Getting into college has never been more difficult than it is today. Many students who apply have an excellent grade point average and strong SAT or ACT scores. Realizing this, students often try to differentiate themselves through extra-curricular activities and community service. However, in recent years, universities are noticing that most of their applicants have a great degree of community involvement, making it even more difficult for applicants to stand out.

So what can young volunteers do to separate themselves from the crowd in terms of volunteerism? One suggestion is to focus on fewer activities but participate for a longer period of time. Too many youngsters wait until the last half of their junior year or even the beginning of their senior year to start volunteering. At that point, in an effort to bolster their application, many opt to spend a cursory amount of time at a variety different programs. However, admittance counselors would rather see a pattern of meaningful involvement over a few years as opposed to participation for the sake of getting the experience on an application. As James Miller, director of admissions at Brown University, explains, “It’s most important to do something with enthusiasm, passion and commitment.”

To further illustrate how community service impacts an application, here are some findings of a recent poll that surveyed admissions officers at 25 of the country’s top 50 universities:

  • Passion and consistency above all – 100% of respondents value consistent participation over sporadic involvement, even if the occasional situation is more intense.
  • Time is more important than money – 68% say they would value working the summer at a homeless shelter over raising $100,000 for the same cause.
  • Service is more important than who you know – Although academic achievement is always most important, those surveyed believe that a strong community service record is more important than reference letters and legacy standing.
  • Effort is more important than affiliation – 84% believe that the fact that a prospective studentdoes volunteer is weighed more heavily than where he or she volunteers.

For the volunteer coordinator, this means grabbing potential participants earlier in their high school careers. By working with school guidance counselors and other youth leaders, you can help freshman and sophomore students understand that getting started sooner may increase their chances of getting into the college they desire. Spring seems early, perhaps, but if you haven’t done so, now is a good time to make the necessary connections for these partnerships. Then you can smoothly kick off a targeted recruitment campaign when teens return to school in the fall. It also allows you several months to prepare for youth volunteers, if this is one of the areas on which you would like to focus.

In addition to assisting college-bound teens, sparking interest at an early age can be a great opportunity for your program as well. The point to keep in mind is that high school volunteers turn into college volunteers, who in turn eventually become professional volunteers. Earlier participation can help you grow a crop of volunteers that can participate at a meaningful level for years to come.