How to Get the Most out of Community Service

Community ServiceI first want to thank a colleague of mine (you know who you are) for turning me on to a weekly summary of the latest and greatest trends in K-12 education called the Marshall Memo. I highly encourage parents and educators to take a look and possibly subscribe to it as it discusses several important topics.

In the latest edition, Richard Weissbourd of the Harvard Graduate School of Education offers his thoughts on a report called Turning the Tide, which offers several recommendations for increasing the overall well-being of high-school students during the college admissions process. This report has been endorsed by over 75 Ivy League educators and gives a glimpse into what matters most as students begin their college applications.

Quality over Quantity

The overall theme of the report stresses the importance of finding balance.  Students cannot perform at their peak level in a wide variety of domains without it.  The current data suggest that students are struggling to find balance, and Mr. Weissbourd points out 3 key areas students must be mindful in order to increase well-being:

1) extracurricular activities, 2) Advanced Placement courses, and 3) community service. Today I want to look at the importance of a balanced approach to community service.

Community Service

According to Mr. Weissbourd’s analysis, simply participating in community service is not enough. Instead students should focus their service learning efforts on organizations and tasks that are important to them AND sustained over a long period of time. Translation: colleges want to see students volunteer at 1 or 2 organizations over the course of 4 years rather than 15 different organizations for a weekend at a time.

In order for your student to stand out among his peers, he should find an organization that truly interests him and begin volunteering whenever he has time. For instance, if your son really likes animals, he could consider volunteering at the local humane society. At first he may be cleaning up after the dogs, but if he sticks with it he’ll probably end up working at fund raising events.

Here are just a few organizations in the Austin that can always use volunteers:

If you are outside of Austin or would like a more extensive list, I suggest checking out VolunteerMatch.org. This website allows you to select the type of activity you are interested in and it will match up an organization.

When thinking about what type of service you’d like to do, consider whom that service will most directly impact. It’s really important that you invest in the people (or animals) that you spend time with. Mr. Weissbourd succinctly sums up this sentiment with the statement:

One key question is whether the service project was done with rather than for a community group.

Colleges want to see that you immersed yourself as an active participant in the service, not just a passive contributor. Get to know the people and organizations you are serving. You will get much more out of it and be able to write about it with greater passion. This will no doubt pay off in the college admission process and help you stand out from your peers.

As you continue your service learning efforts, make sure you try new things within that organization. You don’t necessarily have to develop a leadership role, but you should grow from this experience. Increased responsibility is a good thing, so seek out opportunities in which you’ll have a chance to gain more experience.

And remember, community service is not just something to fill up your resume. Find what you are passionate about, that’s how you will get an edge.