Not a day goes by, when I don’t hear from a concerned parent that their kid isn’t doing enough community service. The unsaid part of the concern is “not enough for a competitive college admissions resume.” Although community service IS recalled in college applications and can matter in demonstrating the interest and commitment of an applicant outside of her/his academic achievements, caring for others as a self-serving resume bullet point may miss the mark.
A recent New York Times opinion piece featured several college admissions officers formally confirming that community service and charitable acts with a self-interested motive can be recognized and diminish the applicant’s competitiveness.
In the case of drive-by charity work, the checked box can actually be counterproductive, because application readers see right through it.
“The running joke in admissions is the mission trip to Costa Rica to save the rain forest,” Ángel Pérez, who is in charge of admissions at Trinity College in Hartford, told me.
Young people mature in similar ways. Yet, youthful grandiosity, born from limited experience, also allows for a sense of terminal uniqueness, which can materialize in college essays. However, college admissions officers may not be able to discern more about the individual, especially when a “coming of age” narrative that stems from witnessing socio-economic differences is becoming commonplace.
Jennifer Delahunty, a longtime admissions official at Kenyon College, said that mission-trip application essays are their own bloated genre.
“Often they come to the same conclusion: People in other parts of the world who have no money are happier than we are!” she told me. “That is eye-opening to some students. But it can be a dangerous thing to write about, because it’s hard to rescue the truth from that cliché.”
Since admissions officers are aware of chase for community do-gooding, even those with an altruistic intentions, can be unwittingly diminished for their efforts.
Many of the students taking mission trips or doing other charity work outside the country have heartfelt motivations, make a real (if fleeting) contribution and are genuinely enlightened by it. Pérez and Delahunty don’t doubt that. Neither do I.
But there’s cynicism in the mix.
An informational advantage mixed with helicopter parenting tendencies can further exacerbate the cynicism of admissions officers.
Richard Weissbourd, a child psychologist and Harvard lecturer who has studied the admissions process in the interest of reforming it, recalled speaking with wealthy parents who had bought an orphanage in Botswana so their children could have a project to write and talk about. He later became aware of other parents who had bought an AIDS clinic in a similarly poor country for the same reason.
“It becomes contagious,” he said.
Plus, the nebulous “leadership” designation as an attractive quality in college applicants often leads teenagers efforts askew.
A more recent phenomenon is teenagers trying to demonstrate their leadership skills in addition to their compassion by starting their own fledgling nonprofit groups rather than contributing to ones that already exist — and that might be more practiced and efficient at what they do.
“It’s a sort of variation on going on a mission trip and figuring out that people all over the world are really the same,” said Stephen Farmer, who’s in charge of undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“I don’t mean to make light of it,” he added, acknowledging that many such trips and nonprofits have benefits, and not just for the college-bound students engaged in them.
Although initiative, like starting an organization, can be noticed in the college admissions evaluation, a students’ commitment and interest in their activities can add credibility to their initiative.
While compulsory community service may have started as a well-intentioned means to teach character, “benefitting others for a grade” may mask the original character building intent.
“My concern is that students feel compelled to do these things — forced — rather than feeling that they’re answering some inner call,” Farmer said.
In many cases they are compelled. Tara Dowling, the director of college counseling at the Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, R.I., said that many secondary schools (including, as it happens, Dylan Hernandez’s) now require a minimum number of hours of service from students, whose schedules — jammed with sports, arts, SAT prep and more — leave little time for it.
Getting it done in one big Central American swoop becomes irresistible, and if that dilutes the intended meaning of the activity, who’s to blame: the students or the adults who set it up this way? Dowling noted that without the right kinds of conversations and guidance, “Kids don’t know how to connect these experiences to the rest of their lives, to the bigger picture.”
A simple form, created by each high school consisting of a table to list their activities, is usually the means through which students prove completion of their compulsory compassionate contributions. Typically, no discussion occurs before the service about why the student chose a particular commitment, or during about what the student was experiencing. Rarely, is a self-reflection required about what the kid learned or thought about his/her efforts after the service is over. Even in the case where end reflections are required, teens can treat the writing as an assignment and gloss over the intent.
The rite of passage from youthful naiveté to experienced adult can happen through many different activities. The key to such maturity is having an outlet to continuously discuss the experience and deepen understanding, beyond collecting another bullet on a resume.
There are excellent mission trips, which some students do through churches that they already belong to, and less excellent ones. There are also plenty of other summer projects and jobs that can help students develop a deeper, humbler understanding of the world.
Pérez told me that his favorite among recent essays by Trinity applicants came from someone “who spent the summer working at a coffee shop. He wrote about not realizing until he did this how invisible people in the service industry are. He wrote about how people looked right through him at the counter.”
Helicopter parents, stand down! Pérez’s assessment doesn’t mean that you should hustle your teenagers to the nearest Starbucks. It means that whatever they do, they should be able to engage in it fully and reflect on it meaningfully.
The more college applicants thoughtfully choose any extracurricular activities, including serving their communities, not only will interests be highlighted for college admissions, but the more likely the opportunity to grow into a more caring, compassionate human beings.