Polygence blog / Education and College Admissions

The Value of Service: A Conversation with John Gardezi of Edvanced Learning Academy

8 minute read

headshot of a man in a suit

When most students think about applying to college, they’re juggling so many things (e.g., recommendations, SATs, GPAs, essays, extracurricular activities, awards) that the idea of doing service and giving back to the community often gets put on the back burner or even completely overlooked. The fact is, community service can be very influential on a college application.

To learn more about community service, what it means, how best to go about it, and its importance for college admissions and life, we spoke with the fantastic educator and college counselor John Gardezi. John founded the Edvanced Learning Academy and helps middle and high school students make the most of their college admissions journey. Before that, John was a college admissions interviewer at Harvard, so he has unique insight into the process. Fun fact: John got a perfect score on his SAT in high school! He’s also an incredibly kind and thoughtful person, as you’ll see in our interview.

We edited this post to highlight key points from our discussion and combined some of our thoughts and John’s answers.

How important is service on a college application?

The stats speak for themselves. In a survey of college admissions officers, 58% said community service positively impacts school acceptance, and 53% said it could be a tiebreaker between two equally qualified students.

What is community service? 

Community service is an activity that meets a need in your community. As you decide what kind of service to do, look around you, observe people's needs in your community, and consider how to address that. Coming up with a good plan typically requires a bit of problem-solving.

So, for instance, let's say you have a significant immigrant community in your area, and some folks are applying to become United States citizens. Typically, there's a class that they need to take and paperwork to fill out. Maybe you could offer a free citizenship class at your local library to help them.

Another example might be helping a community of senior citizens who have expressed a need for technology classes. You could offer courses to help them learn how to use a PC, text, email, or shop online. These are things that younger people take for granted, but older folks didn’t grow up with this technology and often struggle with it.

Are there some types of service that are “better” than others?

It’s best to think about service in terms of your impact on the community and not how many hours you’re doing. Many high schools require you to complete a certain number of service hours. This requirement is simply to get all students more involved in the community. At first, you might show up and clock into a club event organized by someone else. That’s not a bad way to get to know your community and their needs. But there are ways to make the experience more meaningful for yourself and the community than simply following directions and clocking in the required hours. (note: there’s more about this in the answer to the next question below)

To narrow down the options, consider how your service project might play into what you want to study in college or what you want to do as a career. If there are causes that you’re very passionate about, you can deepen that interest with a service project. The more you can dive into what matters to you, the better off you’ll be in the college admissions process. You’ll also be ahead of the curve in many areas of your life. 

How can I create a meaningful and unique service opportunity?

It may sound counterintuitive, but unique opportunities result from exploring existing opportunities already open to you. Only then can you learn the community’s needs and start problem-solving ways to help.

Typically, schools have a club week or a club day once a semester, and that's where clubs can showcase their service opportunities, and you can join those and work on teams. You can also search out community organizations such as religious or cultural groups. These are ways to get out into the community and start observing.

Let’s say you start doing a beach clean-up activity with an established volunteer group. As you do your service, you interact with fishermen on the beach, and by talking with them, you discover that there’s some sort of issue they're dealing with, such as a labor or environmental issue. That’s an opportunity to meet a need in your local community. That’s where you can start problem-solving and thinking creatively about how to be of service.

Once you have established a relationship with the community you’re working with, you can’t help but care about them. Your service will then come naturally from an authentic place.

That said, you don’t need to create a whole new organization. Any collective effort galvanizes people toward a common cause. A good service mindset focuses more on the cause than on yourself or your resume line. That also comes through when you show your experience on your application. You don't need to reinvent the wheel. You can still make a difference by making small contributions.

What can community service teach me?

Beyond impacting the community and helping you stand out in the college admission process, a community service project can be as educational and rewarding as a research project or internship. As mentioned before, if you’re doing your service in an area you’re passionate about (as you should), you’ll probably dive deeper into the experience.

