Whether you’re a freshman or a senior, high school is a great time to try things that you haven’t done before – including volunteering.
Students may think it’s not worth their time to get involved in the community because it doesn’t pay like a normal job would. However, there are several benefits that volunteering can give you that no other job can.
Read on to find out about all the benefits of community service for you, your personal fulfillment, and practical purposes like college applications!
What Is Community Service?
Community service is when you work for free to help benefit the public or your community. Usually, students who choose to do community service do so as volunteers, meaning that they choose to help out because they want to do so. Community service can have a lot of positive effects on students, such as helping them to develop skills, making contacts, and allowing them to improve the quality of life of others.
You probably know some students in your school who choose to volunteer their free time through community service. There are many ways that you can do this, such as joining a non-profit organization, working with a church group, or you can choose a cause and create your own service project.
For some ideas of community service activities, see our list of volunteer ideas.
Volunteer work can range from the relatively simple, like helping coach the lacrosse team at your old junior high, to the much more complex, like starting a non-profit that helps settle new refugees in your area.
As I’m sure you can imagine, there are a lot of benefits to doing volunteer work. They include…
You may be familiar with community service already because it is something that your school requires. In fact, many high schools throughout the United States require their students to help out the community in some way in order to graduate. Though it’s often on the honor system to report what you've done, these high schools may require up to 200 hours of community service before they're willing to grant a degree.
This type of requirement can be especially common at religious schools, and in particular at Christian schools. Many Christian schools set requirements based on the Biblical idea that it is the Christian’s duty to do community outreach with whatever “gift” they have been given by God. Because of this, many of these Christian schools will have branches of Christian non-profits, such as the Salvation Army or Habitat for Humanity, on campus or affiliated with the school, which make it much easier for students to donate their time.
Many other schools require service learning. This term describes an approach to education that aims to connect lessons learned in the classroom with real-life lessons learned through community service. It is a practice that has become increasingly common in both high schools and universities in the United States, because educators like that the learning process benefits both the students and the communities. It allows students to learn more about their personal motivations, practice academic material outside of the context of the classroom and testing, develop critical thinking skills while solving real-world problems, and to think about problems and social issues in new ways.
This kind of experiential learning, or applying what you have learned in the classroom to the real world, has a lot of positive benefits for students apart from meeting a requirement to graduate. These include a better understanding of the value of teamwork, decision-making skills, development of leadership abilities, and the gain of practical skills.
For example, let’s imagine that as part of your school-required community service or service learning, you've decided to use the writing skills you developed in AP English to volunteer at a local non-profit that raises awareness of Alzheimer’s disease. As a strong writer, you may start out writing press releases for the charity. Immediately you would be developing a new skill: the ability to write for a targeted, non-academic audience. Working with a team, you would gain a better understanding of the importance of sharing information in a usable way. You might eventually expand your duties into other areas, such as managing the organization’s social media accounts, which would further develop your writing skills.
Additionally, you would be gaining a new perspective on your community and on what life is like for a group of people that is often overlooked: the terminally ill. This could change how you see the world and your role in it.
In fact, many students report that this kind of personal development is the most valuable part of a service learning projects.
Personal Development Benefits
One of the big ways that students will benefit from volunteer work is through personal development.
This happens in a number of ways.
First of all, many students learn about their personal strengths and weaknesses. When you're working on campaigns and projects and getting to see real-life results, you'll get to know how your personal attributes and actions can make a difference. Many of these qualities are things that students can’t get good feedback on in the classroom. For example, students may learn that they have excellent skills in coping with a crisis or other stressful situations, or may learn that they find taking charge of a team to be a struggle. This kind of exposure to different situations can then teach students how to further develop skills that they have, and how to work on areas they struggle in.
In particular, students find that they are able to develop skills in leadership, communication, working well with a team, and finding solutions for problems.
Many students also find that community service makes them more aware of and interested in issues of social justice.
