College Admissions and Service Work

A recent blog in the New York Times’ Education section (http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/08/activity/), raises interesting questions about the way in which high school students may actually be choosing to do volunteer work (or any other activity, for that matter) purely for college admissions sake.  Indeed, given the emphasis that college applications place on things like community service, it seems logical to assume that many kids do in fact sign up for all sorts of activities with their applications in mind.  But even if this is true, does it really matter?  What are the consequences of such pragmatism?  This is an important and thorny question, and certainly one with which I have often wrestled, as an admission officer, as a private consultant, and as a parent.

I do in fact believe that many students, consciously or otherwise, opt to do community service with their college applications in mind.  And I equally believe it is silly to spend hours doing something after school you care little about.  (Whatever activity a student is doing, keep in mind that countless others are doing the same thing for the same reason, making it unlikely that the activity in itself will impress the admission officer who has, I fear, seen it before!) But I don’t think it is silly to encourage students to see service to, and engagement with, their communities as an important part of passing on their privilege.

So perhaps the answer is that we encourage students to do community service, but we also urge them to be aware and thoughtful about finding the service opportunities that speak most to their own interests.  After all, why feel compelled to dig latrines in another country if you would rather clean up the beach where you surf every day; why think that your job refiling books in the library must have less value than becoming president of the service club at school?

Students can then achieve several crucial things.  They will hopefully learn that good citizenship extends beyond their college applications.  They will also move towards that marvelous and transformative moment when they can see the connection between what they learn from books and what they see in the world around them.  In that sense, they will be well ahead of many others that may only begin to get a glimmer of that in college, if ever.  And pragmatically, students who can show and articulate a critical awareness of how the different elements of their young lives are integrating even at seventeen – intellectually, politically, socially – are the ones with the most interesting applications in the end.

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