Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

USACollegeChat Podcast

Sep 15, 2016

Hopefully, you have finished your 10 summer assignments designed to expand and then investigate seriously the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. So, let’s review what those 10 assignments were:

You will recall that our original challenge when the summer started was to do these assignments for 50 colleges--one from each state. But even if you did it for just half that many colleges, congratulations. And, as we said right before the Labor Day break, we hope you did it for at least 20.

Now the time has come to start narrowing down that list--finally! As the first deadlines approach for Early Decision and Early Action admissions--mostly around November 1—you and your teenager will want to skinny that list down to a manageable number of colleges, perhaps 15 or so. It seems likely to us, however, that if your teenager is interested enough in a college to apply under an Early Decision plan or interested enough in one or more colleges to apply under an Early Action plan, then you have already skinnied your list down substantially. That doesn’t mean, however, that you don’t need a few colleges still on the list to apply to if the Early Decision choice or the Early Action choices are unsuccessful.

So, we are going to help you with that narrowing process starting next week. This week, we want to make a few comments on a subject that we believe in strongly and that we have talked about in two of our summertime Facebook Live chats--and that is community service. Today’s episode, however, addresses community service through the lens of the college application essay, which we hope all of you are starting or maybe even already editing this month.

Watch our Facebook Live chats on community service here and here.

1. Community Service: The Background

Let’s start with some background. Some months ago, back in Episodes 61 and 62, we took a look at a new report that grew out of a meeting hosted by a Harvard Graduate School of Education project called Making Caring Common. The meeting brought together college admissions deans, high school folks, and others to discuss the state of college admissions. The report is entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions. We have referenced this report from time to time in subsequent episodes as well.

The list of “endorsers” of the report included every Ivy League institution plus an impressive list of about 50 more higher education institutions, including some of our nation’s best small liberal arts colleges, best public flagship universities, and best private universities.

The question we have asked about the report and its endorsers is this: How much do they mean it? The jury is still out on that and might be for some time to come. But without getting into the politics of all that, which we believe are quite significant, one thing that is addressed strongly in the report is the value of community service. Four of the 11 recommendations in the report revolve around community service done by high school students, and personally I think that these might be the most sincere recommendations in the report. Let’s listen again to just the first of these recommendations:

Meaningful, Sustained Community Service: We recommend that students engage in forms of service that are authentically chosen—that emerge from a student’s particular passions and interests—that are consistent and well-structured, and that provide opportunity for reflection both individually and with peers and adults. We also recommend that students undertake at least a year of sustained service or community engagement . . . . This service can take the form of substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family, such as working outside the home to provide needed income. Just as important, it’s vital that the admissions process squarely challenges misconceptions about what types of service are valued in admissions. Some students seek to ‘game’ service by taking up high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to them but appear to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership. The admissions process should clearly convey that what counts is not whether service occurred locally or in some distant place or whether students were leaders, but whether students immersed themselves in an experience and the emotional and ethical awareness and skills generated by that experience. (quoted from the report)

Here’s what that probably means: that the service should be something that your teenager is actually interested in and invested in; that the service should be something your teenager thinks about, talks about with other kids and with adults, and learns from; that the service should last at least a year; and that the service may be something that your teenager does in order to support or help your own family, such as working at a paid job if financial help is needed or taking care of a younger sibling or an elderly relative if that kind of family support is needed. As we have said before, Marie and I saw kids at the high school we co-founded in New York City with substantial family responsibilities, which made it very difficult for them to engage in the other kinds of service that students without such responsibilities had the free time to undertake.

I think that the report’s notion that the service last at least a year is also significant. The report is talking about sustained interactions over time that would speak to the genuine concern that a student had for whatever the community service project was. In other words, the college might not look so favorably on “high-profile” and “exotic” one-week community service projects in “faraway places”--unless perhaps a student did those projects summer after summer in some structured way and perhaps during other school vacations as well and/or had some other kind of follow-through during the rest of the year.

2. Frank Bruni’s Op-Ed Piece

Enter Frank Bruni’s excellent and though-provoking op-ed piece in The New York Times on August 13, 2016, provocatively titled “To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?

I would like to read you the entire piece, but The New York Times might be slightly annoyed by that. So, let me offer a few quotations that are likely to send you off to read the full piece yourself, and you should absolutely do that. Here is how Mr. Bruni begins the piece:


This summer, as last, Dylan Hernandez, 17, noticed a theme on the social media accounts of fellow students at his private Catholic high school in Flint, Mich.

‘An awfully large percentage of my friends--skewing towards the affluent--are taking ‘mission trips’ to Central America and Africa,’ he wrote to me in a recent email. He knows this from pictures they post on Snapchat and Instagram, typically showing one of them ‘with some poor brown child aged 2 to 6 on their knee,’ he explained. The captions tend to say something along the lines of, ‘This cutie made it so hard to leave.’

But leave they do, after as little as a week of helping to repair some village’s crumbling school or library, to return to their comfortable homes and quite possibly write a college-application essay about how transformed they are.

‘It rubs me the wrong way,’ Hernandez told me, explaining that while many of his friends are well intentioned, some seem not to notice poverty until an exotic trip comes with it. He himself has done extensive, sustained volunteer work at the Flint Y.M.C.A., where, he said, the children he tutors and plays with would love it ‘if these same peers came around and merely talked to them.’

‘No passport or customs line required,’ he added.

