College Essay Ideas... Another Reason for Community Service

Jonny helping kids depict the poem "Sick"As 12th grade approaches so do college applications -- and the process of writing college essays.

The process is a hard one for most students. Who wants to write about themselves? Frankly, who wants to even think that hard about themselves? How do you make yourself sound fabulous and  unique at a time when you feel very much like a number in a system?

The college essay moment is one of the very few moments in life when having experienced a tragedy or having had a very hard life can be helpful. If you can bear the emotional process of bearing your soul, these stories, told well, are unique, moving, and sympathetic on their own.  They can be hard to shape into 600 words, but don't require much finessing to become powerful and emotional (I had one student who laid out his family's experience of abuse, suffering, international dislocation, betrayal over the course of 12 single-spaced, unedited pages -- making it essay-sized took weeks -- but there's no one who read it who didn't cry and desperately want to give this kid a chance to thrive). These stories are obvious fodder for essays and they hit the right buttons.

But, what about those lucky kids for whom life has been relatively good.  What stories do they tell to stand out? The subject matter of the story doesn't matter that much (although, be aware that most college admissions officers have read more stories of the winning soccer goal or timer-beating three-point shot to last a lifetime), but it's critical that the story be unique and evoke some kind of emotion in the reader. You can make the reader laugh or cry, but it's important to evoke a response if you want to be memorable. 

I'll save the process of extracting those little stories from students for a future post.  Right now, I want to talk about community service as fertile ground for finding those stories. Many of our students see community services as something that other kids do, or something that they are required to do, but that they execute by finding the easiest way to get someone to sign their paperwork. 

The bummer is that when students skimp on their community service, they miss out on more than the chance to help others.  They miss a chance to create college essay stories.  What makes community service such a fertile ground for college essay stories?

  • College essays work best when they highlight the good qualities of the applicant without having to state the good qualities of the applicant. No one can fill 600 words just declaring how sweet and compassionate she is (and no reader would believe it anyway), but community service essays provide ways to SHOW that the student is sweet and compassionate.  One of our former students wrote about his experience tutoring.  He talked about Jose, a student who gave him a hard time every week. By highlighting Jose's antics, Jonny was able to write a hilarious essay, as Jose, a mini-Dennis the Menace tortured his tutor. But Jonny's final scene, showing Jose walking into the community center sporting a haircut identical to Jonny's, was the perfect way to demonstrate what a huge impact Jonny had on Jose, without Jonny having to ever state it. The essay was charming and sweet, and Jose did all of the work for Jonny. Work with little kids provides endless amounts of essay fodder, but so can work with seniors, veterans, people in need, or animals. There's a beauty to allowing other people's and creature's appreciation and love for you do all the talking in an essay.
  • Colleges want to see commitment. Volunteering is an committment. And, most students who are able to find great stories have invested a good amount of time in their volunteer work. Students who are truly committed to a cause tend to gain responsibiltiies and get opportunities to solve problems and make life better for the people they are helping. They get challenged; they fail, but they also succeed. Most savvy applicants can fill an application with activities they have been involved with for "5+" years, but an essay can show how deep your committment really is.  We've had former students write essays about changing mentoring programs that their high schools had with local elementary schools, change procedures at a local animal shelter, and influence the teaching practices at karate dojos. These stories demonstrate, concretely, how kids' service can make an impact. And, because the places that students volunteer are often understaffed and eager for new ideas, they are the perfect places for smart, hard-working kids to make a tangible difference. And those differences provide clear, interesting anecdotes that show that these kids are hard-working, clever, and effective. 
  • College essays do not have to end with students discussing what they "want to be when they grow up."  But there's something about writing an admissions essay that makes you feel like you want to wrap it up with a tidy bow. And yet, the story of that great stage performance wants to lead to the student aspiring to be a professional actor, which is usually not the goal of the college applicant.  Likewise, the sports story seems to want to lead to professional sports, the goal of very few of our college applicants. But volunteer work essays lend themselves very well to a great future plan. We've had community service essays that end with students declaring how their work with refugees solidified their intention to be a human rights lawyer or their work tutoring solidified their goal of becoming a teacher and working in the inner city.  Not only do these conclusions work narratively, but they show colleges that they might be admitting a student who will go out and do good in the world - making their institution look good!  And, more than that, because the students have put in the time and committment doing the community service work, the college can feel even more confident that the applicant is sincere in his or her intentions. 

There are many reasons to do community service.  We don't at all want to see students volunteering at worthy organizations just in search of good stories. But, unlike community service hours, which come to all who put in the time, the best stories come to those who care enough to notice them. We trust that those students who volunteer enough to get the good stories are helping more than they are taking from the experience.  

So, when do you start thinking about community service?  Kids should start doing community services as soon as they are old enough.  When kids are young, that service will have to be done with parents (helping at food banks or animal shelters, or doing beach or park or community clean-ups).  But, once students become teenagers, their community service options get broader: reading to younger kids in an afterschool or library program, helping out in summer camps, assisting in computer classes at a senior center, volunteering in hospitals (believe it or not, many hospitals still have candy striping programs!), assisting sports coaches or referrees, etc.  It's good for young teens to try a  variety of community service activities to find the population and settings they enjoy most. A happy volunteer is a productive volunteer. And students should put in enough time to get to know the staff who run the programs that they work with.  Knowing staff, being friendly, being helpful, and being consistent allow student volunteers to gain more responsibilities and more opportunities to do important work -- work that will not only benefit the community and give them wonderful people and work skills, but provide fodder for that perfect college essay.