Monday, August 3, 2015

The Path to College

Strengthen Your College Application Through Meaningful Service

GT1311_Feature-Service_598Charles O. is a senior at Mill Creek High School in Hoschton, Ga. He founded Earth Savers Clubs through his nonprofit, Greening Forward.

by Scott Ganske

While your SAT/ACT scores and GPA are important to college admission officers, extracurricular activities matter, too. With young people volunteering in their communities at record rates, admission officers are inundated with applications that feature laundry lists of community service activities.

Studies show that what really matters is not the quantity of volunteering, but the quality. In fact, in a 2011 survey from, 70% of admission officers said that they preferred consistent local volunteering and that a commitment to a single cause is strongly preferred over scattered involvement with a variety of causes.

Colleges don’t want your laundry list! They want unique individuals who are passionate and take the initiative to lead change in their communities. At YSA (Youth Service America), we call this meaningful service. But what counts as meaningful? And how do you get started?

Meaningful service puts the power in the hands of young people so that they can make a difference by creating change in the issues that matter most to them and to their communities. This kind of service is student-driven and focused on duration, intensity, and outcomes. It allows a student to make a real difference in his community, while at the same time developing life skills and career/workforce readiness skills. Engaging in meaningful service demonstrates maturity and a readiness to fully participate in day-to-day life at a college or university — just the kind of qualities that college admission officers are looking for.

What’s meaningful to you?

Some people can answer this question in a second, but others need to take time to reflect on what kinds of change they want to bring about. That’s why college admission officers get so many laundry lists of service activities. Teens don’t always know where to begin, but the ones who are able to identify meaningful service are the ones who will stand out.

You can get started in three easy steps. At YSA, we call this the Spark + Fire + ASAP model. The concept of developing a young person’s “sparks” comes from the Search Institute and Peter Benson.

1. Spark! Think about what you love to do — this is your spark, the thing that lights you up like nothing else. Whether you are involved in sports, music, school clubs, or church activities, you have a great opportunity to turn your passion into a meaningful service project.

Studies show that what really matters is not the quantity of volunteering, but the quality.

Katy D. from Liberty Lake, Wash., harnessed her passion for music to create a program to collect used instruments from the community, repair them, and distribute them to youth that cannot afford them. She also hosts clinics that range from specialized instrumental instruction to general music appreciation, complemented by advocacy efforts promoting music education.

2. Fire! What fires you up and really gets you going? Reflect on issues that you care about. What community problem makes you sad or angry? Is it rainforest degradation in South America? Access to healthy food in your neighborhood? High rates of illiteracy in your state?

Darius C. was concerned about teen driver safety in his area. The 16-year-old student at Northview High School in Atlanta, Ga., decided to focus on distracted driving. He felt that the current campaigns didn’t speak in a language that teens could appreciate, so he created a public service announcement with his classmates and took it even further by partnering with his English teacher and integrating it into the classroom curriculum. Not only did Darius make a difference in his community, he also demonstrated his commitment to learning.

3. Get to it — ASAP! Combine your Spark and Fire with your issue and get ready to take action ASAP. That’s not just an urgent call to get going; it’s a way to think through different ways you can create meaningful service. You may raise Awareness, do direct Service around your issue, Advocate for change, or engage in Philanthropy by raising funds.

Charles O. from Hoschton, Ga., founded Earth Savers Clubs through his nonprofit, Greening Forward, which empowers youth leaders to take environmental action. These experiences have given Charles the confidence to apply for admission at some of the top colleges in the U.S.

“If someone were to tell me five years ago as a 12-year-old boy that I would be where I am today, I’m not sure if I would have believed them,” he said. “Through Greening Forward, I have learned that when one has unflagging passion and commitment, anything is truly possible. No matter who you are or where you have come from, you get to decide this very moment to live the greatest you possibly can. Every move and decision counts. I only advise that you choose the path that gives you the most choices to do more, be more, and give more. With this advice, you will find yourself time and time again destined for greatness.”

How can you get started?

There are a variety of planning tools, training, and technical assistance that can help you design, lead, and implement effective service and service-learning programs. YSA offers free, downloadable tool kits and guides to help young people and adult mentors plan high-impact, meaningful service projects. Start by downloading the YOUth Changing the World Toolkit, a step-by-step guide to planning a meaningful project.

Watch it

Get inspired by watching videos about other teens’ service projects. You can search by best practices, subject area, and more.

Want to serve through your school? K-12 teachers can facilitate projects in their classrooms that harness youth voice and lead to meaningful service projects by using YSA’s Semester of Service™ Strategy Guide. For example, Rachael Brunson’s 3rd-grade class took action against childhood hunger in central Texas over the course of a school year. The class raised over $7,000, created several awareness videos, organized a food drive, and advocated for a breakfast bill, which eventually passed while they were at the state capitol.

Grant opportunities

Do you need some funding to make your project a reality? Check out more details on these grants, which are available to youth ages five to 25.

Sodexo Foundation Youth Grants: These grants fund youth-led service projects that bring together young people, families, Sodexo employees, and other community members to address childhood hunger.

Disney Friends for Change Grants: Disney Friends for Change Grants offer young change makers an opportunity to receive a grant to help make a lasting, positive change in the world.

Global Youth Service Day

Celebrated in 135 countries around the world, Global Youth Service Day, April 11-13, 2014, mobilizes the millions of young people who improve their communities each day of the year through service. It is the largest service event in the world, and it’s the only day of service dedicated to children and youth. It’s also a great way to demonstrate the impact that your service project has made in the community. Start planning your project today, and you’ll be ready to celebrate its impact in April!

Scott Ganske is the director of education at YSA (Youth Service America). He oversees three national K-12 service-learning programs that emphasize academic achievement, 21st-century skills, and STEM education. He also facilitates workshops at local, state, and national conferences. YSA powers the international youth service movement with campaigns, funding, and tools that activate youth, educators, and organizations to improve their communities through high-impact, sustainable community action projects and service-learning programs.

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3 Comments for “Strengthen Your College Application Through Meaningful Service”

  • Susie Watts says:

    As a college consultant, I always stress to my students the importance of community service and volunteering. Colleges want to accept students who will contribute to their campus and surrounding community.

  • Jameson Mercier says:

    With the regular decision deadline for most colleges of January 1 fast approaching, hundreds of thousands of high school seniors across the country will soon be focusing their attention on the common application and how to put their best foot forward in the competitive college application race.

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