Community service. Performing acts of community service is a prerequisite to earning admission to highly selective colleges, right? Wrong. It never ceases to amaze us how many parents and students believe that applicants would exponentially increase their odds of admission to highly selective colleges, including the Ivy League colleges, if they could showcase their charitable acts on their applications. And we totally get why they feel this way. They listen to parents in line at the grocery store brag about how their children are building houses in villages throughout West Africa. Or they read an article in the newspaper in which a private college counselor touts the importance of community service. The list goes on and on but let us be clear. Our nation’s most elite schools seek singularly talented students. Community service can be an angle — if students are serving their community in one very specific way. But all applicants need not perform acts of community service in order to earn admission to their dream schools. An incoming class in which every student’s hook is community service would be a boring class indeed. Can you say snorefest?
The Importance of Ignoring the Peanut Gallery in Touting Charitable Work
There was a piece in “The New York Times” a few days back by Janet Morrissey entitled “Considering College? Maybe You Should Invest in a Coach” that features a quote from a private college counselor, one we disagree with in the strongest terms possible. In this piece, Morrissey writes, “[A private college counselor] recalled one client, who earned top grades, was involved in volunteer work at his church, had aced his ACT test, but had been rejected by many of the top colleges. Once she read his personal statement, the problem became crystal clear. ‘He came across as a jerk,’ she said, as his words portrayed a know-it-all who planned to single-handedly fix the gap between the tech world and business on Wall Street — not at all reflective of his personality. And he didn’t mention all of the charitable acts he had done for his community, she said.”
While we have reviewed many college applications over the years in which applicants presented themselves as jerks just as this private college counselor suggests (and that’s precisely why they didn’t earn admission), it’s the last thing this counselor says that irks us: “And he didn’t mention all of the charitable acts he had done for his community.” As Amy Winehouse would sing it, “No, no, no!” Students should not tout their charitable acts in their Personal Statement — or in any supplemental essay for that matter. First and foremost, as our readers now know, a student need not perform charitable acts in order to earn admission to his or her dream school. But if community service really is the angle of an applicant, certainly don’t brag about such work — or mention it at all — in the Personal Statement. The Personal Statement is not real estate for inserting activities and all the reasons a student should get in. It’s not a CV. Tout charitable work in an essay and it’ll come across precisely how you think it’ll come across to an admissions officer — that you’re trying to present yourself as a wonderful person in the hope of getting in. It doesn’t work like that.
If Community Service is the Angle, It Better Be Interesting
If community service really is your angle, building homes in villages throughout West Africa will not help your case for admission to America’s elite schools. It’s a nice thing to do for humanity but it won’t help you achieve your dream. Rather, it presents as mom and dad spent a lot of money to send you to a fancy program so you could look like a good person on your college applications. In fact, performing any kinds of trite community service activities (while wonderful for humanity don’t get us wrong — like working in soup kitchens) presents to admissions officers in this same way.
If community service is the angle of one of our students, you can bet they’re not building houses in faraway lands, flaunting mom and dad’s money. You can bet they’re not doing the same thing every other applicant is doing by working in homeless shelters. Our students are serving their communities in one very specific, often very weird way and many of their activities reflect this unique way of serving people. They are acting locally, thinking globally. Not the reverse. But, no, we won’t offer more hints on how are students who excel in community service present themselves in wonderfully weird ways. After all, we’re a business and that, oh loyal readers, is our secret sauce.