Image from flickr

Image from flickr.

In freshman year of high school, I had this idea that I would do everything in sight in order to build my college application. I attended student council meetings, fit myself into the already crowded-with-freshmen interact club, and signed myself up to volunteer at the library as well. Little did I know that college applications don’t specifically ask for volunteer hours, and from the way they are formatted, could not care less if you wrote or didn’t write about service activities. In fact, for schools that don’t require volunteer hours for graduation, you could get away with doing absolutely no service, although I don’t recommend it as it is still a valuable experience.

Before you claim that I condemn volunteer activities completely, hear me out. I disliked the Interact club’s point system, in which buying food for activities would be worth a certain number of points while attending activities would be worth a bit more. Every year, the Interact club is most saturated with freshman and progressively less members of the other students the older they got. To me, my school’s Interact club was a “numbers” club, in which massive population count made it effective at raising money and helping out at events. As an individual who gains from experiencing things specifically on my own and molded to my tastes, I found myself lost in the realm of this “mass” volunteerism. But I did it because I thought the hours looked good.

Needless to say, I dropped the club. After four years of high school, I ended up dropping student council, Interact, library volunteering, and stopped paying attention to the new service clubs that popped up in my school. My reasoning was that I gained no value, insight, or experience. This might sound selfish, but a large part of service and why people do it is not only to help others, but also the sense of fulfillment that they feel in return. I didn’t feel that; I felt like a mechanical robot repeatedly doing tasks without much thought.

College admissions want to know what influences you and what has changed you. The common app includes prompts such as “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.” Of course, don’t go into life looking to experience events that will change you just so that you can write a stunning, self-promoting college application essay. Rather simply, if the volunteer club that you joined and tried isn’t doing anything for you at all and it’s as memorable as the pair of socks you wore a week ago, drop it.

Volunteering and service doesn’t have to come in the form of official-sounding clubs such as Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts, Interact, and Red Cross. In some extreme terms, don’t give up your soul to help others through tasks that eat at your time, leave no impression, and could be performed by many other high school students vying for the job.

This is not to say that my high school resume is completely devoid of service activities. The smaller knit, more specialized clubs that incorporated volunteering as a part of the group’s goals appealed to me. I joined a club called Young Musicians for Volunteer Action (YMVA) which was comprised of talented musicians who truly enjoyed playing their instruments, so performing at senior centers was not only a delight to the audience but also an opportunity to showcase our talents or master stage fright during solo pieces. Furthermore, after performances, we would “mingle” with the senior citizens, talking individually with each person. One man stated that he had once played an instrument and was stunned by the performance. In YMVA, we had the pleasure of getting a direct response and seeing that we made some kind of difference; it was as much individual character-building as it was helping others.

The same thing applies to the Chinese dance studio that I was part of. In addition to having performed at Lincoln center, we also performed at cultural festivals and senior centers. I particularly remember one performance in which several audience members started tearing up by the end of a fan dance.

In the end, volunteering clubs are far from college application gems. Only people who have won national service awards or have leadership positions can really include the club’s name without much elaboration. For everyone else who is a member who contributes but doesn’t make an impact, the mention of a service club is merely that—a name. However, if the you as an individual have experienced a moment of satisfaction of helping someone else and feel that it’s a critical part of your character, don’t drop all service clubs too quickly.

Ask yourself: “Am I happy doing this?” and “Why am I doing this?” Search for the ones that create a lasting personal fulfillment and impact, whether it is from tangible effects of your actions or simply the action itself.

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the author

Lucy Zhang attends Duke University and is majoring in electrical and computer engineering. Her passions include watching anime, sleeping, and writing the occasional article or two when productivity levels are high enough.

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