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In College Admissions, Student Volunteers Have a Competitive Edge

Highly selective schools want applicants who are committed to one issue for multiple years.

With nearly 1.5 million high school seniors busy fine-tuning their college applications, everyone is looking for a competitive edge to help them snag a spot at their dream school. Stellar grades, SAT scores, and extracurricular activities still rule the admissions game, but it's also well established that colleges look favorably on a student's community service. According to the latest Community Service and College Admissions Survey from Do Something, college admissions officers at more than half of the nation's top 50 schools ranked community service as the fourth-most-important factor in an application, above reference letters, interviews and legacy status.

The survey, the only scientific analysis of the impact of volunteering on college admissions, confirms that admissions committees aren't looking for students who spend their time dabbling in multiple volunteer activities. Seventy percent of admissions staff—up from 50 percent in 2010—say that a deep level of commitment to one cause is what gets their attention. One question asked what would be valued more among admissions officers, "one month helping orphans in Somalia or four years volunteering at a local community shelter." A full 92 percent of officers said they'd be more impressed with the longer commitment to the shelter.

The preference for involvement in one cause over a long period of time makes sense given that 76 percent of admissions officers believe leadership is "one of the most important markers of 'good citizenship.'" A student who has volunteered with one organization or worked on one specific issue over several years is more likely have stepped up to take on a leadership role.

If a senior hasn't focused on just one cause—after all, high school is for exploration—there are ways to frame a wider range of experiences in a positive light. The report suggest that students should consider devoting one of their essays to "explaining how all those issues actually fit together under one larger theme like 'poverty' or 'human rights.'" And for applicants who don't have any in-depth community service experience, admissions officers say red flags tip them off to made-up activities, particularly "rambling, unfocused" lists of activities without any personal depth or detail.

The bottom line is that schools are looking for applicants to "get personal" and explain their "motivations and inspirations" for being involved in service, how the experience changed them, and the impact they've had on their community. Of course, we all want students to volunteer for altruistic reasons, but it's good to know that all those hours committed students spend trying to make a difference can give them a college admissions edge.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Visions Service Adventures

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