The Ivy Coach Daily

May 14, 2024

Does Volunteering Help with Ivy League Admission? 

The natural sciences building, Schermerhorn, is featured at Columbia University.

Volunteering is often touted as a catch-all resume builder that reflects well on college applications. Ambitious students will spend time helping out at their local retirement communities, cooking in soup kitchens, and building houses with Habitat for Humanity in the hopes that these activities will demonstrate the strength of their character. The truth is, this wholesome approach to building up an application may have worked once — in the 1980s, perhaps — but the game has changed entirely in the last few decades. The most competitive college applicants nowadays engage in activities for which they have a genuine passion, whether these activities have a service component or not.

Common Misconceptions About Volunteering for the Sake of College Applications

College admissions officers can tell when an applicant thinks of their volunteering work as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. These applicants list the number of hours they volunteer in the descriptions of their activities, as though they’re trying to impress upon their application readers that they are upstanding citizens. It comes off as disingenuous, especially when applicants from privileged backgrounds highlight the time they’ve spent among disadvantaged communities as a reflection of their character. Yet if a student doesn’t really believe in the causes they are supposedly devoted to, admissions officers will be able to tell. Noncommittal volunteering hurts more than it helps.

What’s worse, some applicants will list lucrative internships, expensive foreign travel, and elite fundraising activities that they’ve had the privilege of participating in as evidence of their civic engagement. Admissions officers will distinguish between exclusive opportunities that reek of privilege and genuine community engagement, which never comes with a price tag. Applicants of means are better off using their resources to dive into their passions and pre-professional pursuits.

Volunteering Should Reflect a Student’s Interests

This is not to say that volunteering is a waste of time. It does build character, engender a sense of civic responsibility, and connect one to their local community. It’s a worthy pursuit, to be sure, but no one should kid themselves that volunteering helps with college applications when it’s not oriented around a singular hook. The well-rounded applicant, who gets into Harvard by trying their luck at a bunch of different disciplines and activities (including some generic volunteering), is what we at Ivy Coach like to call a myth, plain and simple. In 2024, the specialists and experts, who know what they like and spend all their time doing that thing, are the ones who make it into the Ivy League.

The most effective service work — both for a community and on an application — builds on a skillset that the applicant already has, and complements a robust selection of activities in an applicant’s chosen field or niche. Whether it’s the budding historian who donates their time to the archives of the local history museum, the soon-to-be astronaut who teaches beginner’s astronomy in their school’s kindergarten class, or the pre-law environmentalist who starts a letter writing campaign to protect a local nature preserve, the most competitive applicants to highly selective colleges have a genuine connection to the work they do. Community service serves as one of the many ways that they’ve pursued their passion as far as it will go. 

Admissions committees not only prize these sorts of students because they will take advantage of the immense resources that Ivy League schools have to offer, but also because they will return to their communities as alumni to pick up where they left off. The same cannot be said of high schoolers who enter the soup kitchen with a stopwatch in hand and mark down every last second they spend there to list on an application. If an applicant is willing to instrumentalize their local homeless shelter for their own personal benefit, surely they will do the same at Princeton or Yale. Call us cynical, but that is exactly how college admissions officers think of students who don’t put their hearts into volunteering! 

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