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A Comprehensive Guide To The Congressional Volunteer Award

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Congressional Volunteer Award medal

A Comprehensive Guide To The Congressional Volunteer Award

The Congressional Volunteer Award is a respected program that encourages young people to make meaningful changes in their communities while growing personally. Earning the Congressional Award also doubles as an opportunity to build an impressive college admissions profile by showing your long-term commitment to community involvement and personal growth.

In this blog, we explore the inspiring journey that the participants go through and share tips to help you get the most out of this one-of-a-kind program.

What is the Congressional Volunteer Award?

The Congressional Award for Volunteerism is the official award program of the U.S. Congress, honoring Americans aged 14 to 24 for their voluntary public service achievements. Established through Public Law 96-114 in 1979, it promotes personal growth and community involvement among young Americans.

It is an award like no other. Unlike awards that recognize individual acts or academic excellence, this program celebrates long-term dedication to self-improvement and an individual’s contributions to their community. Participants set goals in four areas: voluntary public service, personal development, physical fitness, and expedition/exploration. By meeting their goals, they earn Bronze, Silver, or Gold Certificates and Medals.

Participants work with advisors, ideally adults, to achieve their chosen goals and monitor their progress. The Congressional Award stands out for its flexibility, allowing young people to create their own paths and encouraging personal growth through consistency and commitment. This individualized, goal-focused approach inspires youth to build meaningful skills while meeting real community needs, emphasizing the importance of genuine civic engagement. The program bridges civic responsibility and youth empowerment, creating a lifelong commitment to service.

A quick look at the history of the award

The U.S. Congress created the Congressional Award in 1979 to honor the initiative, service, and achievements of young Americans. It was a bipartisan effort, sponsored by Senator Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming and Congressman James Howard of New Jersey.

Side view at multi-ethnic group of students using laptop while studying in college

Public Law 96-114, the very legislation that created this initiative, made the award a private-public partnership funded by the private sector. President Jimmy Carter signed it into law, and subsequent presidents have signed continuing legislation to maintain it, ensuring ongoing support for this program.

How does the Congressional Volunteer Award work?

The Congressional Award allows young people to be proactive in community involvement. Instead of recognizing past achievements, this program honors the youth for setting measurable personal goals and meeting their community’s needs.

Participants can earn Bronze, Silver, and Gold Congressional Award Certificates and Medals. At each level, participants set goals in four concentrations or areas:

  • Voluntary Public Service
  • Personal Development
  • Physical Fitness
  • Expedition

The Congressional Award is a comprehensive and flexible program with no GPA requirement. It supports youth with special needs and lets participants work at their own pace.

That said, the award offers a simple timeline for each step involved.

Program Timeline
Step 1 Registration
Step 2 Goal Setting
Step 3 Impact Building
Step 4 Submission
Step 5 Moving to the Next Level

Step 1: Register

It is important to note that there is a $25 registration fee and that you only need to register once.

You can register here.

You can start counting activities toward a particular program on the very day you sign up. Before you register and finalize your participation, find an advisor who consents to take on this role.

Step 2: Set Your Goals

Begin by consulting with your advisor to sign up for a Submittable account if you don’t already have one. Next, familiarize yourself with the program guidelines detailed in the Program Book. Develop your goals and identify activities that will help you accomplish them. This is where you pick and choose activities that are aligned with the four mandated programs. Be smart about it but also highly consider activities that you think you will enjoy doing.

Once your advisor approves your goals, you can start working towards achieving them. Make sure to check out the virtual exploration accommodation as well.

a female student thinking

 

The said webpage details how participants can meet the Congressional Award’s exploration and expedition requirements virtually. It provides guidelines and resources for engaging in activities like exploring new cultures or historical landmarks online, researching significant geographic regions, or learning new outdoor skills. These virtual expeditions let you achieve your goals from home while still gaining valuable personal growth and learning experiences.

Here’s a complete list of the number of hours and months required:

Certificates Bronze Certificate Silver Certificate Gold Certificate
Voluntary Public Service 30 hours

No minimum # of months required

60 hours

No minimum # of months required

90 hours

6 months

Personal Development 15 hours

No minimum # of months required

30 hours

No minimum # of months required

45 hours

6 months

Physical Fitness 15 hours

No minimum # of months required

30 hours

No minimum # of months required

45 hours

6 months

Expedition/Exploration 1 day 2 days 3 days
Medals Bronze Medal Silver Medal Gold Medal
Voluntary Public Service 100 hours

7 months

200 hours

12 months

400 hours

24 months

Personal Development 50 hours

7 months

100 hours

12 months

200 hours

24 months

Physical Fitness 50 hours

7 months

100 hours

12 months

100 hours

12 months

Expedition/Exploration 2 days and 1 night 3 days and 2 nights 5 days and 4 nights
  • Spread out your hours: The program encourages long-term goal-setting. Distribute your activities over the months you’re working toward them, ensuring each program area meets the required months.
  • Minimum activity requirement: You must do at least one hour per month in a specific program area for that month to count.
  • Non-consecutive months: The months don’t have to be consecutive.
  • Single-month credit: A month can only count once per program area. For instance, if you play ice hockey and soccer in January, that month counts only once toward your Physical Fitness requirement. If going for the Gold Certificate, you’ll need five additional months to meet the six-month requirement.
  • Daily activity limit: No more than eight hours per day count toward an activity. For example, if you’re a camp counselor, you can only log up to eight hours a day, even if you stay overnight.

