Are you applying to a college or a scholarship that requires a community service essay? Do you know how to write an essay that will impress readers and clearly show the impact your work had on yourself and others?
Read on to learn step-by-step instructions for writing a great community service essay that will help you stand out and be memorable.
What Is a Community Service Essay? Why Do You Need One?
A community service essay is an essay that describes the volunteer work you did and the impact it had on you and your community. Community service essays can vary widely depending on specific requirements listed in the application, but, in general, they describe the work you did, why you found the work important, and how it benefited people around you.
Community service essays are typically needed for two reasons:
1. To Apply to College
- Some colleges require students to write community service essays as part of their application or to be eligible for certain scholarships.
- You may also choose to highlight your community service work in your personal statement.
2. To Apply for Scholarships
- Some scholarships are specifically awarded to students with exceptional community service experiences, and many use community service essays to help choose scholarship recipients.
- Green Mountain College offers one of the most famous of these scholarships. Their "Make a Difference Scholarship" offers full tuition, room, and board to students who have demonstrated a significant, positive impact through their community service
Getting Started With Your Essay
In the following sections, I'll go over each step of how to plan and write your essay. I'll also include sample excerpts for you to look through so you can get a better idea of what readers are looking for when they review your essay.
Step 1: Know the Essay Requirements
Before your start writing a single word, you should be familiar with the essay prompt. Each college or scholarship will have different requirements for their essay, so make sure you read these carefully and understand them.
Specific things to pay attention to include:
- Length requirement
- Application deadline
- The main purpose or focus of the essay
- If the essay should follow a specific structure
Below are three real community service essay prompts. Read through them and notice how much they vary in terms of length, detail, and what information the writer should include.
From the AXA Achievement Scholarship:
"Describe your outstanding achievement in depth and provide the specific planning, training, goals, and steps taken to make the accomplishment successful. Include details about your role and highlight leadership you provided. Your essay must be a minimum of 350 words but not more than 600 words."
From the Laura W. Bush Traveling Scholarship:
"Essay (up to 500 words, double spaced) explaining your interest in being considered for the award and how your proposed project reflects or is related to both UNESCO’s mandate and U.S. interests in promoting peace by sharing advances in education, science, culture, and communications."
From the LULAC National Scholarship Fund:
"Please type or print an essay of 300 words (maximum) on how your academic studies will contribute to your personal & professional goals. In addition, please discuss any community service or extracurricular activities you have been involved in that relate to your goals."
Step 2: Brainstorm Ideas
Even after you understand what the essay should be about, it can still be difficult to begin writing. Answer the following questions to help brainstorm essay ideas. You may be able to incorporate your answers into your essay.
- What community service activity that you’ve participated in has meant the most to you?
- What is your favorite memory from performing community service?
- Why did you decide to begin community service?
- What made you decide to volunteer where you did?
- How has your community service changed you?
- How has your community service helped others?
- How has your community service affected your plans for the future?
You don’t need to answer all the questions, but if you find you have a lot of ideas for one of two of them, those may be things you want to include in your essay.
Writing Your Essay
How you structure your essay will depend on the requirements of the scholarship or school you are applying to. You may give an overview of all the work you did as a volunteer, or highlight a particularly memorable experience. You may focus on your personal growth or how your community benefited. Regardless of the specific structure requested, follow the guidelines below to make sure your community service essay is memorable and clearly shows the impact of your work.
Samples of mediocre and excellent essays are included below to give you a better idea of how you should draft your own essay.
Step 1: Hook Your Reader In
You want the person reading your essay to be interested, so your first sentence should hook them in and entice them to read more. A good way to do this is to start in the middle of the action. Your first sentence could describe you helping build a house, releasing a rescued animal back to the wild, watching a student you tutored read a book on their own, or something else that quickly gets the reader interested. This will help set your essay apart and make it more memorable.
Compare these two opening sentences:
"I have volunteered at the Wishbone Pet Shelter for three years."
"The moment I saw the starving, mud-splattered puppy brought into the shelter with its tail between its legs, I knew I'd do whatever I could to save it."
The first sentence is a very general, bland statement. The majority of community service essays probably begin a lot like it, but it gives the reader little information and does nothing to draw them in. On the other hand, the second sentence begins immediately with action and helps persuade the reader to keep reading so they can learn what happened to the dog.
