It’s no secret that colleges value community service and volunteering, and no surprise that most competitive applicants have tons of volunteering on their resumes. For this reason, families often seek guidance around community service. We are often asked what impresses colleges, or how much volunteering a student should do. “Should we pay for him to build houses in Mexico?” “Does she need to spend her entire summer volunteering?” or “What’s better, working with the homeless or working with children?”

While these are important questions, they ultimately miss the point. Sure, colleges do take notice when an applicant has tons of community service hours. But ultimately, it is not the number of hours spent volunteering, or even the type of volunteering that matters. What matters most is how deeply the student got engaged in whatever volunteering they do – and what they have to show for it at the end.

Many teens volunteer with the best of intentions (or purely to look good for colleges or meet school requirements, let’s be honest), but fail to get engaged. They show up, do their hours, and go home. Maybe they write about their experience in an essay. And this kind of volunteering isn’t bad, but it won’t help you stand out on applications. Why? Because everyone does it! Think about it – anyone can “sign up and show up.” So why should colleges be impressed by this?

So what type of volunteering DOES make colleges take notice? I like to call it “engaged volunteering.” A student who gets engaged doesn’t just show up, they get involved at a deeper level. They keep coming back, they make personal connections, and they find additional ways they can help. They take initiative, and often they create something tangible they can call their own. When they graduate and go off to college, the place they volunteered may actually be better because of their efforts.

Engaged volunteering is impressive to colleges because it is evidence of the student’s potential, and what they might contribute to the campus. When admissions officers read applications, they ask, “What will this student bring to the table? What impact will they have on our campus?” They look for the students who have made meaningful and tangible contributions in high school – because these are the students that will likely make a meaningful contribution to the campus community.

So, what does “engaged volunteering” actually look like? Here are some stories from real students I’ve worked with in recent years.

Several years ago, I worked with a delightful young woman named Robyn, who had been volunteering at a retirement home since 6th grade. A social person by nature, Robyn befriended many of the residents, and often noticed them complaining about lack of connection with their grandchildren, who favored electronic forms of communication. Robyn wanted to help, so she started teaching a few of the residents how to send email, use Skype, and send text messages. When more residents started to show interest, Robyn asked for permission to start a formal program, which she called Cyber Seniors. The staff trusted Robyn, since she’d been volunteering for so long, so they gave her the green light. Through Cyber Seniors, Robyn recruited other teens to teach tech skills to the residents. The program was a success, and when she graduated, Robyn was able to hand the reins to a younger student.

What I love about Robyn’s project is that is happened organically – she didn’t start out looking to create anything special, but she had been volunteering long enough to notice a need at the senior center and took the initiative to help. Nobody created this project for her; it was all her own, fueled by the genuine desire the help the seniors that she cared about.

Here’s another story of engaged volunteering: Rohan was a sophomore when he and his father were walking in a nature refuge near their house, where he noticed a poster calling for volunteers. Although he wasn’t particularly interested in environmental sciences or biology, he knew he needed volunteering hours, and the refuge was conveniently located near his house. Little did he know that his involvement there would grow into one of his most meaningful high school experiences. You see, Rohan is the type of student who always goes above and beyond. He is an avid learner and curious about everything. Once amongst the passionate naturalists that staffed the refuge, Rohan’s interest in the natural environment quickly grew. Anytime a visitor asked a question he couldn’t answer, he learned the information for next time. If there was a task that needed doing, he took care of it. Perhaps most importantly, he kept coming back, volunteering at the refuge nearly every weekend. His efforts were noticed, and before long the staff promoted him to a teaching role, through which he coordinated restoration projects, seasonal tours, and coastal cleanups. In the summer after junior year, he was chosen to play a key role in organizing and leading the summer camp for elementary school kids. He ended up writing many college essays about the growth he experienced through his time at the refuge – and they were powerful essays that showed colleges what impact he might have on their campuses.

Rohan’s story is an awesome example of true engagement. First of all, he kept coming back – that is the first step to getting engaged. But he also looked for opportunities to learn and to help. He put forth his best efforts every single day that he was there. And as a result, he ended up with opportunities that were not usually offered to high school students – and also discovered his own love of the environment.

When deciding what type of volunteering to do, don’t worry about what colleges want to see. Instead ask yourself: “Where would I get excited about going? Where can I really get engaged?” Pick something that interests you, something you are curious about. It goes without saying that truly engaged volunteering can only happen over the course of time – so always evaluate potential volunteering opportunities by asking, “Is this a place I want to keep coming back to?”

What happens if you start volunteering somewhere, only to realize that you aren’t as interested as you hoped? Or perhaps the place you volunteered simply doesn’t allow high school student to do more (often the case with hospitals, law firms, or similar environments). It’s OK – just move on. For some teens, it takes a while to find a volunteering opportunity that fosters deep engagement, and there is nothing worse than forcing yourself to keep returning to a place you feel bored or uncomfortable.

The key is to keep trying. Once you find the right place, you’ll know it. Keep going back, and keep your eyes opened for new opportunities and additional ways you can help. Don’t be afraid to suggest a project that you are eager to do. And when you see a chance to do more – take it! The place you’re volunteering will probably be grateful, and colleges will be sure to take notice.

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