Does volunteering help with College Admissions? Understanding how students can best use their time.



       All the time, my students’ parents ask me the following questions or some variations thereof:

“How important is volunteering?”


“What’s a good volunteering internship my son or daughter should try and get?”

Essentially, what they’re really asking are questions such as, “How important is volunteering when it comes to my child getting into college?” or “How can I increase my child’s chance of getting into a great school through volunteering?”

So let’s discuss this for a moment in the context of a situation I see happen regularly here at the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey….

Oftentimes, my students will enter a crunch period, with the SATs looming on the horizon. Those weeks of study leading up to the exam are critical. It’s an intense patch of time, to say the least.

Regardless, I’ll sometimes notice absences during this period leading up to the SATs.

I went to one parent and asked, “What’s going on? Your child has been absent the past two Saturdays.”

The parent replied, “She has to volunteer; she can’t miss that. ‘Cause it’ll look bad for college…”

   After this happened again recently, I knew it was time to write this article to help correct a misperception that I see as the source of a counterproductive pattern.

I’d like to make it totally clear that Volunteering Is NOT Of Greater Importance Than Doing Well On The SATs, having good grades, taking a strong courseload, and demonstrating great work habits that students’ teachers can write about in their recommendation letters.

Unless a student is in a mandatory volunteering post, which will have a direct scholastic impact, volunteering should not be given priority over more vital factors.

Volunteer pic

Now, this is not to downplay the value of volunteering in and of itself. Don’t get me wrong: volunteering, taken on its own merits, is one of the best things a person can put their time into.  As someone who volunteers regularly at soup kitchens, food packaging centers, and other places dedicated to serving those in need, I know there is strong intrinsic value and worth in volunteering and giving back to society. Yet to volunteer from the wrong motives – namely, pumping up a college application – is hardly a wise use of one’s time, energy, or ability.

When it comes to volunteering, as well as any extracurricular activity, the value lies largely in the substance of the action – in the doing itself, and what comes out of it – rather than in how it will look on a college application. To be sure, a total absence of extracurricular activity isn’t positive. That said, college admissions officers are not inclined to make such activity their leading point of interest.

A college admissions officer specializes in taking each aspect of an application in context. For example, if a student excels in class, does beautifully on the SATs, takes on challenging coursework, AND puts six hours a week into volunteering, THAT makes a major statement, and is worthy of being rewarded. For one thing, such a profile is indicative of strong time management skills. For another thing, it’s indicative of a well-rounded personality. But I front-loaded my list of application items with grades and test scores for a reason:

Because college admissions officers will always look at those first.

It’s unwise to drift into thinking that volunteering will be rewarded for its own sake, as in a meritocracy. Nobody on the college side of the equation will see a given application and go, “Oh good, he or she got mediocre test scores, but they had a big enough heart to volunteer!”

Please take my above words in the spirit with which they’re intended: with a sense of humor.  A large part of my job as the Founder, Owner, and Educational Director here at Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey is to help get families and kids ready for and be informed about college, and if that means denting the mystique of volunteering, then so be it.

Going forward, I encourage you to think of volunteering in the following two ways:

  • Volunteering is Indicative of Good Time Management Skills

The student who achieves balance in his or her profile, with volunteering taking up a reasonable slice of the pie chart, is demonstrating a strong ability to manage his or her time, which will certainly be appreciated by colleges.

  • Volunteering can be a Strong Launchpad toward and intertwined with Achievement

In other words, in the context of a college application, volunteering in the course of lending one’s time and energy to a cause is one thing, but volunteering in the course of achieving something tangible is far more powerful. Here’s a real-world example: One of my students volunteered for a state assemblywoman. During his internship with her, he used his talent for computer science to build a detailed database for her constituents. I thought that was just incredible. He got into Cal Tech, and I have no doubt his creativity and achievement in terms of volunteering, coupled with a letter of recommendation from the lawmaker herself, shined through as a major plus on his application.

Imagine if he had only volunteered there, and walked away with nothing to show for it other than the fact that he had done so…

You’ll never catch me putting somebody down for volunteering. However, when it comes to somebody prioritizing volunteering above their SATs for the sake of looking good to colleges, I will not hesitate to weigh in with some clarity.

Getting into college is a competitive game. Volunteering is one way to play it, but it’s far from the most important one, and it must be approached with a sense of strategy, consciousness, and care.