volunteers doing community serviceThere is no denying how great community service can be. But did you know it can help you get into your college of choice too?

You know how important community service for high school students is. Especially now, during the summer before your senior year, when you know that your college applications will need to show that you are “well-rounded” and “community-oriented.”

Yikes. You did keep track of all the community service you’ve done, right?

Maybe your school mandates that you do a certain amount of community service? (Many schools now require the accumulation of “service points.”) Or, maybe you knew this was coming and have engaged in a good number of volunteer activities.

In either case, if you are like a lot of high school students, over the past year or two you might have:

  • Volunteered an hour a week at a retirement home.
  • Worked in the cafeteria at your own neighborhood elementary school, serving snacks on curriculum night.
  • Participated in a series of Saturdays at the local soup kitchen.

Sure, each one of these things is good in itself. But what do they add up to? Are they random? Or do they show a theme? That’s entirely up to you.

Identify the theme to your community service

If you find yourself the summer before your senior year with a random assortment of community activities, give some thought to identifying common themes among those activities to create what I call a “service narrative.”

First, make an inventory of the volunteer and community service work that you’ve done over the past year or more. What are some common denominators or themes you find?

Let’s use the examples I gave above to look at some possible community service themes.

Working with seniors

  • Obviously, if you worked in the retirement home, you have experience working with senior citizens.
  • Maybe you interacted with and served elderly patrons at the soup kitchen.

Food and nutrition

  • By working in the elementary school cafeteria, you saw firsthand the nutritional content of snacks in schools.
  • In the local soup kitchen, you peeled carrots and potatoes. Hey, you actually prepared the food.

Working with children

  • Were there children at the soup kitchen?
  • You have experience with children from working curriculum night at the local elementary school.

Working Directly in Education

  • What were the children learning at curriculum night?
  • Did it differ from when you were in elementary school?

This is just the beginning. There are plenty other service narratives that can be pulled from these community service efforts. What other service themes do you see?

Sharpen your community service theme or narrative

Identifying the common theme in your community service experience is just the first step. Once you’ve identified some themes to your community service, think about how you can deepen or sharpen the focus this summer.

  • If you see that you’ve done a lot of work with seniors, maybe mix it up this summer and work with a local politician to advocate for the elderly? Or maybe do an internship in the office of an attorney who who specializes in legal issues related to seniors.
  • If you find that you’ve done a lot of work in food and nutrition, how about volunteering or interning for a local nutritionist?
  • Did you find that “working with children” was your common community service theme? Maybe get a job as a camp counselor?
  • When education was a common thread to your community experience, think about volunteering for a summer enrichment program.

These are just a few examples. Your own experience will be unique to you. Sit down with your mom or dad to list your community service projects, find the commonalities, and then – strategically – add one more activity this summer to really show that you are committed to, and understand, this issue.

Here’s one important idea to consider. Since there will likely be many themes that you find in your work, give some thought to choosing a theme that corresponds to your intended field of study. This will really show the schools you apply to that you are focused, and that you care about this issue.

Put the themes/narratives to work for you

Here is where your hard work and strategic thinking pay off. Let’s say you’ve identified “working with seniors” as a common denominator to your service activities. There are two important ways that you can leverage this experience:

Community Service in application essays

In one or more essays, you are likely to be able to talk about your service work and why it was important to you. Be sure to hit on your theme and what you learned.

Community Service as justification for your intended field of study

Also known as answering the “why do you want attend our school?” question. If there is a correspondence between your intended field of and your service activities, be sure to highlight that!

The above ideas are meant to get the creative juices flowing as you think about how to use this summer to help you with your college applications. But they are hardly a recipe. Your own situation will be unique to you. Follow your passions.