Updated: Feb 22
Here’s a question that has a right answer: Which volunteering activity reads better on a college application?
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.
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!
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.)
About your amazing volunteer trip… Please don’t hear me incorrectly. I said it reads poorly; but it may very well be a life-altering and unmissable opportunity. You should go if you feel moved to go! Do it. Eat new foods and talk to different people, wherever it is. Take lots of pictures. But for your other volunteering activities -- hint, at least four -- I hope you’ll go the sustained commitment route.
Glamorous volunteering is maybe a bit conspicuous anyway; or, at the very least, I might call it oxymoronic.
This month I spoke to someone in Arcadia who really knows what a great volunteering activity looks like. Nancy Carlton is the volunteer manager at Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, and she sat down with me to tell me the kinds of students she would want me to send her from College Torch. When she listed the characteristics of a student she would staff in the gardens, in the gift shop, or in the membership office, she described a rare bird among young people these days:
The student must be able to bring renewed energy for the task each week, without turning to their smartphones.
The student must be able to communicate with their peers and supervisors regularly and independently (no parent emails).
The student must be dependable and must come consistently to every shift every week.
Nancy continued to tell me how exciting it is when she gets to meet a new, genuine, committed fourteen-year-old volunteer. She has an eye by now for the students who will stay four years. Some of them, she says, even become leaders among the volunteers, or bring special skills and projects to make the Arboretum even better than it is already.
I think it’s really impressive for teenagers to deliver on Nancy’s expectations. And, adults, let’s stand in solidarity with them and admit that it can be tough for us, too.
University admissions offices are filled with human adults. They share that perspective. They’re looking at applications with an eye towards this: If this student gets to pass through my campus, what kind of community-member will they become? They want to see volunteering activities that demonstrate potential for students to make a difference with their college education.
The good news is that you get to choose what you do. I always help my students find volunteering activities they’ll loves so they’ll have an easy time keeping the commitments for four years. Just ask my students at the Arboretum... They go back because they like it.
Leave a comment and tell me the number one activity you could come back to every week of the year! I want to hear from you.
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Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college consultant at College Torch. He is an expert in colleges and the college admissions process. You can reach him by emailing email@example.com. Parents are able to join his private Facebook group for Parents of College-Bound Students.