Should I Write About Community Service in my Common App Essay?

We’re often asked about how to turn a community service experience into an amazing common app essay. The answer is that you probably shouldn’t.  

Sounds harsh, but it’s true. There are many reasons as to why writing about community service is a no-go, but let’s start with a general rule that applies to all common app essay topics. Do not write about anything that appears elsewhere in your application. We’re referring to your activities section. If you truly believe that community service is so important to you and it’s the only thing you have to talk about, 1) we’re calling your bluff and 2) it’s going to plastered all over your activities section. Writing an essay about anything that’s already on your application would be redundant. Think of it like this: if you could only tell a college three things about yourself, you wouldn’t use the word “charitable” twice.

Let’s address our remaining thoughts on this topic in form of a Q&A:

“But I gave up my spring break and/or my summer to travel to a developing country.”

HARD STOP. First know that we are not trying to make you feel bad about how you’ve chosen to spend your free time. But 1) your parents probably financed your trip and 2) the very fact that you were able to travel (read: not work) during breaks from school will flag privilege.  

At it’s core, the “life-changing-trip-to-____” essay, is a travel (and privilege) essay. If you don’t believe us, google “Voluntourism” and see what people have to say. (Spoiler alert: there is more than a little bit of criticism on the idea of people traveling to other countries trying to make some sort of social impact in a two week time period.) 

It’s also worth noting that there’s a very good chance that the person reading your essay does not have the financial means to travel across the globe helping children in need. It’s not that relatable and you shouldn’t risk making a bad impression straight out of the gates.

“But my story is going to be different because I’m really passionate about the cause.”

Unless you’ve done a tremendous, continuous, hyper focused amount of work throughout your entire high school career in one highly specific area CLOSE TO YOUR HOME, the short-term service trip essay will still read as a one-time experience you had, which doesn’t really speak to who are.  

“No but I’m like EXTREMELY passionate about it. I made flyers!”  

In that case, your essay will end up being about why a particular problem matters to you, or worse yet about the organization that you volunteer with. What you’ll be left with is a classic teenager on a soapbox essay, and no one wants to read that essay. 

“I just want to dream school to know how good of a person I am.” 

There are a million different ways to be a good person. Instead of thinking about yourself as a good person, think about what makes you good. Are you the person that people go to when they need a laugh? Are you constantly giving your friends advice? Did you stick up for someone when they really needed it, even though it made you lose a friend? Remember, they already know that you volunteer. You’re probably only gravitating towards that essay because you haven’t done the work of figuring out what personality trait you want to show with your essay.

 “But I’ve gone through all of the exercises you suggest on your blog, texted my friends, talked to my family, and everyone keeps saying that I’m empathetic and compassionate.” 

Great! Now figure out another way to show that. Make a long list of experiences in your life during which you felt compelled to help others. Ask your inner circle for examples. Text a friend and ask them about that time when you really came through for them. Think back to the first time you saw something that upset you and couldn’t stop figuring out ways to help out. Focus in on a small example, and tell it with a story.


If we didn’t address your concerns or you want to work with someone one-on-one, contact us here. We’ll help you find another way to stand out.