Guest Commentary: Want to stand out in your college applications? Build your community credentials

Music educator and college prep coach Susan Monteiro
Meaningful volunteer hours can earn high school students scholarship money for college and boost the chances of having their college application noticed, says music educator and college prep coach Susan Monteiro.
(Provided by Susan Monteiro)

The end of the school year is approaching. This means that many students will be entering high school for the fall. Most of the time, parents of high-schoolers (and high-schoolers themselves) begin to think about college around 10th or 11th grade. I would recommend starting earlier.

As a violin teacher, I have been helping teenagers prepare for college auditions for over 20 years, and the one thing I notice is that most of my students begin looking for a university in the middle of high school.

I know I said I am a violin teacher and maybe your teenager does not play an instrument. But in the process of preparing my students for auditions, I have noticed that other aspects of the college preparation process are completely ignored. I have seen many areas in my students’ lives that could have been enhanced to help them get into a school they really wanted to attend.

Most of the time, students’ high school experience is dominated by keeping up their GPA and practice time (at least for music students). But there are three things parents need to consider when helping their teens look for a college. They need to look at their teens’ academic, social and financial needs.

Of course, the financial needs are mostly the parents’ responsibility because they likely will be financing this venture. But I will present one need that is a way to get a bit of scholarship money for college as well as boost your teen’s chances of having his or her college application noticed and appreciated. I am talking about volunteer hours.

While helping my young violinists prepare for college, I noticed there was no thought about the type of volunteering they were going to do, only that it needed to be accomplished to graduate from high school. Volunteer hours are so important that some of my students receive a list of community organizations from their high school counselor. But that list is meaningless if the volunteer work does not coincide with a student’s interests or future college major.

Sophia Benito is a junior at La Jolla High School and an editor for the school newspaper, the Hi-Tide.

For teens, volunteering can be a life-changing experience, especially if it sparks a lifelong journey toward a meaningful career and community service.

So when should your teen begin volunteering? I would say as early as possible, about ninth grade. As I said, I am not talking about random volunteer hours that fulfill a graduation requirement but something meaningful to the student, the community and the admissions committees that will be reviewing many, many college applications.

If those volunteer hours are done correctly, they can get your teen some money for college. When I was helping a few of my violin students go through their scholarship applications, one question stood out to me: “How long have you been donating time to this organization and what was your role?” It turns out the Rotary Club wants to know how dedicated students are to their community before handing them money for college.

By offering these scholarships, these organizations are giving back to the community and they want to know where the student is heading in terms of community service. Your teen’s volunteer hours will be a reflection of his or her future and will help scholarship organizations determine whether the student is deserving of financial help. So make those hours count, and start early!

The role your teen plays in the community makes a difference as well. Has your teen taken on a leadership role? Believe me, a leadership role will help your teen stand out.

If possible, I would have a teen go out and start his or her own organization. The role of creation is telling and will show the scholarship committee that the student is a go-getter, a leader and someone who is organized and disciplined enough to carry through with a goal.

If it seems as if your teen has a lot on his or her plate, you can look at the volunteering as a part-time job. Think about it ... what would look better on a scholarship application — volunteer hours caring for patients at an assisted-living center or a job as a barista?

The volunteer “job” can help ensure that your teen receives money for college. Also, the volunteer time will provide education in compassion and empathy — something the world really needs right now.

Here is a list of a few organizations that offer scholarships to hard-working students:

Going Merry (a website where you can find many scholarships, and it simplifies the process)


Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation

Elks National Foundation

San Diego Foundation

• Local Rotary Club chapter

• Local Boy Scout organization

Veterans of Foreign Wars


I wish you all good luck on your journey!

Susan Monteiro is a professional violinist and educator and owner of Monteiro Music Studio, an online studio for violinists and violists. She also is a college prep coach. She lives in Escondido.