By: NobleHour Special Contributor Natasha Derezinski-Choo

I am excited to begin my first year as a student at Duke University. A year ago, I began the stressful, chaotic, and demanding task of applying to colleges. As another class of students begins this journey, I would like to offer some advice to help them with the application process.

My approach to applying to universities is similar to ordering a meal at your favorite restaurant. I believe at top-tier universities, grades and test scores are just the beverages you receive at the beginning of your meal. If you went out to eat and your server didn’t even have a glass of water to offer you, you might wonder if the other items on the menu were available. In the same way, your numerical academic information is just an entryway to the application, but not the focal point.

Don’t confuse your transcript for your application. One shows why you are an incredible student while the other demonstrates what makes you an incredible human being. Volunteering helped me in my college applications because it was my way of showing that my “menu” offered more than just water and crackers.

The Activities List and/or Resume

Many students agonize over what to list in the 10 Activities Section of the Common Application. Some will grumble, “I did all these extracurricular activities to get into college, but now I can’t even list them all on my application.” 

Over the course of four years of high school, I completed 450 hours of service-learning, held more than 10 leadership positions in service-oriented clubs, participated in over 10 service projects in the greater Greensboro area, and held a service-learning internship. In addition to volunteering, I also held a part-time job and won several writing awards. Narrowing it down to 10 activities was quite a challenge. However, listing your extracurriculars should only be considered an appetizer of who you are.

By sharing my passion for service, I conveyed that I am someone actively pursuing my interests.

I chose my most important activities by constructing a list with variety. The most meaningful, impactful, prestigious, time-consuming, and unique experiences were the best presentation of myself without being repetitive. It is also possible to consolidate similar activities. Remember that everyone else has a list, but they might not be as extraordinary as yours. Utilize the remainder of the application to show how what you do makes you who you are and that you are a stellar candidate.

The Essay

The essay is the “main course.” Wondering what makes you an interesting person can be quite a challenge. It’s difficult to choose the important qualities, experiences, or interests you want to talk about in just 600 words; however, grades and test scores do not belong here. It’s quite obscure to get personal with a stranger, but that’s what your essay must do for the reader. In my essay I tied together my volunteering and writing to show how I overcame shyness, and how my growth as a human being stemmed from my role as a volunteer.

Volunteering is not about getting a reward. It’s personal and it provides a wealth of experiences from which you can demonstrate what makes you the ideal candidate for a particular university. In your community, you put your best foot forward. The same goes for college applications. By writing about things I did in the community, I shared qualities like leadership, confidence, and success in a meaningful and personal manner. By sharing my passion for service, I conveyed that I am someone actively pursuing my interests.

The Interview

Before my interview with a Duke alumna, she asked me to bring an example of what I was most proud of. Naturally, my show-and-tell involved volunteering. I also brought copies of blue, the literary magazine I started at my school. I explained the hours of work that went into this production and detailed how volunteering allowed me to give a voice to other young people. By creating an outlet for creative writing, I was pursuing my passion and sharing it with others. She seemed impressed by them and I gave her the copies to keep.

Months later, she kindly called me to ask if I was accepting Duke’s offer of admission. She told me that she read pieces from blue from time to time and enjoyed hearing these young people’s voices. I was happy to see that my high school volunteering was still impacting people.


Along with the interview, recommendations represent the other people at the dinner table. They share in the experience and make it meaningful. I received recommendations from mentors and teachers who knew about my involvement in the community and could share more about me as a person than simply me as a student.

The people you choose to write your recommendations should be teachers or mentors who give you more than notes and assignments. Select people who shared something more by taking an interest in you and getting to know you. Make sure to give them several weeks to write a letter for you. It also never hurts to share a resume or samples of your work to help them write something thoughtful about you.

Best of Luck!

So what is dessert in our little meal analogy? Well, personally, I can’t think of anything pleasant about applying to colleges, except for the acceptance letters! I received offers from several incredible schools, resulting in a month-long agonizing decision. I truly believe that volunteering was one reason I had such a “fortunate” problem.

Volunteering is being part of a community, and being accepted to a university is a welcome letter into another possible community in your life. In the end, the available resources and opportunities allowing me to make a positive impact during this next stage in my life played a major role in my college decision. 

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