How Important Is Community Service For College Admissions?

When you ask a high school student what they need to do to get into their dream college, they tend to rattle off the same old list:

  • Great grades
  • Great test scores
  • An award or two
  • A handful of leadership positions
  • A mountain of community service hours  

The first four are spot on. You need to show commitment to your academics and the activities you take part in. The last one is flummoxing though. Perhaps the obsession with community service hours is an outgrowth of the quantification of the student. We assign grades and GPAs that can direct and "predict" our children’s futures, we make kids take tests that are purported to measure intelligence despite having been shown to be deeply flawed, and so why not count commitment to community in the same numerical way?

One of the first things we ask our students to do is to stop thinking about that last bullet point as a numerical measure. The next thing we ask is that they rephrase it entirely. The fifth bullet isn’t about community service. It’s about commitment. It shouldn’t be “a mountain of community service hours,” but “sustained dedication to an issue, interest, or cause.”

You see, doing community service won’t get you into college and not doing community service won’t keep you from gaining admission. There are a few schools that are community service obsessed (most of these are Christian or otherwise faith-focused institutions), but they are very very rare. The vast majority of colleges don’t even require community service for their students, so why would they require it for their prospective students?

If you’re not convinced that committing to a passion is what is essential, whether it be learning about and advocating for criminal justice reform or competitive butter carving, consider this:

What are most high school students qualified to do? Basically nothing. They may know how to speak Spanish, but they aren’t qualified to teach it. They may know how to build a shelf, but a roof is above their head (literally). They may donate blood regularly, but they certainly shouldn’t be sticking a needle into someone else.

When college admissions press students to do community service, rather than a long-term commitment to a passion, we are emphasizing the wrong thing and spurring a series of decisions that leads to either:

  1. Taking part in menial activities that develop no real skills and do little to further expertise in an area of interest.

  2. Taking part in activities that the volunteer is entirely unqualified for, potentially putting others at risk and undermining the purpose of service (to benefit another) in the first place.

Neither of those things is attractive to colleges, which is why we tell our kids to nix the community service language and to replace it with engagement and commitment language.

Community service isn’t important to colleges. Showing leadership and dedication is. And that leadership needs to be in an area of sustained and demonstrated interest. Sometimes the best way to do that is through a service opportunity that is just the right fit but don’t try to fluff stirring soup into something that it’s not. Focus on hard work, long-term engagement, and something you are truly passionate about.

Freaking out that you don’t know what to focus your application on now? We’re pros at pivoting applications to highlight your strengths.