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Updated January 10, 2023

Serving the community is a hallmark of today’s college-bound students. In a national survey of college freshmen conducted by UCLA researchers in 2019, 86% of students reported that they had volunteered frequently or occasionally as high school seniors. 

Despite the evidence that large numbers of high school students are engaged in service activities, I’ve learned first-hand that finding these opportunities can be challenging. When my youngest son was trying to qualify for National Junior Honor Society, every organization he tried to volunteer for either didn’t accept young teens or was filled. He finally secured a few hours of babysitting in our church nursery, but upon arriving for duty a few minutes late (due, I was informed, to an unavoidable rest stop), he was confronted by a more punctual classmate who told him to beat it. Fortunately, the adult in charge found jobs for both students, but when families lament the difficulty of finding good service options, I feel their pain.

Service With a Smile

Too many such activities fail to engage students’ interests and wind up being viewed by them as one more item on their long to-do list of college preparatory chores. While serving others is unquestionably praiseworthy whatever the motivation, an ideal activity is also enjoyable and contributes to a student’s personal development. How do you help your teenager find that kind of activity? Here are some Dos and Don’ts.


Begin with your child’s interests. Look for an activity that allows him to help others while also developing his own interests and abilities. So if he is an avid pianist, perhaps he could volunteer to play at a local church or nursing home or accompany the school chorus.

Think outside the school. High school organizations like Key Club are worthwhile service options for students (and may be a required qualification for your school’s National Honor Society). But organizations beyond the school, like libraries, hospitals, charities, museums, and churches can provide opportunities for career exploration and talent development as well as service to others.

Let your child choose. This seems like an obvious point, but families today are so busy that parents may be tempted to choose an activity for its convenience, like signing a daughter up to help out at the church nursery because she’s going to be there Sunday morning anyway. Assisting at the nursery is a great idea for a student who enjoys young children, but may be viewed as disagreeable drudgework by someone who doesn’t.


Focus on racking up hours. Parents are sometimes convinced that colleges will be wowed by applicants who have logged a zillion service hours. Toward that end, they sign their child up for a laundry list of random two hour commitments. This approach tends to promote a view of community service that is cynical and obligatory, in my view. Further, it is not regarded as highly by colleges as sustained participation in an activity that clearly reflects a student’s interests.

I believe that every person, young and old, should find some way to contribute to the larger community, but service is most meaningful when you choose the activities that you genuinely value. I have thoroughly enjoyed the countless hours I’ve spent over the years volunteering for various schools, but am still steamed about the time I was assigned to make two gallons of pasta salad for a 6 A.M. swim meet that my kids were not even attending! Helping your child become involved in an activity that reflects her interests and values will reap benefits far beyond impressing a college admissions committee.

Next article:  The Essay



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