Community service is one of the most popular extracurricular activities for high school students to do in their free time.
There are hundreds of ways that high school students can get involved in their communities. There is really something out there for everyone, no matter what your personal interests are!
Admissions officers also love to see community service on college applications. Having community service experience means you're passionate about making a difference in the world and are ready to take action and be involved.
But how many community service hours for college do you actually need in order to make sure your contribution is “good enough” for admissions officers? Is there a certain number of hours that you need for different schools?
Read on to find out!
Do You Need to Complete a Certain Number of Volunteer Hours for College?
As a rough guideline, anything between 50 and 200 hours is going to sound impressive and show that you have made a commitment. However, once you get above 200 hours, you should start to consider if your free time could be better spent doing something else.
Unfortunately, there is no one magic number of community service hours that is going to be your golden ticket into college. Grades and test scores will always come first.
Though community service work can showcase an aspect of your personality and make admission officers see you as a good citizen and leader, it isn’t going to guarantee admission on its own. Even if you have spent 500+ hours on volunteering, admissions officers won't hold spots open for you based just on that. You still need to be the full package.
So treat volunteer work as you would any other extracurricular activity. If this is what you choose to do with your time, make sure that it counts.
Fortunately, a recent study by DoSomething.org will help you to do just that. They asked admissions officers from 33 of the top 50 colleges for guidance on how they judge community service as an extracurricular activity. Their answers are a great guide to what admissions officers are actually thinking when they see your community service hours on your application.
You may be surprised to learn that the number of hours you spend doing community service is not the most important focus.
In fact, most admissions officers say that they care more about what you have done, why you are doing it, and what you are getting out of it. As long as you can adequately explain these things, they don’t care as much about the number of hours you spent doing it.
Two-thirds of college admission officers say that it’s not possible to have too many community service hours. As long as it’s not affecting your grades or other parts of your life, you can volunteer to your heart’s content.
But the opposite is also true. As long as you have made a valuable contribution that you can explain, most admissions officers are probably not going to discount community service work that you have done just because you haven’t spent enough hours doing it.
How Should You Allocate Your Volunteer Hours?
So if your goal is 50-200 hours, how should you spend that time?
In general, it's easier and takes fewer hours to have an impact if you keep volunteering for the same project, instead of spreading yourself across several different projects.
Try to find a project that you can spend at least fifty hours on. If you have much less than this, most admissions officers will not be convinced that you have dedicated enough time to really be making a difference.
Be intelligent about how you spend your free time if you're going to dedicate more hours. However, once you get above 200 hours, you should start to consider if your free time could be better spent doing something else.
At the end of the day, 500 hours is not going to seem that much more impressive than 200 hours, and those are hours that probably could be better spent elsewhere, such as on other extracurriculars, getting top grades, or test prep.
If the number of hours you spent doing community service isn't the most important thing that admissions officers are looking for, then what DO they want to see in your community service?
What Do Admissions Officers Want to See in Volunteer Work?
There are three main qualities that you should be showing in your community service work: commitment, passion, and leadership. The best students will also use their community service experience as an opportunity for reflection.
You can show commitment by being involved in your chosen project over a long period of time.
In the DoSomething study, 70% of admissions officers said they would prefer to see long-term dedication to an unglamorous cause such as local service work instead of a short-term commitment to something flashy like volunteering abroad.
Furthermore, 60% of admissions officers would prefer to see students who have made a commitment to just one cause over their high school careers. Why? They're more interested in seeing what you can accomplish when you're dedicated and put your mind to it than they are by a longer list of volunteer activities. One officer noted, “Longevity and dedication are traits necessary for collegiate success.”
Long-term commitment shows passion and dedication. Over 60% of admissions officers say that they would like to see service that goes back to the beginning of high school, and 15% more say that the service commitment should start before high school.
But what really matters is that you have been volunteering for a long enough time that you have actually made a difference in the community and your own development as well.
To show passion, do a community service activity that relates to something that you're already interested in or care deeply about.
If you have a certain interest, community service can be a great way to explore it. For example, if you're passionate about animals, you could consider volunteering at an animal shelter.
As mentioned above, long-term involvement is important. Students who already care about a cause are more likely to make a long-term commitment.
Working in an area you care about also shows that you can take action to improve things where you see a need, which is a great trait that admission officers look for. Also, the more you can talk about why you care about a cause, the more sincere you will seem in your efforts.
You can show your leadership skills by managing others and being in charge during an event or activity. You can also show leadership by being responsible for motivating others to succeed.
As with any extracurricular, schools are interested to see how you've taken charge and made your extracurricular activity better than you found it. Colleges want to admit people who will change the world, and leaders have a better chance of doing this. Over 50% of admissions officers thought that having a founding or leading role in your volunteer work was the most important quality that you could show them.
The best students who have done community service work will also be able to reflect on how their work has made a difference, both to others and to themselves.
Students should ask themselves if their community service projects have actually made a positive contribution to society. After all, that is the point of community service. Successful community service can be a lot trickier to gauge than success in other extracurriculars. Ask yourself if you have accomplished what you set out to do and who is better off because of your work.
Also, check to see that you understand why the work you've done is important and how you've made an impact.
Students who can reflect on these aspects are more likely to impress admissions officers because they show that they are thoughtful and have dedicated themselves for sincere reasons – not just to have something to list on their resume.
Ask yourself, have you spent enough time doing community service that you have actually made a difference? If you just showed up and did some hours for the sake of a better resume, admissions officers won't be impressed.
Finally, what kind of experience have you gained?
In particular, admissions officers are looking for leadership experience, as mentioned above. However, they're also interested in students who have become more mature and developed in other ways as a result of their community service. If your service work has made you more empathetic, for example, this would also be a great thing to write about.
Students who can reflect on these aspects are more likely to impress admissions officers because they can show that they did community service for sincere reasons – not just to have something to list on their resume.
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What Do Admissions Officers Not Want to See?
Many students will do community service work for the wrong reasons - and it will show.
Admissions officers are always on the lookout for students who volunteer just to fulfill a quota. If you talk about your experience in terms of hours instead of causes and accomplishments, this can be a red flag.
Words like “required” and “mandatory” are also red flags for admissions officers. If community service was required by your high school, even if you did productive and meaningful work, don't describe it in a way that makes it sound like you were forced to do it. This can make admissions officers feel you had a negative relationship with the work you accomplished and only did it because you had to.
If it’s obvious that you are only doing community service work so that you can list it on your application, admissions officers would prefer that you leave it out. As with any other extracurricular activity, you should only list it if it’s been significant to your development.
The Bottom Line
Though all extracurriculars are theoretically equal, I would still recommend that you have some type of community service on your application if you have the means to do so. This is especially important when applying to top schools.
Try to have a project that you have committed at least 50 hours to. If you want community service to be your main extracurricular activity, try to dedicate even more time over several years.
Though most officers say that all activities are totally equal and can show the same traits, some admissions officers for top schools say that community service can be most conspicuous on an application if it's completely absent.
This is especially true in applications for the most competitive schools, where most students will have done some volunteer work.
However, also keep in mind that community service is not mandatory, especially if you have a good reason for not having done it. Almost 100% of officers say that there are many ways that you can show you are a good citizen and leader that DON’T involve community service. This can be accomplished through other extracurriculars, work experience, or helping out your family if that is what your personal circumstances require.
If you need some inspiration, check out our list of 129 community service activities that you can try.
Want to find your own project? Here are the 9 best places to do community service.
Not sure that community service is worth your time? Learn about some of the ways that community service can benefit you.
Did you know that doing community service can help you pay for college? Check out our list of community service scholarships that you can win!
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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.