Hernandez reached out to me because he was familiar with writing I had done about the college admissions process. What he described is something that has long bothered me and other critics of that process: the persistent vogue among secondary-school students for so-called service that’s sometimes about little more than a faraway adventure and a few lines or paragraphs on their applications to selective colleges.

It turns developing-world hardship into a prose-ready opportunity for growth, empathy into an extracurricular activity.

And it reflects a broader gaming of the admissions process that concerns me just as much, because of its potential to create strange habits and values in the students who go through it, telling them that success is a matter of superficial packaging and checking off the right boxes at the right time. That’s true only in some cases, and hardly the recipe for a life well lived. (quoted from the article)


Well, Mr. Bruni and Mr. Hernandez, it bothers us here at USACollegeChat as well. And I suspect it bothered the endorsers of the college admissions report, too. We know that it is tempting to pursue some community service option that looks spectacular on your college application, but it seems that those spectacular options are meeting with more and more skepticism by the college admissions officers. That problem is compounded when a student writes the all-important college application essay on such a community service experience. Here is what Mr. Bruni said about that:


‘The running joke in admissions is the mission trip to Costa Rica to save the rain forest,’ Ángel Pérez, who is in charge of admissions at Trinity College in Hartford, told me.

Jennifer Delahunty, a longtime admissions official at Kenyon College, said that mission-trip application essays are their own bloated genre. (quoted from the article)


“Their own bloated genre”--that’s quite an indictment, I think. What that means is that kids have to be careful when they undertake to write their primary application essay about a mission trip or about other community service work. While Mr. Bruni says that he and Pérez and Delahunty don’t doubt that many students doing this kind of community service “have heartfelt motivations, make a real (if fleeting) contribution and are genuinely enlightened by it,” he also tells a number of rather surprising anecdotes in the piece about upper-income parents who can and do buy short charitable experiences for their kids just so their kids have something to write about. Those are the essays that college admissions officers are on the lookout for--essays that don’t appear to come from some genuine and long-term interest on the part of the kid.

Looking at the other side of the issue for a moment, we can sympathize with kids who are faced with community service requirements from their high schools or who believe they are faced with community service as a necessary aspect of their college applications--even it that is not their essay topic. We know that kids have lots of demands on their time, including after-school clubs and sports and SAT prep and music lessons and dance lessons and the very real family responsibilities that many kids have. We know that community service can become just one more thing to do—not for its own sake, but for the sake of the college application. And, as Mr. Bruni writes, “Getting it done in one big Central American swoop becomes irresistible, and if that dilutes the intended meaning of the activity, who’s to blame: the students or the adults who set it up this way?”

So, who’s to stop that cycle? My vote would be you, parents. It is your responsibility to ensure that any community service activity that is undertaken by your own teenager is done for the right reasons and is carried out with genuine interest on his or her part and with respect for those being served. That is not the high school’s or the colleges’ responsibility. And your responsibility for this doesn’t start when your teenager is a senior. It starts much earlier, perhaps even in middle school, if we are to take into consideration what the new report says--that is, that colleges should start looking for “at least a year of sustained service or community engagement.”

Mr. Bruni has a great ending to his piece, thanks in part to the words of Mr. Hernandez. Here it is:


There are excellent mission trips, which some students do through churches that they already belong to, and less excellent ones. There are also plenty of other summer projects and jobs that can help students develop a deeper, humbler understanding of the world.

Pérez told me that his favorite among recent essays by Trinity applicants came from someone ‘who spent the summer working at a coffee shop. He wrote about not realizing until he did this how invisible people in the service industry are. He wrote about how people looked right through him at the counter.’

Helicopter parents, stand down! Pérez’s assessment doesn’t mean that you should hustle your teenagers to the nearest Starbucks. It means that whatever they do, they should be able to engage in it fully and reflect on it meaningfully. And if that’s service work, why not address all the need in your own backyard?

Many college-bound teenagers do, but not nearly enough, as Hernandez can attest. He feels awfully lonely at the Flint Y.M.C.A. and, in the context of that, wonders, ‘Why is it fashionable to spend $1,000-plus, 20 hours traveling, and 120 hours volunteering in Guatemala for a week?’

He wonders something else, too. ‘Aren’t the children there sad, getting abandoned by a fresh crop of affluent American teens every few days?’ (quoted from the article)


That’s a stunning question from a 17-year-old. It makes me doubly proud of the work that some of our local teenagers do at Adventures in Learning, the nonprofit after-school program for low-income kids that we talked about in one of our Facebook Live chats. Maybe it isn’t as glamorous as going to Costa Rica to save the rain forest, but it’s something real that high school students can do, and they can see the results of their work in the lives of those kids every day.

One last word: Mr. Bruni writes, “A more recent phenomenon is teenagers trying to demonstrate their leadership skills in addition to their compassion by starting their own fledgling nonprofit groups rather than contributing to ones that already exist--and that might be more practiced and efficient at what they do.” Agreed, Mr. Bruni. It’s hard to create a nonprofit organization, especially one that has significant impact. So, teenagers, think about finding one near you and lending your support to it. And do that over time, not for a week. And look for ways to be a leader in that context—recruit other teenagers, make presentations at local community events, spearhead a fundraising campaign. We mentioned in one of our Facebook Live chats that Heifer International is a wonderful organization to volunteer with and that it offers suggestions on its website for volunteers leading their own activities.

Kids, there’s plenty of work to be done. Do some of it and then consider how to write about it thoughtfully in your college application essay. Be reflective. Be specific. Be persuasive. And be thankful that you had the opportunity to serve.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by...

  • Leaving a comment on the show notes for this episode at
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through...