Even when the activity of the service itself may feel more like unrewarding physical labor and less like an intellectual opportunity (perhaps you are helping to pick up garbage or shelving soup cans or collating paperwork), you end up meeting a lot of the community members you are helping and talking to other service volunteers who are interested in the same causes you are. Those sorts of connections do end up preparing you for a future career or research. They also teach you the invaluable “soft skills” of being able to connect with a variety of different people.

These learnings give you a distinct advantage over students who have not had these experiences.

Does it matter where I do the service?

Yes! It’s important to act locally (while thinking globally) because where you do your service does matter. Admissions officers specifically like to see students giving back to their local communities. Serving your local community differs significantly from seeking service opportunities internationally or far from home. You can still address global concerns like climate change, education, healthcare, and immigration (just to name a few) on a local level. You also don’t have to make it onto prime-time television. Much meaningful service work is happening quietly at the grassroots level.
How can I combine service and research?

There are many ways to translate your personal service experiences into research ideas or loftier life goals. And on the flip side, there are also so many ways of translating your research into community action. Here are a few student examples from Polygence and the Advanced Learning Academy.

  • One student who served on a team court was inspired by that experience to work with a Polygence mentor to study incarceration. She proposed prison reforms from that research that could help local people from her neighborhood and address systemic problems facing the U.S. prison system.

  • Another student who worked with John was interested in fighting obesity in children, and served on youth commissions in her local government. She coupled that with research at John Hopkins related to the different determinants of obesity and gleaned these insights for community health workers and activists to help them fight obesity. 

  • A Polygence student in the Bay Area was really concerned about student mental health, and how different kinds of pressures created anxiety and depression among his classmates. He researched with a Polygence mentor with an MA in counseling psychology from Columbia to learn trends at a high data and psychological level and to identify solutions and resources he could provide his community. He ended up creating a community organization at his school called Cats to Cats that built out a bunch of YouTube mental health resources.

  • A climate-change-focused Polygence student named Chloe researched which plants have the highest levels of carbon sequestration and took these learnings to local nurseries so they could label and recommend these plants to customers who want to impact their environment.

As you can see, community service and research pair very well together. Service can be a way of discovering who you want to be in the future, and research can help make your service more powerful and effective.

Where can I include my service on college applications?

  • Write about how it changed you and what impact you were able to make on your community in your supplemental essays.

  • Add it as one of the items in the activities section.

  • Get an additional written recommendation letter from the adult who supervised your service.

  • Share anecdotes about your experience during interviews.

The final takeaway

John, we know you don’t just talk the talk. You have a community service project of your own. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

In June 2021, I decided to move to Honolulu, and one of the big needs that I saw for folks who had newly moved to the area was a surfing community. You would think that on the island of Oahu, which is really the world epicenter of surfing on so many levels, there would be a social group, but there really wasn’t. So, I founded a 300-person surfing community that became a resource for newcomers. We did fun things like a board game night, dancing, hiking, and diving. We also created opportunities to give back. We work with a local organization that helps folks with different physical disabilities enter the water and experience surfing. We’ve organized beach clean-ups, potlucks, surfing instruction, and get-togethers. 

The group also helps address a fundamental problem in all the places I've lived: the issue of loneliness. I saw an interview with the Surgeon General in which he said loneliness is becoming an epidemic in our society. Having this resource available for people in the local community is one of the most rewarding things I've done.

So here’s my last take-home message for all you students: No matter where you are, there will always be opportunities to serve others. What you’re doing now will likely play into some of the ways you want to give back later in life. I hope that service becomes a lifelong passion because it’s rewarding to be a resource and helpful to others. One of the best ways to cultivate positive mental health is by thinking about others and what positive roles you can play in their lives.

The Polygence Pathfinders Program

Pathfinders is a career discovery mentorship experience designed to help you explore different career paths and gain more clarity about your future. Learn from three world class mentors in the fields of your choice and discover your passions!