Why you should care

Because it’s high time high schoolers got a wake-up call. 

In his personal statement, Private College Applicant No. 3654 describes the summer after his sophomore year, when he went to Cambodia (or Kenya, or Nicaragua) to volunteer at an orphanage (or a clinic or school). The experience opened his eyes, he writes, to the suffering of others. He realized that poor people can be happy too, and that, amazingly, he has much in common with them. He found himself in their smiles.

What irks about such an essay is not the platitudes — these are teenagers, after all. Neither is it the volunteering — we’re all for inculcating a sense of service, especially in well-to-do teens. What’s problematic are the incentives. These days, you’ll find many teenagers who volunteer precisely to bolster their prospects of admission to an elite school. There’s an icky irony in writing about rubbing elbows with the less fortunate in order to rub elbows with the very fortunate. Which is to say: Admissions essays about volunteering are inherently, structurally perverse. Colleges should ban them.

The ban would restore volunteerism to what it is supposed to be: a community responsibility. After all, you volunteer (or you should, at least) because you believe it helps someone else, not because it gets you a gold star. The ban would definitely improve college essays too. Stripped of the easy narrative — self-discovery through service — students might actually learn something about themselves. “There are a lot of students who default to these community service essays because they don’t want to dig deeper,” says Billy Downing, a veteran college admissions coach and CEO of ESM Prep in San Francisco. The best essays he reads extract the meaningful from the mundane — one’s first bike ride, or making waffles with Grandma.

Perhaps years ago, service set a college applicant apart. Today, volunteering is “not a differentiator” anymore, says Downing. Nearly 40 percent of high school seniors and 35 percent of 10th graders say they volunteer monthly, according to nonprofit research organization Child Trends. It’s a trend that’s been on the up and up since 2003.

At least for well-to-do kids. Accepting or encouraging the volunteer essay privileges kids who are already privileged. Teen volunteers usually have parents who who can afford to send them to the soup kitchen instead of to a part-time job, or to some Haitian school for the summer instead of working as a lifeguard. Nixing essays about volunteering could help level the playing field.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Many high school students have so few opportunities to interact with people outside of the school bubble. Volunteering is often “a student’s first foray in the, quote, unquote, ‘real world,’” says says Ed Boland, a former admissions officer at Yale University and author of The Battle for Room 314, about his year as a teacher at a low-income New York City school. For many students, he argues, those hours spent volunteering really do shape them. At best, he says, they showcase “generosity” and genuine “human connection.” At worst, they’re “entitled” and “self-serving.”

Thing is, it’s hard to tell whether an applicant has had the pricey polish of an outside adviser editing their words or not. And that, I think we can all agree, isn’t helping anyone.

Do you think I’m a sourpuss? Is this a great idea? Did you write your essay about volunteering? Let us know in the comments.

OZYImmodest proposal

Propositions that fall on the continuum between controversial and utterly insane. Sometimes we're tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes, dead serious.