"Helping others helps you." It's a takeoff on the famous line from the movie "Jerry Maguire": "Help me, help you." Helping others can make a difference in college admissions.

Many families wonder about the role that community service plays in college admissions decisions. Here are some interesting research facts from Do Something, a nonprofit organization dedicated to getting teens involved in community service.

When college admissions officials were asked which activity they would value most; spending four years helping at a community shelter or spending a month in an impoverished African nation, almost all of the respondents said that working locally for four years would trump an international experience.

Almost half of admissions professionals said they placed more value on spending a summer working at a homeless shelter than raising $100,000 for the shelter.

Community service will never be more important than a student's rigor of curriculum (toughness of classes and schedule) or his or her GPA, but many admissions officers thought a commitment to community service was more important than legacy (being son or daughter of alumni) or letters of recommendation.

Just belonging to organizations such as Key Club or Boy Scouts doesn't score points. Colleges are interested in seeing a student's personal contribution.

"Passion," "consistency," "commitment" and "dedication" were the characteristics admissions officers said they would most like to see.

>What to do

*What colleges are tired of seeing:

Being only a "one-timer" -- students who serve a meal to the homeless, show up at road races, school carnivals, fundraisers, etc. -- won't hurt a student's resume, but it doesn't help much either. Sharing a long laundry list of one-time events doesn't demonstrate the attributes that most colleges are looking for. These kinds of activities are typically considered resume-padding where students show-up, take a few hours out of their weekend but really don't have much of a connection to the organization or its people.

*What colleges want to see:

Colleges and universities, especially the most selective ones, are desperately seeking students that are passionate, dedicated, proactive, committed and responsible. Remember every year the college community has a new mix of students. So each year colleges are looking to replace leaders, problem-solvers, opinion-leaders, go-getters and kids who just get a job done.

Not everyone is born to be a leader or a problem solver, but families should be more selective about how and where a student spends his or her time. Research a variety of options.

Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University, said, "We want someone who will be a constructive, rather than a disruptive, member of our community; socially, culturally and interpersonally."


Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit