Make Volunteering Meaningful To You & To Colleges

[fa icon="calendar"] 10/29/19 4:30 PM / by Farah Weheba

Farah Weheba

Volunteering can often be a requirement for your school, but you can leverage the opportunity to get to know yourself better. Instead of thinking of the requirement as just a quota to fill, consider volunteering a moment to define and flex your empathy.

Depth vs. Breadth Strategy

Depth of experience and consistent efforts are strong narratives to present to top 20 highly selective colleges. In contrast, a breadth profile belongs to a versatile student with many varying interests, but to an admissions officer, may come off as unfocused. A breadth profile is less competitive but will still appeal to top 100 colleges. Building a depth profile is a great strategy to go for when applying to top 20 universities. Selecting your volunteering opportunities intentionally can play a big part in this. 


Group raising hands


Having a unified story or personal brand makes your application stronger. Similarly to when you write an essay at school, there's a thesis statement binding together the argument of your essay. Your paper should coherently gather around that central topic. Your high school career should also gather around a central purpose that you cultivate over time. For example, if you are a student who values housing the homeless, then many of your extracurricular activities should support initiatives to serve this community. That doesn't mean volunteering just once with Habitat for Humanity over spring break and calling it quits. Rather, it means engaging with solutions and organizations disrupting homelessness in varied ways for an entire year or longer within your high school journey.

You could also support such an organization in varied ways. For example, you could volunteer on Habitat for Humanity build sites, and ask the volunteer coordinator what other initiatives the organization could use your help with. Sometimes, you can create your own niche volunteering opportunity that isn’t necessarily posted anywhere. In the case of working with Habitat for Humanity, one could ask if they need help with fundraising, or marketing. Ask:

"What are some additional ways I could support your organization’s mission on a more regular basis?"

This question can open doors for you to engage more deeply and uniquely. This also demonstrates initiative and ambition. The organization may ask you to serve as a marketing intern, or to help them brainstorm and orchestrate fundraising events.

That doesn't mean you can't also play the tuba and soccer—you most certainly can—but your service projects should be focused toward consistently reversing a societal disparity that you really care about. 

The longer and more focused your volunteer story, the more persistence and determination you indicate to your college admissions officers. Utilize your summers intentionally and direct your focus tell a consistent story. Work toward an evolving goal. When you reach that goal, aim higher and challenge yourself to learn more and iterate upon solutions you’re contributing to a problem.

How do I start building my volunteer story?

Start thinking about things that define you. Are there problems in the world that you want to address or change? Are there inventions rattling around in your head that you want to get out there to disrupt a problem you’ve observed?

Ask yourself:
  • When I observe my community, what is a problem I see that doesn’t sit right with me? 
  • Who are people in my community that are disenfranchised from access to something? How can I help them gain access? 
  • If you don’t know how to help people gain access, you can interview someone affected. Ask them to tell you more about their experience and their needs. Working directly toward solving a specific person’s problems empathizing with their personal experience is the first step in the Stanford Design Thinking method. 
  • What patterns or systems can I observe around me that don’t seem fair? What skills do I have that contribute to creating fairness in this area? 
  • Draw upon your personal experience. Do you have a family member or friend who struggles with a particular issue that resonates personally with you? Can you become an advocate for the cause?

Things to Avoid

Sometimes, schools require a certain number of volunteering hours in order to earn your diploma. It can be tempting to scan a list of volunteering opportunities and volunteer with a bunch of unrelated organizations and causes to fill the quota. While this might satisfy your school’s requirement, it wouldn’t show colleges that you deeply care about any specific social issue or cause. This doesn’t mean that you can’t occasionally volunteer for seasonal or unrelated causes beyond your central passion project, but your central observed disparity should drive most of your volunteering efforts. You should feel free to peruse a volunteering opportunity database to get some ideas about organizations you might like to support long term, but we discourage jumping around from one unrelated organization to the next as a junior/senior volunteering strategy. 

We invite you to create a free Empowerly account and utilize our digital database of volunteering opportunities, sorted by topic, to help you brainstorm alongside those guiding questions above. You can also apply for the volunteering opportunities directly through the student portal!

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empowerly volunteer2A sample opportunity listed in our Volunteering Database within the Digital Toolkit.


If you lose interest in a cause your freshman or sophomore year, don’t stick with it just for the sake of continuity too early on. It’s okay to explore other causes and organizations. You have time to cast a wide net and explore during your freshman and sophomore years, and then commit to disrupting a central disparity by your junior year, if not sooner. 

Does volunteering pay off?

Beyond buffing up your resume, your volunteering engagements can help you declare a major, explore a career path, or an application of a future career path. For example, if you're interested in coding, and you also care about civic engagement and voter turnout, then you could potentially make a career out of creating an app to help people engage with local government. An interest in industrial engineering will always need an applicable project to serve. For example, if you’re a budding engineer interested in physical mobility and access to affordable healthcare, you could volunteer with a maker space that uses its 3D printers to print affordable prosthetic arms for amputees. This could blossom into a career trajectory in bioengineering or patient advocacy via working in public health. 

Find a common thread—your own thesis statement. You're not a gingerbread man, so why should you fit into a cookie-cutter? Every student has niche dreams and an individual narrative. We want to help you craft and tell that story—in your voice.

Subscribe to the Empowerly blog above for more college readiness tips, and reach out below for a consultation. Working with an Empowerly counselor can help you craft the most powerful narrative to present to colleges based on your driving passions.  

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Topics: Extracurriculars

Farah Weheba

Written by Farah Weheba

Farah is a Brooklyn-based Community Director at Empowerly, a college counseling and essay editing company serving and supporting ambitious high school students. Farah has a BA in psychology from Stanford University, and a Master's in Education under the Stanford Learning, Design, and Technology discipline graduating in 2014.

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