Step 2: Discuss the Work You Did
Once you’ve hooked your reader in with your first sentence, tell them about your community service experiences. State where you work, when you began working, how much time you’ve spent there, and what your main duties include. This will help the reader quickly put the rest of the essay in context and understand the basics of your community service work.
Not including basic details about your community service could leave your reader confused.
Step 3: Include Specific Details
It’s the details of your community service that make your experience unique and memorable, so go into the specifics of what you did. For example, don’t just say you volunteered at a nursing home; talk about reading Mrs. Johnson her favorite book, watching Mr. Scott win at bingo, and seeing the residents play games with their grandchildren at the family day you organized. Try to include specific activities, moments, and people in your essay. Having details like these let the readers really understand what work you did and how it differs from other volunteer experiences.
Compare these two passages:
"For my volunteer work, I tutored children at a local elementary school. I helped them improve their math skills and become more confident students."
"As a volunteer at York Elementary School, I worked one-on-one with second and third graders who struggled with their math skills, particularly addition, subtraction, and fractions. As part of my work, I would create practice problems and quizzes and try to connect math to the students' interests. One of my favorite memories was when Sara, a student I had been working with for several weeks, told me that she enjoyed the math problems I had created about a girl buying and selling horses so much that she asked to help me create math problems for other students."
The first passage only gives basic information about the work done by the volunteer; there is very little detail included, and no evidence is given to support her claims. How did she help students improve their math skills? How did she know they were becoming more confident?
The second passage is much more detailed. It recounts a specific story and explains more fully what kind of work the volunteer did, as well as a specific instance of a student becoming more confident with her math skills. Providing more detail in your essay helps support your claims as well as make your essay more memorable and unique.
Step 4: Show Your Personality
It would be very hard to get a scholarship or place at a school if none of your readers felt like they knew much about you after finishing your essay, so make sure that your essay shows your personality. The way to do this is to state your personal strengths, then provide examples to support your claims. Take some time to think about which parts of your personality you would like your essay to highlight, then write about specific examples to show this.
- If you want to show that you’re a motivated leader, describe a time when you organized an event or supervised other volunteers.
- If you want to show your teamwork skills, write about a time you helped a group of people work together better.
- If you want to show that you’re a compassionate animal lover, write about taking care of neglected shelter animals and helping each of them find homes.
Step 5: State What You Accomplished
After you have described your community service and given specific examples of your work, you want to begin to wrap your essay up by stating your accomplishments. What was the impact of your community service? Did you build a house for a family to move into? Help students improve their reading skills? Clean up a local park? Make sure the impact of your work is clear; don’t be worried about bragging here.
If you can include specific numbers, that will also strengthen your essay. Saying “I delivered meals to 24 home-bound senior citizens” is a stronger example than just saying “I delivered meals to lots of senior citizens."
Also be sure to explain why your work matters. Why is what you did important? Did it provide more parks for kids to play in? Help students get better grades? Give people medical care who would otherwise not have gotten it? This is an important part of your essay, so make sure to go into enough detail that your readers will know exactly what you accomplished and how it helped your community.
Compare these two passages:
"My biggest accomplishment during my community service was helping to organize a family event at the retirement home. The children and grandchildren of many residents attended, and they all enjoyed playing games and watching movies together."
"The community service accomplishment that I'm most proud of is the work I did to help organize the First Annual Family Fun Day at the retirement home. My job was to design and organize fun activities that senior citizens and their younger relatives could enjoy. The event lasted eight hours and included ten different games, two performances, and a movie screening with popcorn. Almost 200 residents and family members attended throughout the day. This event was important because it provided an opportunity for senior citizens to connect with their family members in a way they aren't often able to. It also made the retirement home seem more fun and enjoyable to children, and we have seen an increase in the number of kids coming to visit their grandparents since the event."
The second passage is stronger for a variety of reasons. First, it goes into much more detail about the work the volunteer did. The first passage only states that she helped "organize a family event." That really doesn't tell readers much about her work or what her responsibilities were. The second passage is much clearer; her job was to "design and organize fun activities."
