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Last updated June 13, 2023

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4 Questions to Ask Before Writing a College Essay About Volunteering

Key Takeaway

College essays about volunteering are common and can be challenging to write. If your volunteer work is tied to a specific passion or exceptional accomplishment, then it may be a great topic for you. If not, then you might keep brainstorming.

You know that colleges are on the search for students who will be good community members, so writing about your volunteer work or community service probably seems like an obvious choice. But with a common topic like volunteering, it’s easy for your essay to fall flat.

If you’re thinking about writing your Common App essay about volunteering, you should consider asking yourself these five questions before making your final topic selection.

College Essays About Volunteering are Common

Let’s face it. Most high school students have done some kind of volunteer work. Many high schools even require students to complete volunteer hours before they can graduate.

Community service + college essay = home run, right?

Well, not necessarily.

Because volunteering is such a common experience, it’s not a particularly unique topic to write your college essay about. We explain in our guide to college essays that you don’t have to write about a unique topic to write a great college essay. But if you choose one of the really common topics—which volunteering is—then you’ll have a more challenging time writing an essay that stands out.

Questions to Ask Yourself

So, is volunteering the right topic for you? The following four questions will help you decide.

1. Is the experience I’m writing about one that genuinely changed my life in a tangible way that can be explained with specific examples?

The volunteer experience you write about shouldn’t be one-off or surface-level. If it’s important enough to write your college essay on, then it should have deeply impacted you.

You should also be able to draw out salient stories or examples.

2. Am I passionate about continuing to devote my time to this cause in the future?

A “yes” to this question ensures that you’re crafting a good cohesive application narrative. The cause you’re volunteering for should be one you’re passionate about.

3. Is this the best story I have to tell, and is it the one that will say the most about me to an admissions committee?

When coming up with a college essay topic, it’s always important to ask this question. If you have another topic that would better explain who you are and why to an admissions committee, then it’s worth re-considering.

4. Is the story I want to tell one that I can and should center myself in?

Finally, this last question is an important one. Sometimes college essays about volunteering come across as inauthentic when the writer comes in to save the day. Other essays focus too much on others or inappropriately center the writer. Make sure your volunteering experience lends itself to a personal statement.

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then write on! If the answer to any of these questions is no, then consider alternative topics.

Good College Essays about Volunteering

Okay, with those questions out of the way, let’s take a look at two ways college essays about volunteering can stand out.

Passion and Community Fit

Community fit is why most applicants write about volunteering in the first place. You want to show admissions officers that you’re a good person who knows how to engage with your community. What better way to do that than by showing them your tangible actions?

When your volunteer experience speaks to a part of your application narrative, then it can work to strengthen how an admissions officer understands who you are.

Let’s say you’re an aspiring elementary education major who was deeply impacted by your volunteer work tutoring a second grader in your school’s mentorship program. Awesome! Your volunteer work aligns with a clear passion, and it makes sense in the broader scope of your application.

Or maybe you’re applying to a computer science program and volunteered your time to create a website for your local food bank. Amazing—an admissions officer will clearly see how your volunteer work coheres with your values and academic goals.

Exceptional Accomplishment

The other great reason to write about your volunteer work is if you have a related outstanding accomplishment. Remember: the key to writing about your extracurricular activities is showing your magnitude, reach, and impact. If you’ve had a significant effect on others through volunteering, then it can be a great way to show admissions officers the extent of your involvement.

So what might magnitude, reach, or impact in volunteering look like? Maybe you raised thousands of dollars for an organization. Maybe it was even an organization that you started. Or perhaps you spearheaded a massive initiative, coordinated hundreds of volunteers, or designed a new way of helping others. Maybe your work made it to the local or national media, or maybe you were awarded a leadership position for your efforts.

Tangible, actionable, and quantifiable accomplishments that go beyond the four walls of your school can help you stand out to the admissions committee.

Key Takeaways

At best, essays about volunteering can showcase your passion, compassion, and community fit for an institution. But they can also be generic essays that get lost in the crowd. At worst, they can be reductive in how they discuss complex social issues.

Writing about volunteering will be in your best interest when it is a core part of your application narrative or it demonstrates exceptional reach, magnitude, or impact. Otherwise, try brainstorming other college essay topics.

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