For example, if you spend your days going to school, playing sports, and doing homework, you will likely not spend a lot of time thinking about the problems that homeless people encounter.
On the other hand, if you're working every day at a homeless shelter, you'll have a chance to dispel stereotypes about why people become homeless while also learning about the unique challenges that homeless people face in getting off the streets. Many homeless people face prejudice that makes returning to work and earning a self-supporting living more difficult than it is for non-homeless people.
Once people learn more about struggles and injustices that other groups of people face, they are statistically more likely to want to actively take part in making a change in the policies and social structures that keep certain groups from succeeding. This change can take many forms, such as active campaigning, voting in elections, and continuing to volunteer time to important causes.
Volunteering has also been shown to have one other, more tangible major personal benefit. Did you know that it’s actually good for your health?
Numerous studies over the past several years have shown that volunteering isn’t just good for your mind and conscience; it’s also good for your body. By focusing on others’ problems instead of their own, students have reported reduced stress, and overall improvement in mood and health.
Researchers at the London School of Economics and Political Science found a link between self-reported levels of good health and happiness and formal volunteer work. Furthermore, a study by United Health Group says that 76% of people who have volunteered in the past twelve months say that volunteering has made them feel happier, and 94% of people report that it improves their mood. 78% of volunteers say that it has lowered their stress levels.
Volunteering can also help protect people from depression during challenging times, as it tends to help create a strong support system for participants. Volunteering also keeps people physically healthy by keeping them active. Certain activities, such as working to clean up a park or a beach, can be good exercise. Studies have shown that especially as people get older, volunteering in these kinds of projects can keep people healthy and can even lessen the symptoms of certain diseases.
Of course, not all the benefits of volunteering are limited to the volunteer. Another big way that people benefit is in their involvement with their community.
Volunteering allows students to become directly involved in their communities. Some students don’t realize how important volunteers are to the country and to many organizations. But try to imagine if no volunteers showed up to work tomorrow. Can you imagine what would change?
Volunteers are responsible for many things that we take for granted. When hurricanes hit the south coast or wildfires burn up California, volunteers are critical in helping victims get re-settled, fed, and back to their “normal” lives as quickly as possible. Without volunteers, many of our country’s elderly would not be able to get food. Our parks and beaches would be much dirtier. Our children would struggle more without the help of volunteer tutors and mentors.
To get a real idea of how important volunteers are to keeping the country running, let’s look at the numbers.
The Corporation for National and Community Service says that in 2013, 62.6 million Americans volunteered 7.7 billion hours of work. The estimated value of this work is almost $173 billion. That’s almost as much as the GDP of Ukraine – just in volunteer hours!
The top activities performed included raising money for important causes; collecting, preparing, and giving out food to people who need it; providing labor and transportation; tutoring and mentoring youth; and lending professional expertise.
Furthermore, volunteers are almost twice as likely to donate to charities as non-volunteers. In all, just over 50% of Americans donated over $25 to charities in 2013, making at least $4 billion in donations.
The knowledge that they are making a real difference also affects student volunteers on a more personal level. When students know their work is helping someone, they show increased rates of self-esteem. Furthermore, students who volunteer are more likely to become actively involved citizens who take a strong interest in current events and local affairs, and are much more likely to vote.
Apart from helping out your community here and now, you’ll also be helping out your future self.
Have you ever wondered if volunteering makes a big difference in college admissions?
The truth is that it’s one of the most popular extracurricular activities that students list on their college applications. And while colleges don’t necessarily expect students to have spent all their free time volunteering, schools (especially the more competitive ones) will usually notice a total lack of community service.
Colleges like seeing that students have done community service. Keep in mind that most universities want to admit students who are actively involved in activities that better themselves, and eventually, will better the world. Students who have been actively involved in community service in high school show colleges that they will be the type of student who will be actively involved in making the college community a better place to be. Eventually, that they will be the kind of people who care about changing the world.
On a more practical level, the personal benefits and development that you will get from volunteering can be great topic matter for a college application essay.
