Community Service Requirements for College Admission

We have been conditioned to believe that there is a very specific checklist of requirements to get into a great college. First comes the mandatory minimums of excellent grades and scores, followed by knockout essays. On the second tier lie the extra-curriculars, the recommendations and of course, the impressive hours of community service you’re supposed to somehow cram in instead of sleeping. But one thing on the list is not like the others; colleges require you to submit test scores, grades, essays, recommendations and a resume, but what a lot of kids don’t realize is that contrary to popular belief, community service can really be extra.  

What Schools Don’t Require

Community service is a noble and worthwhile activity. As a young person, you should be spending time investing in your community and making the world a better place for future generations. It just might not be vital to helping you get into Harvard. Most colleges do not require community service. In fact, kids who do zero hours of community service get into Harvard. Community service can sometimes even be a distraction from the one or two areas of expertise we like our kids to cultivate in order to impress the admissions committee. Again, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but you should be honest with yourself about which activities help you with your strategy to get into a great school and which ones are more for personal enrichment.

Spreading Yourself Too Thin  

High schools often require community service of their students because they, too, think it’s a prerequisite to get into college. As a result, we often see a pitfall in which kids do a slew of things throughout high school that fall under the umbrella of community service. They tutor for a few hours a month, raise money for a Diabetes walk, volunteer at a homeless shelter a few times and expand their school’s recycling program. But by engaging in a bunch of disjointed community service activities, these kids miss the opportunity to further one or two interests—interests the admissions community like to see developed at a really deep level.  One of our writers received the President’s Volunteer Service Award each of her four years of high school for completing several hundred hours of disparate service activities. In spite of earning the prestigious award four consecutive times, she actually didn’t get into her top-choice school.

What Schools Do Require

On Harvard’s “What We Look For” page, they note that they are looking to see if students have “taken full advantage of opportunities” in the realms of extracurriculars, athletics, family commitments, and community. Yale, Dartmouth, UPenn, Columbia, Brown and Princeton say nothing of service. Cornell says that it looks for students’ extracurricular activities, community involved, workplace experience, leadership talents and interests, especially students applying for the Industrial and Labor Relations program. To be clear, the website makes no mention of a specific service requirement.

So, even for the two schools that do make some mention of service, take note: they are suggesting that they want to see students who are active in their communities, not students who are engaged in 100 broad strokes or volunteered aimlessly for four years. In fact, at the risk of sounding harsh, we would rather our students read a book than log two hours at a soup kitchen. If you are one of those altruistic kids who just wants to participate, or you go to a high school with its own requirement, be sure to focus your service time on an activity that fits into one of your verticals of interest.


Need help identifying which extra-curriculars will help you get into college? Call us. We are great at developing students’ resumes.