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Help Your Student Find the Right College Academic ProgramGuest Contributor
Volunteer experience has become a basic requirement for many schools and almost every scholarship. But volunteering is so much more than something your student does in order to include it on an application. It's a chance to explore interests beyond academics, contribute to causes they're passionate about, and gain leadership skills.
Not all volunteer opportunities are weighted the same by admission committees. Let me walk you through how your student can earn quality volunteer hours, even while juggling a full course load.
Generally speaking, review committees use volunteer experience as an indicator of how well-rounded a student is. When it comes to scholarships, they want to support students who have already served their community in a meaningful way. For undergraduate programs, schools tend to look for those who can contribute to the college’s culture at large and blossom into a stand-out member of the campus community.
In contrast, professional degrees such as medical school or masters and Ph.D. programs may explicitly require volunteer experience that directly ties to their industry.
Regardless, the number of hours volunteered is extremely important. A student with hundreds of volunteer hours and a leadership role in one organization speaks directly to their values and dedication to a specific cause much more than a student who volunteered for a single day at a community event.
A general guide is to aim for 10–15 volunteer hours per month for students during the school year, and as much as possible over the summer.
As hinted above, what students are actually doing while volunteering also plays a significant role when reviewing student applications. Let’s consider a pre-health student seeking to volunteer at a hospital in order to gain experience in healthcare. The volunteer coordinator may place them at the hospital’s gift shop or at the front desk directing incoming calls. Although these roles certainly benefit the hospital, they don’t provide the student with many opportunities to interact directly with patients or other healthcare staff. In this case, the student may be better off volunteering at an assisted living center or hospice to gain higher quality experience.
It gets even more complicated when you factor in that students are expected to be accomplishing this while maintaining peak performance in the classroom. For many students, competitive grades come at the cost of their lives outside of school, and the reverse is just as true.
Yet finding a balance between one’s most significant responsibilities (such as pursuing an education) and their personal life is an ongoing juggling act that doesn’t end with high school. In fact, many of us parents have recently picked up a book aimed at helping us find the elusive "work-life balance" we all seem to be chasing.
With the desire to set your student up for sustainable success, I welcome you to consider that all of us are already "failing" in one facet of life at the expense of excelling in another.
For instance, your student has likely had at least one productive study session in part because they chose not to spend that time doing something less important to them, such as perfecting their chocolate chip cookie recipe or learning how to ride a unicycle. They decided (consciously or not) what was important to them and acted accordingly.
So let me introduce you to a concept I like to call...
The idea is that their calendar should be a direct reflection of their personal values, not necessarily measured in time but by the quality of that time spent. Using what actually matters to them at their core as a compass allows them to discern what is or isn't a meaningful use of their time.
This practice welcomes students to reflect on how present they are at any given moment. Bringing ourselves back into the experience that is right in front of us increases both productivity and the pleasure we gain by participating.
The outcome may be that they spend less time studying because their actions are more productively focused, freeing up time either to take on more tasks or to reduce anxiety around the workload they have in front of them. For example, Value-Based Time Blocking encourages students to consider whether they really need to be studying for five hours after class, or if they could accomplish the same desired outcome in half the time by being more efficient.
And let me remind you that students don’t have to continuously participate in every activity for a set amount of time regardless of what else is going on in their lives. Many students accomplish all of their volunteering during summer breaks or on long weekends. Some can double-up to accomplish multiple goals at the same time, perhaps by volunteering under the supervision of their mentors.
In essence, students don’t necessarily have to do "everything" all at the same time. There's enough time in a semester to accomplish what really matters, and dedicated students use that time purposefully.
As if giving one’s most precious resource — time — wasn’t enough, students gain so much more than just something to add to their resumes. The experiences they have while volunteering makes for fantastic content for personal statements and scholarship applications, helping theirs stand out to the review committees.
Volunteering is also a common way for students to find incredible mentors. These professionals in their field can provide invaluable guidance and industry-specific insights, and they may also write letters of recommendation. The power of an incredible referral from a professional that speaks directly to your student’s unique strengths and skill set cannot be overstated.
Once they're ready to take on volunteering, the goal is to find or create opportunities that genuinely interest them, introduce them to new experiences, and can be accomplished without coming at the expense of what truly matters to them. If a volunteer commitment starts to impact performance in another important area of their life, it’s perfectly fine to walk away and try something else. Whether an opportunity is directly related to their academics or career goals is just a welcome bonus!
Balancing high academic performance with volunteering, along with anything else of great significance, doesn’t happen by accident. It is possible to "do all the things," as many competitive schools expect of their students, but this is only the outcome of intentional planning, deep personal investigation, dropping what no longer serves them, and pivoting as necessary.
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