Dagne Furth Oct 31 2019

What Do Colleges Really Look for When It Comes to Service?

Raise your hand if you are a high school student who has completed “service hours” in the recent past. Did you complete them for eligibility reasons, because they’re highly encouraged, to build your resume, or because… it was necessary to make you look good for your prom-posal?

Well, I think it’s essential that while you’re young, you begin working this “service” thing out. Meaning, taking the time to really think about what kind of service is important to you. If it’s not important to you, it should be.

service-based-learning-college-admissionsOur planet is overwhelmed by suffering and in dire need of educated, empathetic and innovative, agents for change—change-makers. So, refusing to roll up our sleeves, or pretending suffering is someone else’s problem, is not acceptable.

For the many of you already doing authentic service, giving your time, talents, and heart, in ways that are changing you, informing your character, transforming you from the inside out, you are beginning to grasp that service can be inspiring. And a commitment to compassion can be transformative.

For those of you who are just going through the motions, signing up for things arbitrarily just because you feel you think it looks good on your college applications, think again. It turns out university admissions counselors are looking for more than a mere gesture of service. 

I thought it would be cool to reach out to a handful of university admission counselors who read thousands of stories from students about service. I wondered, what advice might they offer to potential applicants? If and when students mention service in their applications, what excites them?

Here's what admissions counselors from three prestigious US schools have to say about service?

I received the following responses (condensed for brevity’s sake):

“We really want students to do service because they want to do it, because they love it, not because they think it will look good. Service that is out of genuine interest is always more appealing and the way a student talks about it always shines…” (Zholl Tablante, senior assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth)

“We seek students who have impacted their community in positive ways…A student’s community may be leadership oriented, performing arts, church, intellectual, athletics, etc. If a student applies with an interest in service, we encourage the student to tell us more about how they’ve impacted their community…” (Solomon Enos, associate director of admissions at Duke University)

“Students are encouraged to put their ideas into action in the world. This may include… tackling real-world challenges, using tools and skills related to a specific field or discipline, or addressing a need that has been identified by a community.” (Xiaofeng Wan, associate dean of admission at Amherst College)

According to these counselors, meaningful service reads like “passion, commitment, ingenuity, problem solving, community enrichment, making positive change and leaving a legacy.”

So, take a lesson from your peers, get perspective from these admission counselors, but more importantly stand for something.


Dagne Furth is high school humanities teacher at Concordia International School Shanghai with a penchant for words and a passion for serving others.