How to Volunteer the Right Way (1)

How to Volunteer the Right Way

The world of college admissions has somehow implanted a stubborn belief that volunteering is a critical component of getting accepted into Ivy Leagues and top tier colleges.

As I’ve been working in the college admissions industry for nearly 10 years now, let me share with you what I’ve been realizing over and over again:

Not every 15-year old wants to volunteer.

The reason is quite simple — they’d rather spend their free hours catching up on sleep, watching their favorite TV shows, hang out with friends, and do what typical teenagers are supposed to do. Sometimes, I feel bad that students are “pressured” into signing up for volunteering opportunities… Just to add those hours. Just to “show” that they’re filling all the requirements of a solid college application.

What happened to college admissions?

How did we end up forcing our kids to volunteer and help others without even taking the time to gain clarity on what truly matters? Not everyone needs to feel a sense of service. Not everyone is born with an innate ability to serve hours and hours to others.

As Greg McKeown puts in his own words in his book The Essentialism (and I will be using a couple of his insights and strategies throughout this blogpost):

“We have lost our ability to filter what is important and what isn’t.”

And here are the reasons why you, as a parent, might be a victim of suggesting that your kids sign up for volunteering opportunities left and right in the midst of this college admissions journey.

Reason #1: Too much external pressure (created by your thoughts, not facts)

You see other parents talking about how their kid is volunteering at the hospital every Saturday. You have another parent posting on Facebook about how her child raised $1,000 for Breast Cancer Awareness. You immediately think, “What am I missing out on? Am I not being a supportive and knowledgeable parent? My kid is not volunteering anywhere right now. Are we too late? Where should we even begin this search? What volunteering is good for my kid?” Societal pressure is real and you should not let them distract your child’s college admissions journey.

Reason #2: The idea that “your child needs to do it all and have it all”

Your child cannot do it all. Your child is not a superhero with superpowers. Most importantly, college admission officers are not looking through applications thinking– “Hmm, I want to find a student who did everything and anything. It’s not about the quantity.”

When we have our kids do everything– get straight A’s, perfect SAT scores, volunteer 5 hours per week, attend daily Tennis practice, work on a passion project, attend a month long summer program, and the list goes on and on…

When we try to do it all, quality goes down.

“When we don’t purposely and deliberately chose where to focus on energies and time, we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important.”

At the end of the day, volunteering is great. Learning more about a different industry is also great. Serving others is fantastic. But the willingness to volunteer should come from within.

In the Turning the Tide Report by Harvard Graduate School Education, they recommend that students select volunteering opportunities that are authentically chosen– that emerge from a student’s particular passions and interests. Colleges know when your child tries to “game” the college admissions strategies with hours and hours of volunteering opportunities done without passion.

So to come back to the central question– what if my son or daughter DOESN’T WANT to volunteer?

Have your child try different types of volunteering opportunities without the pressure. Without the idea that they’re helping out for the sake of college admissions.

Start local. Your daughter doesn’t need to travel to Haiti or Africa. Look into how your child can start participating in local and community events (without the pressure!)

Exploring will gift your child with clarity.

Without gaining clarity, what’s the point of it all?

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Greg’s book:

“What if all students had time to think about their highest contribution to their future so that when they left high school they were not just starting on the race to nowhere?”


By Julie Kim Ed.M Harvard University