like helping other people and are encouraged and motivated by helping people achieve their dream (e.g. getting into a top graduate school). Yes, they are in the special position of getting/having to decide who gets a spot and who doesn’t. However, they also spend a tremendous amount of time talking with prospective applicants, traveling around the world to recruit students and answer their questions, and carefully reviewing each application—even the horrible ones that are hastily thrown together and submitted “just to see if I’ll get in.” So keep all of that in mind when you are deciding whether or not you are going to take the time to volunteer. Taking time to engage in community service tells the school a lot of things about you:
- You are able to handle multiple demands on your time—work, family, and community.
- You are interested in using the skills and talents you have to improve conditions for others.
- You are reliable, pleasant, and trustworthy enough for an organization besides your employer to bring you into their environment and accept you as a part of their community.
What is the “right” kind of community service?
The great news is that there is no “right” kind of community service! Community service is broadly defined as being of service (without getting paid or otherwise compensated—karmic credit doesn’t count) to a benevolent cause or community in need. Of course, benevolent can be widely interpreted, but you can safely assume anything perpetuating hatred, discrimination, or violence in any form does not belong on the list of approved activities. I recommend doing your community service with an established nonprofit organization that has some sort of discernible management structure so that you can possibly ask your supervisor there to serve as one of your recommenders. You should choose a place where you will feel accepted, appreciated, and where your time and skills can be put to good use. I always recommend that people do what I call “high impact volunteering,” meaning community services that leverages your particular talents, skills, and interests rather than something random that you may not enjoy and may not actually be good at or being of service.
What is “enough” community service?
The longer you’ve been committed to a particular community service activity, the better it will bode for your application. However, even just 2-3 months volunteering somewhere is better than nothing. I think that 3-5 hours per week is enough time to make a difference—especially if you followed my advice and chose an organization that is allowing you to put your specialized skills to use to advance their mission. Perhaps your community service will be demonstrated by a few hours per week over many months—or perhaps it will be an intense time commitment that happens over several weeks. The important thing is that you be able to discuss on your resume (and in your essays, if appropriate) the problem(s) you helped solve, the results you helped achieve, and the resources you did and did not have at your disposal. Keep your ears and eyes open and be present to your experiences, so that you can discuss what you learned about yourself, about leadership, and about management through your community service experience. Go off and give back! You and some lucky nonprofit organization will be very glad you did.