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Teens: Five Good Reasons to Volunteer (That Have Nothing to do With Your College Application)

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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If you help someone just because you get something out of it, does it still count as helping?

One way to answer that question is this: of course it does.

If you do something and someone else benefits from it, then it doesn’t matter why you did it. The person still gets the benefit.


Let’s back up and clarify why we’re asking.

We’re talking about volunteering, here. Community service. Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, that kind of thing. Spending your time doing things for others.

Disclaimer: we’re not going to get into deep philosophical questions about whether altruism really exists. Although that’s a valid and intriguing topic, we’ll save it for another time.

We pose that opening question because of an emerging trend in ambitious, college-bound high school students: they stack their resumes with volunteering bullet points. High school counselors tell them college admissions personnel look for students who take initiative. They love it when they see an applicant who’s helped out at a food bank, a homeless shelter, or gone overseas to build a medical clinic in Africa.

It makes total sense. If you want to get into the best colleges, you do community service when you’re in high school. Because all other things being equal – like SAT scores, AP scores, and GPAs – you need something to make you stand out from the rest. With literally thousands of kids scoring 1400 + on SATs, 5s on their final AP exams, and sporting GPAs over 4.0, how on earth can you get into your school of choice if you haven’t spent every spare waking hour over the past five years organizing clothing drives, teaching literacy to seniors, or handing out blankets at a homeless shelter?

We don’t have an answer to that question. We also have no idea how it’s possible to get a GPA over 4.0 – but again, another topic for another time.

What we do have is a list of reasons to do community service that have nothing to do with getting into college, adapted from the article “A Meta-analysis of the Impact of Service-Learning on Students” published in The Journal of Experiential Education, written by Christine I. Celio, Joseph Durlak, and Allison Dymnicki.


Five Good Reasons to Volunteer

(That Have Nothing to do With Your College Application)

  1. It boosts self-esteem. When you help others, you feel good about yourself: it’s that simple. Students who volunteer often show increases in self-concept and internal moral standards.
  2. It improves your attitude toward school and learning. Students who volunteer show more enthusiasm toward their schools in general, and their academic success in particular.
  3. It increases civic engagement. Students who volunteer show increased interest in their communities and are more likely to believe they can make a difference in the world.
  4. It improves your social skills. Students who volunteer show increased leadership, communication, and problem-solving skills.
  5. It improves your grades. Students who volunteer show improved achievement over the course of their course of their academic careers.

You Know What’s Crazy?

We reviewed tons of journal articles – okay maybe like twenty or thirty – before writing this post. And the study we cite above is a meta-analysis, which examined over fifty articles with data on over 10,000 students going back thirty years. What’s crazy is that as well-meaning as all these articles are, and even though every single one of them operates under the assumption that volunteering is good, not a single one mentions the most important reason for volunteering (that has nothing to do with your college application):

When you volunteer, you help people who need help.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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