege to be able to serve others and discuss the issues in an intelligent way. To that end, remember that you are not a savior, and you must choose your language carefully. For example, in the essay mentioned above, our student acknowledged the power dynamic at play. She discussed her discomfort with serving food to residents over the physical barrier of the serving line. She discussed what the serving line table represented, and the step she took to address these concerns: break down the barrier with communication, engagement, and listening. This is a tricky step, so reach out to us if you want some help.
Illustrate your intelligence and awareness
Your goal with this essay is to tell a story that gives the admissions reader a deeper look into your personality and goals. Because you’re tackling a tough subject that a lot of applicants will be attempting improperly, this is a great opportunity to write a piece that displays your experience, perspective, and understanding of the world. This final tip is not so much a step, but the entire point of writing this essay. If your essay doesn’t send the message that you are aware and committed to expanding your beliefs through knowledge, then you missed the entire point.
Writing a personal statement about community service is a big challenge, we won’t lie. Most of the time we suggest you find another topic. But, some of the best essays happen to incorporate aspects of community service. If you need any help at all or just need to talk through your approach, we’d be happy to help. Give us a call or send us an email. We love problem-solving.