College Admissions: Extreme Community and Volunteer Service

The college application process is out of control, especially in the area of community service and volunteerism. Teenagers in their junior year of high school, usually between 16 and 17 years old, are going to what I would consider extreme adventures and ventures, usually funded completely by parents, in order to gain the attention of college admissions officers.

Cary Quad at Purdue University

Trips to third world countries to help improve living conditions or education used to be part of what Peace Corp volunteers did during or after college. Establishing a 501(c)3 non-profit charity is also now commonplace among those who can afford the attorneys’ fees to take care of the paper work and filing it with the IRS.

If you have kids in high school, then I’m  sure you’ve heard about the many established programs out there claiming to advance participating student’s leadership skills while either building wells in Africa, latrines in Guatemala or classrooms in a variety of Latin American countries.

Parents and students alike are feeling the pressure of competition and are willing to fork over upwards of $5,000 for some of these out-of-the-box experiences hoping this will get their application pulled from the pile of 30,000 and away from the rubbish tin.

These  extreme community service or volunteer activities are supposed to help potential college students mature, and most importantly, see the world from another perspective. Hopefully, once they come back they’ll also have a greater appreciation for their own back yards.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

As a parent of a college student and a high school senior, who focused their service in their own back yards, I have witnessed those parents and their kids using the extreme adventures I mentioned before; raising money to build a well somewhere in Africa and filing for non-profit status for a charity we, in the community at large, have never heard of — all for mere 16 year-olds.

Am I whining? Perhaps a little. It simply boggles my mind to think that kids not only have to say goodbye to their childhood as soon as they become freshman in high school due to college application pressures, but that they also have to have an impressive resume attached to their college application listing extreme accomplishments and extravagant travels that not many adults have enjoyed!  (I also think some of these paid-for experiences and accomplishments could probably get these high school kids a real job without having to go to college. But I digress.)

It’s rather disconcerting that kids have to go to these extremes to prove themselves worthy of acceptance by selective colleges. Going to these lengths was likely unique when it was first done a few years ago, but like everything college-related it has become a business.

There just shouldn’t be a need for high school students to spend money to help others, let alone in another continent, when there’s so much need in our own back yards. Just get out of your comfort zone and look for an area in your own city that needs help. I bet there are quite a few back yards which little old ladies or men can’t maintain either physically or with meager Social Security money.

 College-bound teens could also volunteer as mentors, coaches, or tutor kids in less privileged areas.  I’m certain you can even find an area right in your own hometown where you can likely practice that second language you’ve been working on so hard on in school .

Granted, maybe Harvard and Yale may not think highly of these low-cost efforts to make the world a better place, but I guess developing an app or discovering an unknown species of fish while diving in Cape Horn will do the trick for them.

For the rest of us, before you go hunting in the back bush for a unique way for your high school student to do volunteer work or outstanding community service, you might want to check these out:

 (Disclaimer: We did not try the following suggestions. My teenagers opted to create their own homegrown volunteer and community services activities, and didn’t venture too far away from their own back yard.)

1. YMCA Youth and Goverment Program.

2. Orange County Volunteers.

3. Start a local chapter of a national club organization .

4. Traditional volunteering in churches, soup kitchens and shelters are always available and in need of people!

5. Custom Make Your Own Community or Volunteer Service. Identify a need in your community and/or vicinity — any need — and fill it.  Best impact for your college application is if you start as a freshman and continue through senior year. The depth and breath of the student’s involvement, commitment, to the cause is key.

While the extreme volunteer activities I mentioned earlier are all well-intentioned and very noble causes, these youngsters and their stressed out parents seemed to be outdoing each other in an effort to stand out on college application,s and have lost sight of the altruistic purpose of it all.

Well, buyer beware. I suspect college admissions officers may be able to see right through these paid-for volunteer adventures. Homegrown philanthropic efforts should be good enough for college admission  if the intention is pure and consistent. 

In fact, better save the money you’d spend on an extreme volunteer mission and use it to pay for college tuition … which no one is lining up to help YOU pay for.


  1. This is a great post! My children have always been heavily involved in community service, here at home. I agree with you, that these large community service activities are a little over-the-top. And you are spot on with saving the five grand for tuition costs! :/

    • Suzette Valle says:

      So glad you got something positive out of this post, Paula. If you can share your ideas for local community service kids can do instead of the exotic (and costly) trips and adventures some undertake, that would certainly be helpful for parents. Thank you for reading!

  2. Carolyn West says:

    Thank you for writing this. My oldest daughter just started junior high. JUNIOR HIGH! and I’m already thinking of things she can do that would look on a college application. How sad is that? Unfortunately, I think the college application process is no different than the school standardized tests. All we seem to be doing is trying to meet a standard that only fits a very small part of the population. I think there is very little organic “growing” of our kids. Instead of learning the value of being charitable on their own, we are expected to push them into it. What is THAT teaching them? Who are they really helping in the long run?

    • Suzette Valle says:

      Carolyn, I’m soo with you, girl! You are not alone in thinking about college stuff in junior high at all. You’ve heard about the preschools claiming they can prepare your kid for college from the first day of school, right? Oy!!
      The whole college application process is a huge business, and I’ve learned the hard way that the early bird gets the worm. Start with what ever it takes to get in the game early.
      My daughter once told me, after an especially empassioned rant about the business of getting into college, that I had to suck it up like she has had to. “Things aren’t going to change fast enough for me to benefit, so I have no choice but to: take a ton of APs, suffer the stress, forget my friends, family, and any leaisure reading.” I hate it!

  3. I think most colleges are equally impressed with what students do in the way of community service and volunteering close to home as they are with expensive, organized programs in faraway countries. I once suggested to a student that he contact the mayor’s office and see what suggestions they might make in terms of making a difference in the local community. There are plenty of needs and teenagers can utilize their talents and time to contribute, College admission officers want students who will be successful academically, as well as make a difference on their campus and in the surrounding community.

    • Suzette Valle says:

      Susie, I love your idea about contacting the Mayor’s office! Our city’s Mayor is also the History and AP World History teacher at the public high school. I hope someone reads this and gets an idea about volunteering locally. Thank you for sharing your professional insight with us!

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