Volunteering. Something every high school student knows they should do, usually because they believe it’s a prerequisite for acceptance to college.

Don’t get me wrong, colleges like students who volunteer. But if you are going to go through the hours required to volunteer just for a college, let’s look one level deeper and think about the logic therein.

Think about the answer to the “why” of it all. Why do colleges like students who volunteer? It’s because most colleges are places focused on betterment: betterment of the individuals it strives to educate, betterment of the community in which they operate, betterment of the world through innovation and progress. They want to bring students to campus with those same ideals.

Because of this, not all volunteering endeavors are created equal. If the only reason you are volunteering is because you think you have to for college, or because your mom is making you do it, or because you have to do it for NHS, you probably aren’t making an impact worth the time and energy you are exerting. Dare I say you are wasting your time? Maybe. Up for discussion.

Believe me, admissions officers can tell the difference between those students volunteering because they “have to” and those that are excited to be there for the opportunity to make a difference, learn new skills, or otherwise be a conduit for betterment.

If you show up once a week at the library to organize books just so you can record the hour on a piece of paper, you aren’t impressing anyone. This is not to say you can’t do good work at the library, you can and should, but only if you are really interested in that work, learning new skills, and making an impact you are proud of.

So then, what is impressive and how do I find those opportunities? What’s impressive is when a student spends his time involved in something he cares about. It could be related to his career interest (teach tech skills to the elderly, coach a little league team, intern at a local law office, run adoption events for the animal shelter, plan a program at the library using what you’ve just learned in AP Computer Science…).

A good number of these types of activities are not posted online. Instead, they require you to get out and talk to people. Talk to your friends’ parents, pick up the phone to call a local business, chat with the front desk at your vet while Fluffy gets his shots updated. Tell them you are interested in helping. Ask if they need help and what you can do about it. And don’t be discouraged when you hear no. It’s not personal.

Now, and in life, the best opportunities are those we create for ourselves. You have to go and find them, and that usually requires putting yourself out there by talking to people.

That can be scary for a 15 year old; I know. I was painfully shy for a longer portion of my younger life than I care to admit. But it won’t get easier until you get more experience with it. And if you aren’t ready or willing to do that yet, consider in part your readiness for college. If you want to go to a selective school, test scores alone won’t get you there. Think about the traits you are cultivating within yourself through your activities, and make adjustments with your goals in mind. That’s what high school is all about!