In an ideal world, people would take on volunteer work for the sole purpose of making the world a better place. But high school students are too busy for pure altruism. Studying, SAT prep and socializing take up a lot of time. When they take on volunteer work it has to serve a dual purpose. Sure they're helping out, but even admissions officers know that the primary goal of volunteer work is to build a competitive college application.

In 2011, Do Something released their most recent Community Service and College Admissions Survey. In it, they polled admissions officers at the nation's top schools and discovered that community service is the fourth-most important factor in a college application. That places it above reference letters, interviews and legacy status. Here's what you need to know to use your volunteer status to put your student's application at the top of the list.

  • Get focused. Yeah he's still "just" a teenager, but it's time for that teen to start planning his career. If he's undecided, schedule time with the guidance counselor to iron out his future goals. Once he's got a general idea, choose a volunteer post along those lines. A future pre-med student who volunteers at a hospital will have a competitive edge over other applicants, along with field experience that shows universities he's picked a career path he'll want to stick with.
  • Stick to it. A month spent volunteering in Cabo is a nice try, but admissions officers are looking for more. Do Something's survey revealed that 70 percent of admissions staff say that its long-term commitment that makes an application stand out. Choose a volunteer opportunity that recurs year after year. A short vacation volunteer post is fun, but it won't punch up an application.
  • Look for opportunities to lead. Don't just jump into the first volunteer opportunity you come across—encourage your teen to schedule an interview to ask questions about the post. Will he eventually take charge of groups, plan and organize activities, or have an opportunity for other leadership roles? Seventy-six percent of the polled admissions officers said they look for leadership roles as indicators of good citizens—a term that loosely translates to the kind of kids we want at our university.
  • What if it's too late for commitment? Sometimes the most important part of an experience is how you frame it. If you have a variety of short-term volunteer experience in different fields, help your teen make them look like one long-term commitment in the admissions essay. Work with him to find a common thread like "helping people" or "working with children". Creating the appearance of focus gives the illusion of a long-term commitment and teaches him early that a little PR smooths out a lot of bumps.
  • They can tell when you're faking. The pressure can be overwhelming, but resist the urge to pad the application. Admissions officers told Do Something that "rambling, unfocused" lists of activities—without any in-depth description of the experience and its impact on the student—are red flags that you made it all up. Better to submit an application with little to no volunteer work listed than to teach it's okay to lie to get ahead.
  • What if there's no time to volunteer? Try not to drown an overachiever. Volunteer work may be number four on admissions officers' lists, but GPA is still number one. Jonathan Augustyn, Admissions Counselor at Medaille College assures parents that admissions officers "look at academics primarily before we look at anything else, so if the student is strong academic student, the limited volunteer time will not hurt them." Studying, sleeping and eating come first—only add volunteer work if your teen isn't already overscheduled with extra-curricular activities.
  • When you need to volunteer. If your student's academic record is less than stellar, volunteer work help make him a better student. For a student who struggles academically, Augustyn says, "volunteer work could be the make or break point on whether they are accepted or not." This application booster is a great way to show commitment and passion that might be conspicuously missing from his "C" average GPA.
  • Go big or go home. While volunteering at local businesses displays your kid's altruistic side, working with larger organizations can provide him a leg up. Augustyn advises parents that it's "definitely a plus if the student is working for a well known non-profit." Big organizations like Green Peace, Red Cross and YMCA jump out on an application—especially if your teen can snag a leadership role during his position.
  • What if my kid isn't interested? Try helping him find his motivation by outlining the realities of life without a college degree—especially in the current economy. Then rein it in a little. If he doesn't have any career goals, make a list of things he's interested in enough to devote some time to. Compromise if necessary to encourage him to pick one—passionate volunteer work at a skate park is better than no volunteer work at all.

If he goes about it the right way, giving back to the community can have a big impact on your child's academic career. A few hours a week in the right volunteer position may mean the difference between the college of his choice and his back-up plan. Follow these guidelines, and you'll give him the focus he needs to get into a school good enough to warrant a second mortgage on your house.