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Volunteering and College Admissions

Updated: Feb 14

With studies showing that "holistic" admissions is practiced by 95% of the selective colleges in America, understanding the factors that make up each college's process is hugely important . While different colleges' views of what "holistic" means can be frustratingly inconsistent, it is notable that volunteering and community service is of value to all of them.

An examination of the top 25 National Universities and top 25 National Liberal Arts Colleges in the annual U.S. News Best Colleges Rankings Report reveals that every institution mentioned considers volunteer work and community service in their admissions process, with a growing number of schools increasingly stressing its importance when they update their websites.

A number of studies also point to the importance of volunteer work in the college admissions process.

  1. A 2018 survey of 264 Admissions Officers done by Interactive Education Systems Design and X2VOL highlights that 58% of respondents mention community service as having a positive impact on acceptance at their institution versus 16% saying no impact . In the same survey , 61% of the private institutions surveyed said community service could be a deciding factor between candidates with similar scores and grades.

  2. Results from a 2013 survey of 30 colleges at the Naviance Summer Institute had 80% of respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing that volunteer and service hours positively impacted the likelihood of acceptance at their school.

  3. A 2010 survey of 33 of the top 50 colleges and universities in the U.S. News Best College report had 70% of respondents saying they valued consistent volunteer efforts in their admissions process.

In brief, surveys consistently highlight that students who can to point to credible volunteer work and community service in their application are advantaged in the college admissions process while those that cannot are disadvantaged. When asked why this is the case, colleges and universities mention volunteer work as attractive because it highlights students who are more likely to be active on campus outside of the classroom and contribute to the social mission of their school. Schools also associate volunteers with preferred characteristics like leadership, teamwork, organization and empathy.

The obvious question for busy students looking to increase their chances of a successful admissions process is much volunteer work is enough? A quick review of college related websites highlights 50-200 hours. Unfortunately, these numbers are frustratingly vague as they don't provide any supporting evidence or mention the time frame the activity would be completed in. That said, there are some benchmarks to think about. A 2007 survey by Tufts Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement pointed to the average student doing 32.5 hours of volunteer work per year. The Presidents Volunteer Service Awards provide color as well with a Bronze award given to students who complete 100-174 hours of volunteer work in a 12 month period, a Silver award for those who complete 175-249 hours and a Gold award for those who complete over 250 hours. On a weekly basis, the low end of commendable for a PVSA award would be slightly under 2 hours of activity a week, while the high end would be slightly under 5 hours.

In summary, it is always a good time for students to get involved in volunteer work and civic engagement, and it is important to understand that outside of the obvious positives of community service, material levels of consistent volunteer work can enhance a college application while a lack of it is a clear headwind.

Whether joining a volunteer effort or starting a credible one of their own ( which is often easier than students think), serious candidates get involved.


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