April 21, 2020
A big concern for many students is how to show employers they have what it takes to persevere, succeed and deliver value when even entry-level positions require experience they don't yet have. The truth is that employers don't expect much experience if you are still in high school or college, but they do want information that gives them insights into who you are. Aside from academics, a great way to highlight your character and abilities and stand out among the growing pool of qualified candidates is volunteering, and that's something a large percentage of employers seek.
The benefits of volunteering are numerous. The experience can help you explore interests, and it can increase your chances of finding a position as you build meaningful relationships with other volunteers, board members and established leaders in the community. Making volunteering an integral aspect of your life has also been shown to improve your long-term health and well-being. All of the above are sufficient reasons to venture into the world of volunteerism, but if you are a high school or college student trying to secure your next step, volunteering can be what you need to enhance and develop sought-after skills. Below, I've listed five such skills you can gain by volunteering.
In an increasingly connected world, it's almost impossible to find an opportunity that doesn't require you to work with others to achieve a goal. Because of that, group projects are now integral for successful completion of any academic program. The challenge with such projects is that they often ask you to address hypothetical situations, and that's where volunteering helps. Through volunteering, you can earn more than a high grade; you get to collaborate with people from different backgrounds and solve real problems facing organizations, local communities or even entire cities.
"Whether the goal is to clean up a park, organize a business's finances, or host a large-scale event, volunteers must work with others to achieve it," says Nicole Mirra, associate director of innovation and impact at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. "Shifting leadership, delegation, accountability and utilization of team members' strengths allow for that goal to be reached more efficiently and effectively." When you are one of many volunteers, you'll get to learn about various work styles and preferences, and the more projects you work on, the better your understanding of team dynamics will be. As Mirra emphasizes, "teamwork is a muscle that must be flexed often to be developed!"
"Many employer surveys, including the Graduate Management Admission Council one, identify oral communication as the most highly sought-after skill in employees," says Mirra. It's also a skill that is best acquired through practice in a variety of contexts. You really can't learn it by taking a class or reading a book. Volunteer experiences put you in situations where you have to communicate with other volunteers, staff members, those directly impacted by your volunteer work, as well as community leaders. When you are exposed to different people from all walks of life on a regular basis, you gain insights into your communication style and learn how to adapt it to the style of others, which as Mirra points out "is important for all leaders."
Many of the organizations working to solve serious issues often don't have enough funds, resources and materials to do so. In fact, this is the reason they need volunteer support to begin with! When you decide to volunteer your time and skills, you will most likely find yourself challenged to do much with little, while facing uncertainty and ambiguity. To succeed, you'll need to get creative and learn how to be resourceful despite the limitations and constraints. The end goal matters, of course, but how you approach the challenges will tell a more robust story of who you are and whether you can be relied on to figure out how to do what you're asked to do.
Regardless of what motivated you to volunteer, once in, there is a high likelihood you'll be asked to help with activities you've never done before or never thought you'd be interested in doing. Volunteering allows you to stretch yourself, take risks, be uncomfortable and learn how to work with uncertainty, all of which will make you adaptable to shifting circumstances and priorities.
As a volunteer, you'll get to test and try strategies to deal with stressful situations, and you can use your voice to speak up for those who can't speak up for themselves. You'll also get to build your character. Remember that interviewers aren't looking for candidates with a perfect track record; they are ultimately looking for candidates who can rise to the challenge when things don't go according to plan.
When it comes to leadership, you may be assuming that the only way to show this skill is by going after and securing positions of authority in clubs or organizations, by attacking the biggest and most serious issues, and by making a difference on a large scale. But that's not the case at all. Being a leader is not just about having a leadership position and changing the world; it's about everyday activities that impact and inspire people you encounter. Volunteering gives you access to others who do just that so you can learn how to do it yourself. "We learn powerful lessons from those who inspire us, and learning what inspires us can help us inspire others," says Mirra. "Through volunteering, you can observe how the organization inspires you to give back and then reflect on how you inspire others as a leader."
You can explore options through platforms such as VolunteerMatch, Idealist, Catchfire or Create for Good, or you can do research and learn about the pressing needs in your own community. Check what's needed locally. Yes, volunteering with an international or national organization and addressing global problems is admirable and teaches you a lot, but you don't have to go that route to show what you're made of. Look into your backyard and pay attention to the issues plaguing your area.
When you identify a problem you are motivated to help solve, brainstorm ideas about potential ways in which you can make it happen. Identify and reach out to others already addressing the issue or start your own initiative. The latter is what three 20-somethings in NYC decided to do as the COVID-19 pandemic hit their area: they launched Invisible Hands, an initiative that helps bring groceries to at-risk people. Whichever route you choose, if you take the challenge seriously, you'll be able to gain valuable skills and collect stories to share with interviewers as you pursue your next educational or career goal.
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