10 reasons why this will help your application and why you should do it straight away!
Volunteering is good for you, good for the community and a valuable asset when you are applying for a place at university. These days, getting excellent grades is often not enough for securing an offer on a course, for admissions committees often find themselves having to choose between candidates with exactly the same high scores and brilliant grades. Extracurricular activities, which reflect what you offer as a student, can be the tipping point and decide whether you are accepted or rejected. Volunteering tops the list of impressive extracurricular activities, but read on to discover what you need to think about before picking up the phone and volunteering!
It is important to note that there is a difference between applications to the US and Europe. American universities, in particular the higher-ranked institutions, include their own supplement within the general Common App, and many of the essays you are asked to complete focus on experiences and your personal attributes. In the US, you are applying to a university and not, strictly speaking, to a department or course, because you will generally choose your major at the end of your second year. This explains why your drive, personality and interests are important – and volunteering ticks all the boxes.
In Europe, you will have to consider how your volunteering supports your application and explains why you have chosen to study a particular subject. Thus, if you spend a month volunteering and saving sea turtles, or building an orangutan shelter, this type of volunteering is not particularly helpful if you want to study Italian let alone political science. Yes, it demonstrates that you have a conscience, a love of animals and a soul, but it does not evidence any commitment to studying Italian culture or language. You would be far wiser to volunteer in a museum in Italy, take an au pair job to hone your language skills with an Italian family, or work on an archaeological or restoration project in the country.
Below, you will find ten reasons why volunteering will help with your application. Read it, and apply!
- Volunteering demonstrates genuine interest in a subject. Admissions committees will look favourably on candidates who can show they have done more than achieve good grades, and have actively pursued their goals outside the classroom. For example, if the environment is your passion, get involved in local initiatives, whether these be recycling schemes, waste management, campaigns to set up dog feeding stations which accept plastic bottles and, in exchange, eject kibble, or cleaning up a canal or river. Make sure your volunteering is relevant to what you wish to study.
- Volunteering will teach you things you cannot learn in a classroom and will help you to turn theory into practice. You may want to study education and decide to volunteer to help immigrants learn the language of their host country and set off, optimistically, basic grammar book in hand, to try out your teaching skills. Instead of working on tenses and vocabulary, you could find yourself explaining forms they need to fill in, sharing their stories, identifying organisations who can offer practical help and acting as an advisor and social worker. This experience is an eye-opener and emphasises the gap between expectation and reality. When you come to write your personal statement, it will be a useful example of what you have learned from volunteering.
- Volunteering will show you what careers are really like and help you choose the right course to study at university. If you are trying to decide whether you want to be a physiotherapist or a mental health worker, for example, volunteering in a clinic or a mental health unit within a hospital will give you an insider’s view of what the job entails, and help you see the daily reality behind the career guidance glossy brochures. You may find the work slower or faster-paced than you imagined, less or more fulfilling, limited in its scope or highly demanding. Either way, the experience of volunteering will be useful when you are filling in your university application and justifying why you should be accepted on the course. There is a huge difference between saying “ I am passionate about mental health “ and “during the nine months when I worked on ward X, which specialized in psychosis…”
- When you are working as a volunteer, you will meet like-minded people and start building that all-important network which can elevate careers in the long run. If you do a good job, you could ask your manager to write a reference for your application – and this will carry weight with the admissions board.
- Volunteering will give you self-confidence, a sense of achievement and the belief that you can tackle challenges. All these psychological benefits will prepare you for moving away from home, living independently in a student community and transitioning into adult life. You will already have learned how to communicate with others, work in a team towards a shared objective and finessed the art of listening as well as expressing yourself. These are enormous gains and will form the foundation for your integration into university life.
- Volunteering shows determination and flexibility. You are not following a course, but giving up your spare time on a regular basis, often as and when needed. Few volunteers get paid – unless you are working for local wages on a long-term project in a remote developing country. Normally, you will have to sacrifice money-making opportunities and part-time work to fulfil your volunteering responsibilities. Not everyone has the grit to get up at 6am on a cold, wet winter’s day, because they are manning the crisis telephone lines that morning, or because they are due at a community meeting, 50 kilometres away, to talk about opposing a planned and destructive rural project.
- Volunteering can be extremely inspirational and reveal an inventiveness you did not know you possessed – and which you can talk about in your personal statement. Perhaps you were frustrated by a specific process and thought of a shortcut? Maybe you dreamed up a new use for by-products and cut back waste by introducing your idea? Or perhaps you discovered that one of the best ways of calming a patient about to have an operation is to play quiet music and do breathing exercises together? As a volunteer you have a greater degree of freedom to assess job roles and procedures, simply because you are not part of the bureaucratic or hierarchical organisation. Be pro-active, suggest changes if you think they are positive and get an insider’s view of the decision-making process, group dynamics and the benefits of seeing an idea take shape.
- Volunteering can be exciting, and every admissions committee can pick up on energy, enthusiasm and a love for a subject through your essays and personal statement. Excitement does not come from taking part in huge projects in far-off lands. Perhaps you will find the same emotion watching a crippled horse stand for the first time, from designing a flowering scheme for a difficult location which bursts into bloom three months later, or finally connecting with an autistic child through play or music? Remember the sensation so that you can show how volunteering enriched your life and drove you to try even harder in your chosen field.
- American universities place great emphasis on community and giving back, and many of the questions or essays you will be asked to tackle want to know if you are someone who will make a difference, to the department, the university, the wider community and the world as a whole. There is no point signing up for a voluntary role a few weeks before you are due to start applying, because this is transparently a strategy for earning brownie points. Start now. Think hard about where you want to volunteer and just do it.
- Volunteering is a form of giving – of your time, your commitment – but it is also extremely valuable, since you will receive more than you give. In the process, you will grow on the personal level, engage with society and develop new skills and capabilities. You must learn to reflect not only on what you have done, but also on what you have learned and any conclusions you have drawn. Keep a small diary and jot down events, thoughts and feelings – and then use this material in your university applications, to demonstrate who you are and what you can do.