Volunteering Because You Must

By Sally Beatty, Weekend Journal

April 7, 2006 — In a year of record-low acceptance rates by elite colleges, more high school students are thinking about ways to improve their chances of getting in next year.

One common strategy: volunteer work. In fact, in recent years more private schools – and an increasing number of public schools – are making community service a required part of the curriculum. But while local charities welcome the extra help, its value as a way for students to boost their admissions chances may be decreasing.

Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant and admissions strategist in Washington, D.C., says mandating volunteer work “makes a lot of kids from the same school look the same,” meaning truly motivated students find it harder to stand out.

And turning it into a requirement makes such activities “by definition not ‘volunteer’ activities,” says Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard College. While praising community service generally, she cautions: “We are comparing individual applicants, not lists of pursuits.”

Community-service requirements also can leave students less able to pursue more unusual activities about which they may feel passionate – and which could give them a leg up. “Kids only have so much time,” says Ted Spencer, executive director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan.

Now, so many schools have mandated volunteer work that “The Handbook of Private Schools,” a popular guidebook for families, for the first time will include information about community-service requirements. Next year’s edition is still being compiled, but John Yonce, president of the book’s publisher, Porter Sargent Publishers, says data so far indicate that three-quarters of private schools that offer grades nine to 12 require it.

What’s more, many schools that have community-service requirements are mandating increased hours. The Park School of Buffalo in Snyder, N.Y., for example, requires 15 hours of volunteer work a year for its upper-school students but plans to boost that to 20 hours next year. The Atlanta International School in Atlanta raised the requirement to 30 hours a year from 25 hours for grades six through eight.

Cathy Morrison, a spokeswoman for the private Francis Parker School in San Diego, says volunteerism helps improve students’ chances of getting into a college only if teens go beyond any requirement and can document the impact of their charitable work. “When it does as much for them as it does for the recipient, that’s when it makes a difference,” she says.

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