How Many Community Service Hours Do You Need for College?

With students flocking to the Common App to get a head start before supplements are released on August 1st, many are encountering the “Activities” section for the very first time. It’s a weird section—a series of slots that ask you to describe what you do, but don’t give you enough space to say anything beyond the bare minimum. Then you have to say how much time you spend doing each activity, and how long you’ve been doing it for. Then you have to rank them.

For many students, encountering the Activities section is the first time they’ve had to quantify how they spend their time outside of class. That is unless they’ve encountered a community service requirement—which is all about the hours.

The proliferation of hour-based community service requirements has created a warped perspective that has leached into college admissions. Instead of focusing on what they are doing, students (and their parents) have become obsessed with how long they are doing it for. “How many hours,” they ask, “do I need to do to get into college?”

We hate to burst your service-obsessed bubble, but the answer is zero. Nil. Zilch. “How could that be so?!?”, you ask in horror, “I/My little Teddy has volunteered for every organization in town!” Well, that’s sort of the crux of the problem. Hours-based requirements prioritize time-commitment over cause-commitment. Instead of rewarding you for sticking with something, they reward you for simply getting it done.

When colleges look at your Activities supplement, they do love to see that you care about giving back to your community. However, commitment is more important. Being paid to coach youth sports for the past two years makes a better impact than, say, spending one week one summer blasting through your requirement by traveling to another country to volunteer with an organization you can’t even remember the name of. The first, if the difference isn’t clear, shows long-term dedication to a program, which likely resulted in positive developments for the program you were helping as well as in you as a leader. The second shows that you wanted to get it done while going on vacation. And no, when you say that one week trip was “transformational,” they aren’t buying it.

Our rule is that we don’t encourage kids to pursue community service specifically unless:

  1. The activity would be building out a new interest that they are developing.
  2. The activity ties into an existing passion, hobby, or interest.

Basically, don’t do superficial things, because it will not help your application and may even knock you down an imaginary rung.

What you spend your time on should be thoughtful and logical. When an admissions officer reads down your activities list, it should make sense. Don’t do service just to do service. You aren’t going to get into college because you did twice as many hours as someone else. Focus on expanding your passions and engaging with opportunities that tie into your existing interests. If doing so leads you into service, that’s ok. If it doesn’t, that’s ok too.

We help students plan their futures starting as early as freshman year because we’ve found that external support and guidance leads to internal determination, commitment, and eventual success. If you’re looking for help planning your next few years, we’d love to help.