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Jan 20, 201101:39 PMEducation Matters

Doing Good vs. Marking Time

Jan 20, 2011 - 01:39 PM

Right about now, some parents and high school seniors are starting to panic.

Graduation is just months away, and some MCPS students still haven’t fulfilled the state’s 75-hour mandatory service learning requirement. Many private schools also require that their students dedicate time to community service.

And graduation aside, some seniors are struggling to fill that section on college applications in which students are supposed to explain how they’ve given back to their communities.

If your kid is one of those who left this to the last minute, good luck. But for parents and students who’ve still got hours to fill and time to do it, listen to this:

A recent survey shows that we’d better think twice before writing that check for the summer trip to help improve life in an impoverished Salvadoran village. Might be better to provide a regular ride to the local homeless shelter instead.

That’s because, apparently, it’s the depth of commitment that matters to college admissions officers. So says a recent study by Do Something.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to getting teens involved in volunteerism. Colleges want to see that students were involved in something that mattered to them over the long haul, not just for a few hours on a given Saturday.

Admissions officers from 33 of the top 50 schools from the US News & World "Best Colleges 2011" responded to the survey. According to the survey highlights, here’s what they had to say:

When reviewing applications, “community service ranked in the top four most important factors to consider,” as well as SAT scores, class rank and GPA and extra-curricular activities.

When evaluating community service, “70 percent of admissions officers valued consistent local volunteering over a long period rather than a short stint abroad. Commitment to a single cause is also preferred five to one over scattered involvement with a variety of stints.”

Words including “commitment” and “passion” are what admissions officers are looking for when students describe their service. Demonstrating “high levels of passion” are seen as “indicators of strong character.”

Patty Parmelee, college and career information coordinator at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, says she’s heard college representatives who visit B-CC say that “prolonged exposure to one [group or activity] is better than dabbling.”

Colleges “have a community service conscience. They have the anticipation that kids coming into college are looking for ways to volunteer there as well,” she says. “The really high-rolling colleges are pretty interested in rigor and grades, but they all want an interesting student. They want kids who have done things.”

“Depth is more important than a long laundry list,” agrees Bryna Blaine, career information coordinator at Walter Johnson High School, which hosts visits from as many as 180 college representatives in the fall. She counsels students that community service is one part of the “whole person” perspective that colleges are looking for.

“It’s not just about meeting the graduation requirement from high school,” she says. “I want my students to be as well-rounded as possible, presenting a full-blown person.”

That’s good news for those Montgomery County students who got involved with a group or cause and stuck with it because they wanted to—not just to rack up required hours. But for some students, the state’s ideal of service learning—meant as a way to connect students to local organizations and causes in a meaningful way—has been lost. So, instead of finding a cause or a project to commit to, these students receive credit for activities requiring no further commitment than their time, like selling popcorn at a school dance or cleaning a classroom.

B-CC’s Parmelee says she doesn’t think that students who have dabbled rather than committed to one cause or group need despair—as long as they take advantage of any opportunity on a college application to explain what they’ve done and why. For “a good kid with a big heart who can explain his breadth instead of his depth, that’s okay,” she says.

Still, I’d hate to have to explain what I learned from minding the moon bounce at the spring fair.

Old to new | New to old
Jan 23, 2011 08:55 pm
 Posted by  2boysmom

Food for thought. I'm always a bit squeamish about kids going somewhere else to volunteer when there is really significant need right here. And, I hope we are trying to support and encourage volunteering to foster a sense of commitment and concern for others as the primary motivation, not just as a means to college admission. Well done piece!

Jan 24, 2011 04:21 am
 Posted by  OlneyMom

Good luck to all these kids and their applications.
Golly, all the colleges want is for an applicant to have the most rigorous courses their school offers, great grades, high scores, in-depth involvement over time in extra-curricular activies, in-depth involvement with community service, and a job after school. (Yes, applications ask for specifics - hours, dates, descriptions - for all of these.)
And that's not just for the top schools.
Good luck all you juniors and seniors out there! Maybe life will get easier for you AFTER college.

Jan 24, 2011 09:20 am
 Posted by  Natalie

Good blog. The last line is kind of funky, but that's okay. I like it.

Jan 24, 2011 02:32 pm
 Posted by  ConcernedCitizen

Interesting...and I can certainly see the value of thinking globally but acting locally; discovering the many needs right here in our own communities is of great value.

Still, colleges emphasizing early specialization makes me wonder. If high school is not a time to explore numerous possible service learning options, when is the right time? Not all kids have interests that are specific right away; some need exposure to a wide range of activities to figure out what means the most to them. I like Ms. Parmelee's point about the student being able to comment meaningfully on what the work meant to him or her.

Jan 24, 2011 05:46 pm
 Posted by  bookgroupgroupie

Kudos to the college admissions officers for recognizing that we can't buy the spirit of community service for our kids. It takes years to develop and probably is best instilled when we walk with those we serve. Thanks for the great blog.

Jan 25, 2011 04:49 am
 Posted by  Alex F

SSL hours have been awarded for really everything, leaving me wondering what the heck is so educational about, e.g., running the moon bounce at a school fair. Now, my daughter is in an international baccalaureate program at her high school, and they must log "community, action, service" hours to earn the IB diploma. However, the CAS program requires diversity of effort in 5 or 6 areas. Somehow my older son figured this all out for his college apps, and now my daughter will scramble to do the same. Luckily, they both began a consistent volunteer effort a few years ago. Pressure pressure pressure....

Jan 26, 2011 09:27 am
 Posted by  javamama

So according to college admissions officers, the recipe for the perfect child is straight As in a magnet/IB program, star athlete in more than one sport and a leader within the community with just the right amount of stress on top. How many adults would meet the current criteria? Sarcasm aside, community service should definitely be a higher priority in our children's lives. The current SSL program needs to be revisited with input from parents and students. Thank you for a wonderful blog.

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