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Community Service Matters in Your Graduate School Application

Joa Ahern-Seronde
Joa Ahern-Seronde
January 14, 2021
It's easy to think of academics and job experience when you're applying to graduate school, but programs are interested in you as a complete person.
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If you’re applying to graduate school, one thing you might not have on your to-do list is community service. It probably never even crossed your mind. Graduate programs do not require you to volunteer so why should you do it? I’ll tell you why. Because community service demonstrates strong drive and initiative, and it says more about who you are as a person. 

A merit-worthy activity: good for you, and good for your community

Community service is a meaningful experience that provides an outlet for your interests and passions, whether they’re outside of your professional field or an extension of it. Volunteering is also a merit-worthy activity that can help enhance your candidacy for graduate school by painting a picture of who you are beyond your professional life.

However, you shouldn’t just volunteer because you want to pad your resume. You should volunteer because you’re passionate about something. Because you enjoy doing it. The more you are interested and engaged in the community service you are doing, the more it will shine through in your application.

By engaging in community service, you are demonstrating to schools that:

  • You are a leader who takes initiative
  • You are able to handle multiple demands on your time, including work, family, and community
  • You are interested in improving the conditions for others and contributing to your community in meaningful and impactful ways
  • You are a reliable and trustworthy team player both in and out of the office

Planning your time for volunteering

Between studying for the GRE, compiling materials for your grad school application, and following through on any number of work, family, and social obligations, who has time for yet one more responsibility? It may seem impossible to fit community service into your already packed schedule, but instead of thinking of it in terms of time, think how you can increase your impact.

For example, an MBA candidate who walks dogs for the Humane Society may not be putting their skills to the best use. But an MBA candidate who works with local shelters to develop a marketing plan that leads to a 30% increase in adoptions with a 20% reduction in “returns'' will stand out in the admissions process. High-impact volunteering signals to an admissions board or potential employer that you have the drive and talent to maximize your contributions, which is a valuable ability for future teams you might join.

If you’re already involved in community service, this is the time to look for ways to increase the quality of your contributions. Taking on more of a leadership role will add value and interest to your application, regardless of if it’s at the office or in the community.

Generally, the longer you’ve been participating in community service, the more of an asset it will be in your application. Even a few months of volunteer service for 2-4 hours a week will be enough to make a difference.

How to choose a community service

The great thing about volunteering is that there is no right or wrong way to do it. The best way to start looking for opportunities is to brainstorm things that you enjoy doing. What activities do you enjoy? What local organizations or charities support or advance work in your field? Does your employer sponsor community service activities? Search online for community service groups aligned with your personal passions and career goals. Schools like to see a continuity in your interests.

Even if the consistency across your volunteer work and professional life isn’t obvious, you can usually find a common thread that tells a unique story about who you are. Say I volunteered at the Red Cross in California, then at an orphanage in Thailand, and finally at an animal shelter in New York. I might write in my personal statement that I seek out established organizations with strong management structures because I love working on great teams where I can bring value and innovation to the good work already being done.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure that it’s on brand for you. Choose organizations or initiatives where you feel accepted and appreciated, and where your skills and talents are recognized and leveraged. If you’re a woman applying to business school who believes that women deserve an equal seat at the table, it makes sense for you to participate in a female youth development program. If you’re a triathlon athlete seeking to get a degree in sports medicine, you could volunteer as a certified coach or trainer.

How community service can help you with your graduate school applications

The beauty of applying to graduate school is that it gives you a chance to reflect on your career goals and the passions, interests, and skills that motivate and inspire you to achieve those goals. Volunteer work is another opportunity to showcase your talents while also gaining experience that you may not have otherwise had, like leading a large team or developing more creative skills. 

Think of community service as an opportunity to brand yourself distinctly and compellingly. You may be surprised how your work as a volunteer can enhance your candidacy for graduate school and, ultimately, your career.


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