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Study: ‘Resume padding’ prevalent in college-bound students who volunteer

January 30, 2006 By Dennis Chaptman

Although the rates of volunteerism among high schoolers appear to be healthy, a study by a UW–Madison researcher suggests that “resume-padding” – not simple altruism – may be the driving force.

Lewis Friedland, a professor of journalism and mass communication, says his research in Madison-area high schools “calls into question some of the vibrancy apparent in the high rate of youth volunteerism.”

“The near universality of this college resume padding really surprised me,” Friedland says.

The high schoolers Friedland, along with sociology doctoral candidate Shauna Morimoto and other students, interviewed held an overwhelming belief that volunteering would be a key to college admission.

“Resume padding is a symptom of the extraordinary pressure put on young people to achieve a college education, and the very explicit understanding that a college education is a means to a decent life in the middle class,” the study found.

Many young people said that their motive in becoming involved was to make a stronger case to please college admissions officers – regardless of whether they were applying to an Ivy League school, a state university or a technical college.

But Friedland notes that, despite the widespread beliefs of college-bound students, service criteria usually only come into play in truly selective schools, those with an admissions rate of 50 percent or less.

Friedland says that civic activities are part of the expectation of high-achievers in high school, while others recognize their more precarious position. They see that college is within reach, but only if they perform enough of the “right” activities outside of the classroom.

“Young people have a lot of different motivations, some altruistic, some genuinely religious, some genuinely civic. But they rarely appeared in a pure form,” Friedland says.

In one case cited by Friedland, a student learned that the school’s business club was taking a trip to the Six Flags amusement park. The student, identified as Chuck, joined the club and scalped the low-cost tickets, leading to an invitation to take part in the club’s varsity competition.

“It looks good on college resumes or whatever, but I don’t want to do it for a living. It’s just kinda boring,” Chuck told researchers.

The study – published as a working paper for the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement – also found that minority achievers see college as a way to better their lot in life, but that they view volunteerism differently.

“In an ironic twist, because engagement is not seen as a birthright, rather as a privilege, it is seized upon almost joyfully as the path of autonomous self-development,” the study notes.

Friedland quotes an African-American student named Jackson who recognizes the various motivations of his fellow students. Jackson sees some students acting out of a genuine sense of altruism, while others are doing it for college and still others who want to get paid for their efforts.

“But, if you get them out there to actually meet these people and then they’ll start to see the benefits of it and the rewards of the community,” Jackson says. “They’ll start to develop relationships with other people. It’s not just viewed as community service anymore. It’s like you’re making a friend or something. You are helping someone out.”

One implication of the study, which has yet to be proven, is that when civic engagement and volunteerism is used to achieve a short-term goal, the long-term effect of that activity may decline, Friedland says.

“We are faced with a generation of young people coming up in a different world,” he says. “Their attachments are more fleeting and their there is a lack of attachment that seems to pervade.”

Tags: research