You can set umbrella goals that cover related activities. For example, if your Voluntary Public Service goal is to support youth in your community, you might include tutoring at the library, helping at the YMCA, and packing lunches at the food bank.

Young multiracial students learning about painting on canvas during lesson

Avoid double-dipping! Your activities shouldn’t overlap between program areas. Activities for one area can’t count toward another. For instance, Personal Development might involve fitness activities like dancing or sports, but make sure they don’t overlap with your Physical Fitness goals.

Step 3: Build Your Impact

There is really no deadline, so we highly recommend that you move at your own pace. Use the program’s optional Workbook to document your progress.

The Congressional Award Workbook is a helpful resource that guides you through the program. It offers a structured way to set, track, and document goals in the four main areas. The workbook provides sections for noting objectives, activities, and the hours spent on each, with spaces for advisors and validators to sign off on completed goals. It’s a valuable tool for keeping track of your progress and ensuring you meet all the requirements for certificates and medals.

From there, choose a validator for each goal to:

  • Confirm you’ve completed the activities
  • Sign your Record Book to acknowledge you’ve reached your goal in a specific area

You can email your validators through Submittable to get your activities digitally validated. Once you’ve met the required hours, fill out your Record Book and have your advisor sign it. With Submittable, your advisor can digitally approve your Record Book, confirming you’ve met your goals in all four areas.

If you can’t submit your Record Book digitally, contact your Program Manager for help or to discuss other ways to submit via email or mail.

Step 4: Submit Your Output

After your submission is approved, you’ll see your status updated on Submittable and receive a letter from the Congressional Award.

If you’ve earned lower-level awards, they will be included in the mail with your approval letter. Medals are typically presented locally and may take some time to arrange through your local congressional office. Gold Medals, however, are presented annually in Washington, D.C., during the Gold Medal Ceremony.

If additional information is needed during the review process, you’ll receive a revision email from your Program Manager. After updating your submission with the requested changes on Submittable, the Program Manager will be able to approve your application.

Step 5: Continue to the next level

Collaborate with your advisor to either establish new goals or expand activities for your current goals. Keep in mind that the hours spent on one award can be carried over to the next level. You will follow steps 2, 3, and 4 at each award level. Begin working toward your next award right away and log your progress on Submittable.

Who is eligible to participate the Congressional Volunteer Award?

U.S. citizens aged between 14 and 24 can join the program. As long as this age requirement is met, you can participate regardless of socioeconomic status, ability, and circumstance.

Is there eligibility for a waived registration fee?

Participants who qualify for free or reduced lunch at their school due to financial need may have their registration fee waived. If eligible, please carefully follow the instructions and provide the necessary documentation in the registration form.

About the Congressional Volunteer Award Programs

The Congressional Volunteer Award has four different program areas:

1. Voluntary Public Service

Voluntary Public Service requires sensitivity, determination, and dedication. Volunteer service acts must be done without compensation or school credit. There has to be a service performed, including activities that help the entire community.

students inside a class being supervised by a male teacher

An acceptable goal can sound something like this: “I will provide a minimum of 100 hours of service under the direction of the Volunteer Office of Central Florida.” Volunteer Public Service work must be nonpartisan. The goal of the Voluntary Public Service program area is to have an extended commitment to one’s goals, and the work done is impactful to the community.

Activities can include volunteering at an animal shelter, hospital, daycare, the Red Cross, and more. 

At AdmissionSight, we recommend as much community service as possible and provide guidance to ensure students know how they can make a difference in their community. Community service is also important for the personal statement. A student who worked with AdmissionSight wrote about her volunteer experience in her personal statement, and she was accepted to Yale and Princeton. Of course, it all depends on how you craft your statement, but volunteering can help take you to the next level. If you’re unsure how to get to that level, contact us.

2. Personal Development

The Personal Development program allows students to work on their own interests and social and life skills while trying something new or strengthening a passion or talent.  An acceptable activity sounds like this, “I will perform in community theatre, work as a stagehand, and learn about lighting, props, and costumes.” 

This goal could be to become a better actor/actress, to learn about behind the scenes of theatre or more. This is a great program because there are so many opportunities to learn about, as well as Personal Development can be done as part of a group, for example, “I will pursue my interest in photography as a member of the school newspaper staff. I intend to produce at least 10 photos, which will be published during the next school year.”

Activities can range from singing to nursing to engineering to floral art, cheek out a suggested list here. The requirements begin at 15 hours for a bronze certificate, to 200 hours, and a 24-month commitment for a gold medal.

