Doing Good vs. Marking Time

Doing Good vs. Marking Time

Colleges: Community service more than just clocking in.

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Right about now, some parents and high school seniors are starting to panic.

Graduation is just months away, and some MCPS students still haven’t fulfilled the state’s 75-hour mandatory service learning requirement. Many private schools also require that their students dedicate time to community service.

And graduation aside, some seniors are struggling to fill that section on college applications in which students are supposed to explain how they’ve given back to their communities.

If your kid is one of those who left this to the last minute, good luck. But for parents and students who’ve still got hours to fill and time to do it, listen to this:

A recent survey shows that we’d better think twice before writing that check for the summer trip to help improve life in an impoverished Salvadoran village. Might be better to provide a regular ride to the local homeless shelter instead.

That’s because, apparently, it’s the depth of commitment that matters to college admissions officers. So says a recent study by Do, a nonprofit organization dedicated to getting teens involved in volunteerism. Colleges want to see that students were involved in something that mattered to them over the long haul, not just for a few hours on a given Saturday.

Admissions officers from 33 of the top 50 schools from the US News & World "Best Colleges 2011" responded to the survey. According to the survey highlights, here’s what they had to say:

When reviewing applications, “community service ranked in the top four most important factors to consider,” as well as SAT scores, class rank and GPA and extra-curricular activities.

When evaluating community service, “70 percent of admissions officers valued consistent local volunteering over a long period rather than a short stint abroad. Commitment to a single cause is also preferred five to one over scattered involvement with a variety of stints.”

Words including “commitment” and “passion” are what admissions officers are looking for when students describe their service. Demonstrating “high levels of passion” are seen as “indicators of strong character.”

Patty Parmelee, college and career information coordinator at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, says she’s heard college representatives who visit B-CC say that “prolonged exposure to one [group or activity] is better than dabbling.”

Colleges “have a community service conscience. They have the anticipation that kids coming into college are looking for ways to volunteer there as well,” she says. “The really high-rolling colleges are pretty interested in rigor and grades, but they all want an interesting student. They want kids who have done things.”

“Depth is more important than a long laundry list,” agrees Bryna Blaine, career information coordinator at Walter Johnson High School, which hosts visits from as many as 180 college representatives in the fall. She counsels students that community service is one part of the “whole person” perspective that colleges are looking for.

“It’s not just about meeting the graduation requirement from high school,” she says. “I want my students to be as well-rounded as possible, presenting a full-blown person.”

That’s good news for those Montgomery County students who got involved with a group or cause and stuck with it because they wanted to—not just to rack up required hours. But for some students, the state’s ideal of service learning—meant as a way to connect students to local organizations and causes in a meaningful way—has been lost. So, instead of finding a cause or a project to commit to, these students receive credit for activities requiring no further commitment than their time, like selling popcorn at a school dance or cleaning a classroom.

B-CC’s Parmelee says she doesn’t think that students who have dabbled rather than committed to one cause or group need despair—as long as they take advantage of any opportunity on a college application to explain what they’ve done and why. For “a good kid with a big heart who can explain his breadth instead of his depth, that’s okay,” she says.

Still, I’d hate to have to explain what I learned from minding the moon bounce at the spring fair.

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