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College Essay Examples Of Community Service

Roderick in Senegal, 2011

Roderick traveled with us on our high school summer community service program in Senegal in 2011. A current senior at Camden High School in Camden, South Carolina, he will be attending Wofford College in the fall. The essay below, about building bricks during his volunteer experience in Africa, was part of the stellar application. Congratulations, Roderick!



Two summers ago, I found myself a continent away making a brick. This is not a very
complicated process, but it is a process where the efforts of many reaped tremendous rewards. Driving to a hardware store to buy a brick was not an option, but to create just one brick took a considerable amount of time. I soon discovered that laying a foundation for a home was more than just a repetitive and laborious process… it was a catalyst for my future.

I was in another world– one without running water or electricity. One without plumbing. One without a bed. One where speaking my native language was not the norm and accomplishing the most simple daily tasks often took hours. I arrived in Mbissel, a small village in Senegal, West Africa– four thousand miles from my comfort zone and not a soul I knew. I soon discovered that living in this foreign world was far less complicated than living in my world. In fact, it was much simpler: less hectic and full of meaningful experiences. Making bricks step by step, one by one may be mundane, but the friendships I made, the smiles I received, and the relationships I built while creating thousands of bricks were more fulfilling than anything I had experienced in my 16 years.

I traveled to Senegal to learn and explore. My classroom became the building site where I
worked with the villagers. They were my teachers, and as I worked alongside them, they became my friends. My daily lesson was simple but time consuming: hauling sand and concrete, walking the 30 minute roundtrip hike to the well for water, mixing the water and the concrete, pouring the mixture into a mold, carrying the mold to a field to dry, walking back, and starting again. It was a process so simple, yet so painstakingly slow. How could such a tedious job yield such gratifying emotions?

Enjoying the ripened fruit of the mango tree was the perfect ending to my day; this setting became another classroom where I taught and was taught in return. The children of the village flocked to any “toubab” that they spotted, so I was obviously never alone under the mango tree. As I reflected on the day’s work, the children constantly begged for attention, which I freely gave. They attempted broken English while I mutilated the beautiful French language. It didn’t matter what we were trying to say, for hand gestures and laughter were the result of our efforts. My attempts to count in French made the Senegalese children laugh as I could only count to 40, and they would continue on to 100. Out of curiosity, we taught each other.

My experience in Senegal was the beginning of my foundation. I believe that learning takes place not only in a classroom, but along the paths I have chosen to take. The lessons I learned while making bricks and sitting around the mango tree continue to resonate within me. Respect for citizens of the world, other cultures and an appreciation for values taught and learned in new environments will be my foundation. I built bricks for the Senegalese, but they have built so much more for me. I look forward to pursuing the journey, brick by brick.

As you might know, we have a lot of thoughts about community service and the college process. We even wrote about why you shouldn’t write an essay about community service. We’re certainly not going back on our word, but we wanted to delve into a caveat of that opinion. We want to share our advice for the benefit of students who truly believe that they have a specific community service experience worth sharing. It’s not unheard of, but there are a few factors to consider before you decide. First, make sure that you’re well-versed in what to avoid in your community service essay. Namely, most community service essays make you come off as privileged and unaware, as well as basic and cliché. We don’t want that. More often than not, we would strongly advise against writing about community service. Before you take this advice, please contact us so we can tell you if it’s a good idea.

If you’re 110% sure your community service story is different and speaks to your character, here’s how to avoid the typical pitfalls in 5 easy steps. If your Common App essay checks all of these boxes, then you’ll surely come out with a well-written, thought-provoking, and complex essay that you can be proud of.

  1. Tell a story
    This is the most important aspect of your essay, because it has to do with the structure and tone. It’s necessary to develop a story that has a beginning, middle, and an end. You need a narrative arch. It’s critical to draw the reader in. You can do this by telling a compelling tale about your experience that shows that you are thoughtful and understanding of the nuances of community service work.

  2. Think small and isolate one event
    You can’t fit an entire trip into a personal statement, so don’t even try. Choose one moment or a couple of moments to isolate and focus on, and expand the narrative from there. Wasting a lot of space on background, explanation, and unnecessary details can easily bog down your essay. You only have 650 words. Keep it focused.

  3. Be sure you demonstrate one lesson
    In the same vein of keeping it small, make sure that you isolate and demonstrate one meaningful lesson that you learned based on your experience. For example, we had a student write about her experience volunteering in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans for the better portion of her summer. She was rebuilding houses and working with an organization that had created a community center that served meals to local residents and offered them space to hold meetings or have events. Instead of writing a story that may have been more traditionally significant or cliché (completing a house that had been in the rebuilding phase for 3 years), she chose to focus on one conversation that she had with a resident. The lesson was that community building and progress actually stems from the act of listening. She wrote her entire essay about that one conversation and used it to reflect on the importance that communication and the act of listening play in creating social progress. It didn’t matter where the conversation took place and the essay wasn’t used to talk about the community service. Rather, the lesson was small--listening is the first and most important contributor to long term change--but the message made a universal impact.

  4. Create an informed character dynamic
    Who was involved in the community service? Who were you serving? Without trivializing the community, make the community into a character and insert telling details that draw the reader in. Community service experiences are most meaningful when you are aware of the power dynamic at play (those who have come to help vs. those who need help) and don’t fall into the very tired dialogue that often comes out of that. You must acknowledge that you are already speaking from a place of privilege to be able to serve others and discuss the issues in an intelligent way. To that end, remember that you are not a savior, and you must choose your language carefully. For example, in the essay mentioned above, our student acknowledged the power dynamic at play. She discussed her discomfort with serving food to residents over the physical barrier of the serving line. She discussed what the serving line table represented, and the step she took to address these concerns: break down the barrier with communication, engagement, and listening. This is a tricky step, so reach out to us if you want some help.

  5. Illustrate your intelligence and awareness
    Your goal with this essay is to tell a story that gives the admissions reader a deeper look into your personality and goals. Because you’re tackling a tough subject that a lot of applicants will be attempting improperly, this is a great opportunity to write a piece that displays your experience, perspective, and understanding of the world. This final tip is not so much a step, but the entire point of writing this essay. If your essay doesn’t send the message that you are aware and committed to expanding your beliefs through knowledge, then you missed the entire point.

Writing a personal statement about community service is a big challenge, we won’t lie. Most of the time we suggest you find another topic. But, some of the best essays happen to incorporate aspects of community service. If you need any help at all or just need to talk through your approach, we’d be happy to help. Give us a call or send us an email. We love problem-solving.

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