3. Physical Fitness

The Congressional Volunteer Award is for students to set and achieve a goal in physical activity. Team sports and individual participation work, the goal is to improve performance or physical fitness. The goal is not to be competitive with others; for example, “I can presently jog 5 miles in 50 minutes, and I intend to improve my time to 8.5 minutes per mile.”

Activities can include all types of physical activity, from fitness walking to tennis to weight training. The requirements begin at 15 hours for a bronze certificate, to 200 hours, and a 24-month commitment for a gold medal.

When applying to college, it can be very helpful to prove you are well-rounded by being a varsity athlete. We at AdmissionSight can help guide students to get noticed by coaches, completing the Physical Fitness portion of the Congressional Volunteer Award can also be a game-changer and boost your profile considering its non-competitive and for your improvement.

4. Expedition and Exploration

Expedition and Exploration is a one time experience that you can plan, it isn’t something you attend that others plan, but its a first-hand experience in the wilderness or new culture. The goal of this portion is to encourage participants to develop a sense of the spirit of adventure and discovery by organizing, planning, training, and completing the Expedition or Exploration. Planning will be necessary for the Expedition or Exploration, and depending on what you choose as your activity, three could be expenses, so plan for that.

Exploration activities can also a scientific factor, a historical exploration, or more. An Expedition could be a canoe trip, camping or more. The requirements for Expedition or Exploration differ from the other due to the length of time. Bronze certificates begin at 1 day, whereas a gold medal means 4 consecutive overnights, so 5 days in total.

Marine Biologists working at the beach coast

The Expedition and Exploration program can be a great way to prove your standout qualities and leadership qualities. By completing this program, you’re proving you can finish a task from beginning to end with learning results.

How important is the advisor or mentor’s role in your Congressional Award experience?

The advisor or mentor is highly important to your Congressional Award journey. They guide you in setting ambitious yet realistic goals aligned with the four program areas. Their insights and feedback are invaluable for creating a scalable plan that fits your interests and program goals.

They monitor your progress, provide encouragement, and keep you on track to meet the requirements. Their approval and validation of your goals are key for completing the program, making them an essential support system as you work toward your Congressional Award journey.

When selecting a mentor for your Congressional Award journey, consider these factors:

  1. Experience and Understanding: Ensure the mentor has a good understanding of the Congressional Award program and its requirements. Their knowledge will be important in guiding you throughout.
  2. Interest in Your Goals: Choose someone who is genuinely interested in your success and willing to support your goals in the four program areas no matter how grand or ambitious they may be.
  3. Relevant Background: Ideally, they should have experience in areas relevant to your goals, whether in public service, personal development, fitness, or exploration.
  4. Communication Skills: A mentor who communicates clearly and provides constructive feedback can offer you meaningful advice and guidance throughout the process.
  5. Availability: Ensure your mentor is available to meet regularly, discuss your progress, and sign off on the achievements you submit.
  6. Supportive Attitude: Choose someone who can inspire and motivate you to stay committed to your goals and provide encouragement when challenges arise.

How do I make the most of my Congressional Volunteer Award journey?

We’ve already established that the journey toward earning the Congressional Volunteer Award is taken on a road of commitment, hardships, and challenges. You will need all the help and encouragement you can get to meet all of the requirements and win. That said, to maximize your Congressional Award journey, consider these five easy and doable tips:

1. Set Clear, Ambitious Goals

Collaborate with your advisor to establish well-defined and challenging goals across the four program areas. Make sure each goal is realistic yet stretches your abilities. The program allows flexibility, so shape your objectives around your interests and skills for a more rewarding experience.

2. Track Your Progress Regularly

Use the workbook or digital tools to document your progress meticulously. Keeping a record of your completed hours, activities, and accomplishments will help you stay organized and on track, while also providing a motivational boost as you see your growth over time.

3. Seek Diverse Opportunities

Explore a range of activities in each program area to broaden your skill set and deepen your impact. For example, volunteer in different community organizations, try new sports or fitness challenges and push your boundaries through unfamiliar explorations or expeditions.

a college student standing in the middle of a hallway and looking at the camera

4. Leverage Your Support Network

Stay connected with your advisor and validators for regular feedback and encouragement. Their guidance will help refine your goals and provide useful insights for improvement. Additionally, lean on family, friends, and other program participants for encouragement and to exchange experiences.

5. Reflect and Adjust

Periodically assess your progress and experiences. Reflect on what activities have been most fulfilling and what challenges you’ve encountered. Use these insights to adjust your goals if needed and ensure you’re consistently moving toward meaningful accomplishments that align with your evolving aspirations.

There is no reason to not attempt to complete at least one portion of the Congressional Volunteer Award, not only do you have the chance to win a certificate or medal, but just participating can teach you about yourself, provide you with a new expedition, help your community and maybe even strengthen your arm muscles.

For more information on the Congressional Volunteer Award and to keep up to date with their ideas, posts, and more, visit their website here and if you need any help getting started with activity ideas, planning your extracurriculars or academics around the Congressional Volunteer Award, contact us at AdmissionSight for guidance.

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