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3 ways to help high schoolers find meaning in service

Service looks good on a college application, but this Harvard educator explains why quality is the key.
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What are college admissions officers looking for in the volunteering and service section of your student’s application?

Turns out it’s not quantity or prestige, but rather, meaning.

In fact, many educators and deans of admission at some of the country’s most selective schools contributed to or endorsed a report published by the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education: Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern For Others And The Common Good Through College Admissions.

Harvard Lecturer Richard Weissbourd was the lead author of the report. He says finding a sustained, meaningful service experience is something all young people should have, not just for college applications, but for life.

As service and volunteering tend to be on the minds of many people during this time of year, here are three ways parents can encourage our kids to find meaningful ways to give back.

1. Help your kid find their authentic voice and passions.

The first step is having a conversation, or more likely, many conversations, with your kid about what really makes them tick. Taking the time to listen to your kid is not only a great chance for bonding, but an opportunity to learn about the person they are becoming.

“Let your kid take initiative,” Weissbourd says. “Help guide them, but listen to their input and what they have to say. Ask your child to imagine a variety of service experiences and how they fit into them.”

There are countless service experiences that take many different forms, ideologies, political perspectives, and faiths. While sometimes it may seem like your student has to get involved in everything, it is really an exciting moment for your kid to discover what their values are, Weissbourd says. Taking a step back to recognize this will be extremely beneficial in the long run.

“It’s a really important ethical parenting moment and you really have to come to terms with what’s important to you,” Weissbourd says.

We all want what’s best for our kids. Sometimes we dream they will attend the college we went to, or that they will have everything we didn’t, or they will love to volunteer at an organization we’re passionate about. But our expectations of our kids shouldn’t cloud our understanding of what they need to thrive, Weissbourd says.

“Too often kids think about what colleges want and how do I fit that,” Weissbourd said. “Parents have to help kids find what works for them and fits them.”

2. Look for quality in service opportunities over quantity.

This sentiment is entwined in so many aspects of life, and it remains true for service, too.

“It’s not the number of activities you do, it’s the quality of engagement,” Weissbourd says.

One practical way to help your kid find their own quality service opportunities is to actually limit your child in the number of activities they take part in. Making Caring Common suggests asking the questions: “Why is this activity meaningful to you? What goals does it achieve? What have you learned about yourself, others, and your communities?” These questions force your child to pick what is most valuable to them and to think about why that is.

Another way to emphasize quality is to not think about college applications at all! Some parents may scoff at this idea, but it will actually benefit your kid to choose activities simply by what they are passionate about.

Making Caring Common advises parents to “Encourage your children to choose activities that they have a legitimate interest in—not those that they think admission officers will value.”

Ironically, this is what ends up shining through the most on the college application, Weissbourd says.

And an added benefit? When your child is more aware of their own passions and values, they will be so much more prepared for the college application process.

3. Encourage your kid to find a community with their service.

When engaging in service, use the model, “Do with, not for,” Weissbourd says. It is a slippery slope between service for the greater good and service for appearance's sake.

“[As a culture] we have demoted concern for others, concern for the common good and ethical engagement in the college admissions process,” Weissbourd says.

Parents can help kids by encouraging their students to get involved in service that has a lot of diversity. Explain to your kids that you are not a “savior,” but rather forming community with people, oftentimes different from yourself, for a greater cause.

Making Caring Common says, “Experiences in diverse groups are not only important for your children ethically and emotionally, but can enable your children to develop key cognitive skills, including problem-solving skills and group awareness, that are key to success in work and life.”

And most importantly, talk to your kid about what makes working within a diverse community both challenging and rewarding.

“Parents work hard to raise kind and empathetic kids,” Weissbourd says. “What’s challenging is to raise kids who are kind and empathetic to people outside of their immediate circle of concern. These service experiences play a big part in that. It can be a really meaningful rite of passage.”