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Which Volunteering Activity Reads Better on a College Application?

Updated: Feb 22

Students often tell me they're open to volunteering, but don't know where to get started.

Here’s a question that has a right answer: Which volunteering activity reads better on a college application?

  1. Weeding and mulching a community space every week. Same space, same day of the week, same time of day, same gloves, same people around you, same volunteer coordinator, same everything, for four years or until you graduate. Total 200 hours.

  2. A three-week senior-year summer volunteering trip with a reputable nonprofit organization where you work 10 hours a day doing something fantastic and glamorous (think, cleaning the oil off of shivering penguins) and spend a bit of money in the process. Total 200 hours.

The last detail should have tipped you off. Universities don’t expect their students to be bankrolling expensive activities to impress them, and are usually more turned off by the implications of that than excited by whatever story you’re hoping to tell. You shouldn’t have to spend money to work your way into a great college!

Volunteering can play into your strengths. If you love school, consider tutoring children in your community. If you love food, look into helping people who live in food deserts. If you love sports .... (And so on!)

It may not seem like it at first, but when you think about it, that first activity I described is really hard to claim. Ask your friends who tried and quit the Ronald McDonald House -- or, obviously, insert any other commitment that requires regular work over a long period of time -- and you’ll hear how taking one week off (because, I guess, tests and learning) becomes two weeks off (because, tests again, this excuse replenishes itself) which becomes -- I’ll stop here.

It’s hard to sustain the effort to show up to the same place -- especially if it's not a social volunteering club like Key Club -- week and week over, with people that aren’t your age, doing work that’s not instantly gratifying. Colleges and universities know this too, and this is why they have a clear and easy preference for steady, four-year volunteering commitments in the community. (Or, better yet, someone else’s community, but I can tell you about that another time.)

"Hospital volunteering" can sound serious, gloomy, or science-related. The truth is, there are tons of ways to contribute in a hospital setting, and your experience might be none of those things!

About your amazing volunteer trip… Please d