The people you work with on community service projects will be good people to turn to when the time comes for letters of recommendation. They’ll be able to speak to your leadership abilities, passion, and character. Finally, doing this kind of work shows prospective schools that you can balance activities with your schoolwork and that you have good time management.
Did you know that your volunteer work can also be helpful in paying for college? See our list of community service scholarships to see how you can make volunteering work for you financially.
The good news doesn’t end there, though. The benefits of volunteering will follow you out of school and into the workplace, as well.
Did you know that employers love volunteers?
TimeBank, a UK-based volunteering charity, and Reed, a recruitment company, partnered to create a study on how employers think about volunteer work. The results were very positive for those who have chosen to donate their time:
- 84% of employers agreed that volunteering is a good way for people to find work.
- 70% of employers said that volunteers have a better chance of getting a higher salary and a promotion.
- 80% of employers said that they like to see volunteer work on a resume.
- 23% of employers said that volunteering had helped their staff learn key skills, such as time management, communication skills, and leadership skills.
The study also showed that half of the employees surveyed thought that their volunteer experience had helped them land their job, and up to 20% of employees thought that their volunteer experience helped them gain key skills in communication, leadership, and time management that were important to their jobs.
As you can see, there are a lot of ways that your community service work will help you down the road once you start work, beginning with what you choose to do.
Volunteering is a great way to explore different interests. High school students who do community service can try different kinds of work and work environments that they otherwise would likely not be exposed to at such a young age. Most paying jobs that high school students are eligible for – such as working in fast food - are not the most interesting. But volunteering can give you a chance to try things that you will be interested in as a career, such as working in social media, organizing events, or working in a specific type of institution such as a hospital.
The experiences that you gain will also look great on your resume. Future employers will likely be much more interested in hearing about a fundraiser that you ran than they will be in hearing about your burger flipping skills. Why? A lot of the personal development benefits discussed above, such as leadership skills and the ability to collaborate with a team, are things that translate well to many jobs and workplaces.
Networking is another major benefit of volunteering. As a volunteer, you will be very likely to meet like-minded individuals who share your interests. In the future, these people can be important contacts for writing letters of recommendation and for putting you in touch with the right people for scholarships and jobs.
Now that you know that community service is an extracurricular that will help you out in your personal life, as well as in high school, college, and your professional life, what are you waiting for?
How to Get Started
If you’ve decided you’re ready to take the plunge, here are some Do’s and Don’ts to get you started in your volunteer career.
Do try to find the right opportunity for you. It’s important to find something that you are going to enjoy and that you are capable of doing well. Ask yourself what kind of people you like working with (kids? people your own age?), whether you work better alone or as part of a team, how much time you have to commit and how much responsibility you can take on, and what special skills you have that you can contribute.
Don’t volunteer abroad just because you think it looks better. Especially for college applications, admissions officers prefer to see a local long-term volunteer commitment than something that has only lasted a week or two during a summer break. Some volunteer abroad programs can also cause more trouble than good to local people.
Do try to find a cause that you are passionate about. If you have always had an affinity for animals, try working at a shelter or a charity working on animal rights. If you have always valued education, try tutoring or an education charity. The more you care about the cause, the more dedicated you will be to continue working for it over a long period of time.
Don’t be afraid of making a change. Ask questions when something doesn’t seem right. If you end up doing work that doesn’t seem like a good fit, is causing excessive stress, or if the experience isn’t allowing you to do the things you thought you would be working on, it’s ok to leave to find something else.
Do enjoy yourself! The more you are having fun with volunteering, the more it will be a positive experience both for you and the organization you are working with.
Now that you know the benefits, check out the 9 best places to do community service.
If you need money for college, volunteering may be the answer. Check out our list of volunteer scholarships.
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Mary Ann holds a BA in Classics and Russian from the University of Notre Dame, and an MA from University College London. She has years of tutoring experience and is also passionate about travel and learning languages.