The second passage also explains the event in more depth. A family day can be many things; remember that your readers are likely not familiar with what you're talking about, so details help them get a clearer picture. Lastly, the second passage makes the importance of the event clear: it helped residents connect with younger family members, and it helped retirement homes seem less intimidating to children, so now some residents see their grand kids more often.
Step 6: Discuss What You Learned
One of the final things to include in your essay should be the impact that your community service had on you. You can discuss skills you learned, such as carpentry, public speaking, animal care, or another skill. You can also talk about how you changed personally. Are you more patient now? More understanding of others? Do you have a better idea of the type of career you want? Go into depth about this, but be honest. Don’t say your community service changed your life if it didn’t because trite statements won’t impress readers.
In order to support your statements, provide more examples. If you say you’re more patient now, how do you know this? Do you get less frustrated while playing with your younger siblings? Are you more willing to help group partners who are struggling with their part of the work? You’ve probably noticed by now that including specific examples and details is one of the best ways to create a strong and believable essay.
Compare these two passages:
"As a result of my community service, I learned a lot about building houses and became a more mature person."
"As a result of my community service, I gained hands-on experience in construction. I learned how to read blueprints, use a hammer and nails, and begin constructing the foundation of a two-bedroom house. Working on the house could be challenging at times, but it taught me to appreciate the value of hard work and be more willing to pitch in when I see someone needs help. My dad has just started building a shed in our backyard, and I offered to help him with it because I know from my community service how much work it is. I also appreciate my own house more, and I know how lucky I am to have a roof over my head."
The second passage is more impressive and memorable because it describes the skills the writer learned in more detail and recounts a specific story that supports her claim that her community service changed her and made her more helpful.
Step 7: Finish Strong
Just as you started your essay in a way that would grab readers’ attention, you want to finish your essay on a strong note as well. A good way to end your essay is to state again the impact your work had on you, your community, or both. Reiterate how you changed as a result of your community service, why you found the work important, or how it helped others.
Compare these two concluding statements:
"In conclusion, I learned a lot from my community service at my local museum, and I hope to keep volunteering and learning more about history."
"To conclude, volunteering at my city's American History Museum has been a great experience. By leading tours and participating in special events, I became better at public speaking and am now more comfortable starting conversations with people. In return, I was able to get more community members interested in history and our local museum. My interest in history has deepened, and I look forward to studying the subject in college and hopefully continuing my volunteer work at my university's own museum."
The second passage takes each point made in the first passage and expands upon it. In a few sentences, the second passage is able to clearly convey what work the volunteer did, how she changed, and how her volunteer work benefited her community. She also ends her essay discussing her future and how she'd like to continue her community service, which is a good way to wrap things up because it shows your readers that you are committed to community service for the long-term.
Are you applying to a community service scholarship or thinking about it? We have a complete list of all the community service scholarships available to help get your search started!
Do you need a community service letter as well? We have a step-by-step guide that will tell you how to get a great reference letter from your community service supervisor.
Thinking about doing community service abroad? Before you sign up, read our guide on some of the hazards of international volunteer trips and how to know if it's the right choice for you.
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Guest post by Dylan Manderlink
This post should really be called: “How I learned more about my community and humanity once I stepped outside my college classroom.” You see, going to college in the heart of a city has an abundance of advantages, and many students are quick to take a big gulp of all the opportunities presented by the fast-paced, busy, and unique city landscape.
While internship opportunities, professional networking events for soon-to-be post grads, company hosted events at local restaurants and bars, and higher education possibilities are readily available and most likely taken advantage of by eager 20-somethings, taking time to volunteer at the many nonprofit social/environmental justice organizations, homeless shelters, advocacy centers, philanthropic fundraisers, local schools and child care facilities that complete the city of Boston are not always at the forefront of young people’s minds while navigating through their college experiences.
But, with a little push from student organizations, local nonprofits and passionate individuals, volunteerism and community change can start to take a front seat and become not just an opportunity, but also a priority in the lives of young people.
Volunteerism, civic engagement and advocacy are the driving forces for creating change and making a positive impact in your community and society at large. While gaining internship and job experience can lead to community impact and social change, it’s important for us to remember that before we start advocating for change and informing others about issues we care about, we need to fully understand the complexity and depth of the social, environmental, or economic issue we are passionate about.
