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Articles / Applying to College / How to Start a Community Service Project

Nov. 7, 2007

How to Start a Community Service Project

Question: I understand that college application people like service projects, especially ones that students start themselves. I live in the Southeast, in a small town, so there aren't many opportunities. How do I start a service project on my own?

Admission officials are always pleased to see that students have given time to others, but, frankly, "community service" has become such an application imperative that it doesn't carry the clout that it used to. Thus, I advise students to take on projects that genuinely engage them and not merely those that they feel might "look good" on paper. If nothing comes to mind, your time might be better spent working at the Waffle House or Piggly Wiggly (which looks good on applications, too!)


Starting a project by yourself just takes a bit of imagination. It could involve other teens, participants from a range of age groups, or it could be something you do entirely on your own. What do you enjoy? What are your talents? I recently asked this question of a high school junior girl, and she said that she has fun making playlists for her friends on their computers so that they can download the songs on their iPods, burn CD's, or simply listen to their favorite music at home, right on the computer. So I thought of my mother, who is 83. She has a computer and keeps in touch with her friends via e-mail, but--beyond that--her tech skills are almost nonexistent. She likes music, but many of the CD's she owns include only a couple songs that she especially loves.

So, I suggested that this student might want to start a Playlist Project. She could offer to make playlists for area seniors or shut-ins, enabling those with computers to easily access all of their favorite music. She could even burn CD's for them, as well.

Never mind the playlists, even teaching senior citizens how to get around a computer would be a huge favor, too. Many, like my mother, have only the most rudimentary knowledge and would appreciate learning how to do a Google search or to spend their kids' inheritance on eBay. :-)

So that's the kind of easy-to-initiate, think-outside-the box project that might work for you. Even in your small town, there are bound to be opportunities to help others, if you are creative and keep your eyes open. You don't have to think big. Perhaps start doing something on your own, like the computer project mentioned above, and then--if it takes off--you can recruit friends or schoolmates to join in.

Anything you do to give your time to others should be a plus on your college applications, but, when admission officials spot real initiative there, as well as volunteer pursuits that have ties to other interests or experience listed elsewhere in the application, it often prompts them to shove that application a little closer to the "In" pile.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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