The past few years, some state schools (e.g. the University of California) have among their essay prompts a question that asks about community service. This has prompted not few parents and college admissions counselors to go on a frantic trail of getting students to find an area of community service as if that is the holy grail that admissions committees are looking for.
Well, community service is good. But is it the holy grail of successful admissions to toptier colleges? No.
What audacity! How dare I speak against what highly respected college admissions counselors have been advocating for! The truth is, having some sort of community service listed in your activity, it and on its own, has little impact on whether you are looked upon favorably. Of course, if you have been helping at a soup kitchen all throughout your high school years, it speaks volumes about your commitment towards caring for the less privileged. But if you insert a "volunteer at homeless shelter" for your 11th grade activity void, you are waving a big red flag that you are probably doing that volunteering position simply because you want to jump on the bandwagon of trying to impress admissions committees.
Really, at the end of the day, what top colleges look for are students who excel in academics but also exhibit characteristics of success in life and concern for the greater good of society. That means one should have discipline, social awareness, endurance and other like characteristics. And, of course, passion.
Passion, that elusive but oft-cited quality. Here's where I'd like to link passion with community service. Back to the volunteering at a soup kitchen example. If a student has been doing that same activity, committing three or four hours each week, for years, that shows true caring and that would count as passion. For that student who does something for just a year or so, forget it. Get the idea? It is not necessary to have actually done what is commonly thought of as "community service," to show you can contribute to the greater good of the world and your community, and that you have passion. Passion is when you actually like something, and you persisted in doing it.
I have a student who got admitted into the Ivy-league of the west coast (we all know which school that is) this March. She did not have any community service on her resume. Yup, none. But, her passion for Math and outdoor sports showed through with only two core activities that she has been engaged in for many years. Another student, currently a junior in that most famous Ivy-league located in Cambridge, MA, basically only had involvement in the school's chamber orchestra and newsletter editorial board as his extra-curricular activities. For real? Yes. How come? Well, he showed his passion for music by winning a major national piano competition, which testified to more than a decade of hard work, discipline and commitment. That is passion.
So, before parents and students start panicking about not having community service on the students' activity lists, and frantically make their children sign up to help in all sorts of non-profit organizations, understand that the more important thing is to actually find something you really like, enjoy it, work on it. That shows passion. It's not the quantity of activities you have to prattle on that counts. It's the quality of your one or two activity that counts.