Not only do we need to understand the ‘issue’ or ‘societal problem’ that many people face and are impacted by every day, but we need to meet and work alongside those whose daily realities are shaped by injustices, while not creating any divides or barriers in the process. Everyday people are affected by the issues that organizations fight for or against, and once we realize how people-centered things like advocacy, outreach and service are, I believe young people will realize their call to action and their potential in their local landscapes to really affect change.
For example: Recently I had a very unique volunteer gig. A few times a semester I would take the Red Line to Quincy to volunteer at the Prison Book Program, where I would read letters from incarcerated individuals from all over the country and find 2-3 books that match their interests and reading criteria. Opening each letter and hearing people’s stories reminded me of the harsh realities of our world today, and the difficulty many people face in preserving their human dignity and self-worth.
Whether guilty of crimes or innocent, our incarceration system is an issue that many activists rally around in terms of its success and promise in correcting and rehabilitating criminal behavior. So, to read letters and hear the voices of those who are living on the marginalized edges of our society, but who rarely have a voice in the issue that’s being nationally rallied around, is an uncommon circumstance that should be noted and have more attention and action drawn to. Their desire to educate themselves within the confines of a prison wall is real and heard by those of us who take time to spend their weekday evenings in the bottom of a church basement, sorting through donated books, and reading literary wish-lists of those who are incarcerated.
Another meaningful experience that sticks out to me is when I regularly volunteered at a children’s homeless shelter in Roxbury, Mass. for two years, and was reminded of the fact that the statistics we hear every day about homelessness are real people – not just numbers. Every child I played alongside, made a puzzle with, and created art work for, reminded me that the largest percentage of people who are homeless is in fact, not the men people see on the street who are waiting in line for the soup kitchen, but families: Mothers, children of all ages, infants, and fathers.
I was reminded that every human and every family deserves a place to call a home, a place to grow up, and a place to feel safe and comfortable. Helping the shelter to provide an afternoon of safety, comfort, respect, and joy for children who don’t have a home or much stability was a small but meaningful contribution to a much greater familial and societal obstacle.
What I Learned
I learned from my volunteer experiences in Boston that people are not powerless; in fact, we have a great deal of power and potential, despite sometimes being told we may not have any because of the zip code we were born in, economic status, family life, sexual orientation, or employment status. Through the volunteering I made as a priority and a cornerstone of my life in college, I learned how empowering it is to realize how much agency you have in your own life and how beautiful it is to share that with others in hopes of them discovering it themselves.
I learned how giving human beings are, even when they don’t have much to give. I learned how one of the biggest equalizers of our society is storytelling and the sharing of self. We open countless doors of understanding, compassion, education, and empathy when we let the chaos and speed of the cityscape subside, and take time to actively listen and communicate with our community members. Our community is a diverse fabric of human beings, and we all have a voice in enacting change, improving the lives of our neighbors, and promoting a more just and verdant world.
I learned that local nonprofit organizations have the potential to amplify their outreach to colleges, and young people in general, through matching passions with skills. You as organizations need to purposefully identify for us why promoting service and civic engagement is not only important, but necessary if we want to improve our lives, the lives of others, and the dilemmas and misfortunes our world faces every day.
The relationship between young people and nonprofits can be the start of a significant change in our community, and should be a reciprocal and powerful educational experience. An open-minded and encouraging flow of communication between organizations and community members can be the launchpad for the social and environmental change organizations talk about and try for every day. Together, we can make change – not just a semblance of idealism, but reality, as well.
How does your organization engage with college students and young adults? Share what you’ve learned in the comments!
Dylan Manderlink is a recent graduate of Emerson College in Boston, Mass., who with a self-designed major, Investigative Theatre for Social Change. She is now a Teach for America corps member, teaching high school in rural Arkansas. She is passionate about working in the nonprofit sector and providing educational opportunities for students to creatively inform themselves and others about social justice, community change and human rights.
Tags:community service, millennial volunteering, volunteer engagement, youth volunteering
About The Author
Shari led Online Marketing and Communications at VolunteerMatch from 2010-2015. After working with nonprofits for 9 years, she moved over to the corporate sector and is now leading Inbound Marketing for a tech company in San Francisco.