Volunteering is touted as one of the best ways for college students to build professional skills and try leadership opportunities which are important for university and scholarship applications.  Thoughtful essays, top grades, and glowing letters of recommendation often won’t even be considered if students don’t have a history of community service.  

Peer Mentor Marina Olson organes recent clothing donations in the Hawk Nest Clothing Closet.
Photo provided by J.R. Williams / The Mainstream.

Academic and professional advancement aren’t the only incentive that college students should consider before participating in volunteer projects, however.  Researchers in a Journal of Happiness study, found participants ages 16-24 were also likely to benefit from the opportunity to build social connections and new skills.   

As students begin to develop scholarship application plans, many wonder what scholarship evaluators look for when asking about community service. 

The exact qualities vary for each scholarship, but, according to College Raptor, in general evaluators look for commitment, interest in bettering the lives of others, a deep interest in the chosen volunteer work, leadership experience, work that has a strong positive impact on communities, and personal growth. Students should consider these important qualities of strong community service when selecting volunteer projects to include in their service history, according to another College Raptor article. 

According to How to Write a Great Community Service Essayorganizations awarding scholarships often prefer applicants who have regularly participated in community service. Dedicating months or even years to volunteering at one place or within one field is likely to be seen as more desirable and noteworthy than spending a few hours volunteering with multiple organizations because consistency demonstrates dedication and passion for a cause.

Big Future notes that colleges are always looking for leaders who are more likely to create a larger impact on their communities.  Scholarship committees will notice if the volunteer has described gaining more responsibility over time, developing or leading the planning on new projects, and supervising other volunteers. Considering these parameters, students should cross-reference the volunteer opportunities available locally or virtually.

Community service work that relates to the scholarship applicant’s passion or degree shows the review board that a student is working to gain hands-on experience and networking within like-minded communities. Inside Higher Ed suggests that students note in their volunteer descriptions whether the volunteer work was local and describe how community service-related activities fall within career fields of interest.

Schools, places of worship, or town hall meetings can be sources for more information on local developing or ongoing volunteering projects.  Local non-profit organizations like animal shelters and nursing homes also may offer volunteering opportunities. 

When selecting an activity and writing about community service for scholarship essays, Christine Sarikas suggests in her Prep Scholar article, that applicants ask themselves the following questions and include the information in their scholarship applications:

  • What community service activity that you’ve participated in has meant the most to you?
  • What is your favorite memory from performing community service?
  • Why did you decide to begin community service?
  • What made you decide to volunteer where you did?
  • How has your community service changed you?
  • How has your community service helped others?
  • How has your community service affected your plans for the future?

Besides helping students access scholarship funding, volunteer activities bring other benefits. 

According to the CDC, more than a third of Americans are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression as of April 2021, but people who volunteer actually experience a boost in their mental health.  This research suggests that volunteers help themselves as well as their communities.

A Journal of Happiness study examined data collected every two years, beginning in 1994 through 2014 with nearly 70,000 participants responding about volunteering habits and mental health.  The study revealed that the mental health benefits of volunteering include reduced stress, lower depression rates, reduced feelings of isolation and increased confidence, a new sense of purpose and meaning in life, a spark in passions, personal growth and new hobbies, as well as an overall sense of wellbeing and happiness.

Shifting attention from personal stressors adds another benefit to volunteering.  Focusing on the needs of others instead of personal needs can help participants relieve stress and anxiety according to author Tchiki Davis. And through her personal volunteer experience, author Cassandra Chiu for the Disabled People’s Association found, “No matter the cause, the willingness to do what’s needed in the moment, no matter how humbling the task, can put things in perspective and help grow compassion for others while expanding our minds and world view.”

“Volunteering can keep the mind distracted from destructive habits like negative thinking or being overly critical of oneself or others. The sense of accomplishment volunteering can provide can also increase internal motivation and create a more positive self view,”  Chiu says.

Lumen Learning’s “Pursuit of Happiness” article defines happiness: “Happiness is an enduring state of well-being involving satisfaction in the pleasant, good, and meaningful aspects of life.”  This outlines the idea that the richer the experience, the more satisfied individuals feel with giving their time and talents, which results in increased happiness.

Many volunteering projects allow participants to acquire new skills which can also enhance cognitive performance.  According to professors Roderick Glikey and Clint Kilts, “Actively engaging in novel, challenging activities capitalizes on your capacity for neuroplasticity- the ability of your brain to recognize itself adaptively and enhance its performance.”

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