Volunteering for medical school can seem like a daunting task. While there are always volunteer opportunities available, you may feel uncertain about what you should participate in and whether or not volunteering is beneficial.
The truth is, volunteer work can make or break your medical school application. Having quality experiences can give you an advantage over other medical school applicants. This article will discuss the importance of volunteering and information on how to make the most of each experience.
Volunteering as a pre-med student is essential for several reasons:
1. It can be the defining factor in your medical school application. Medical schools such as Harvard Medical School and David Geffen School of Medicine stress the importance of extracurricular activities when applying. Volunteering is a great way to boost your application to show your dedication to helping people.
Finding volunteer work related to medicine is beneficial to include in your application to med school. Note that your volunteer work can be non-medical. The most important thing is that it is a meaningful, quality experience.
2. You are exposed to areas of healthcare you wouldn’t initially have considered. Similar to medical shadowing, volunteering allows students to understand the medical field better and exposes them to areas to which you would not initially be exposed.
If you are unsure of what you wish to specialize in, you can volunteer in areas that catch your interest to see if it is a good fit for you. This exposure looks excellent on your application and helps you centralize your career path.
3. It shows you are dedicated to helping people. Volunteering is a great way to show that you are passionate about helping people. Many medical schools will ask why you want to be a doctor, and the most common response is that you want to help people.
You will be asked to elaborate, so providing examples from your volunteering is an excellent way to show the admissions committee that you are dedicated to helping people and have the experience to back up your statement.
4. It shows you have a heart. Medical schools don’t want a robotic person spewing medical terminology to patients; they want students who are compassionate and care about every patient that walks through their door. Volunteering shows your ability to display these qualities and demonstrates how you would use them to help people.
5. It is a great break while not being a break. Volunteering gives you a chance to step away from your textbooks while still boosting your medical school application. For example, you may decide to volunteer at a local public health clinic on weekends because you are busy with your studies during the week.
This is a great break for you because you step away from your books, and you do an activity that is beneficial for you in the long run. Volunteering allows you to take a break from your studies, while educating yourself in a different way, making you a competitive candidate when applying to medical school.
6. You develop qualities and skills from volunteering. Many qualities and skills desired by medical school admissions committees are developed through volunteering. For example, if you volunteer at a nursing home, you develop communication skills, along with compassion and empathy for the elderly for whom you care.
Communication skills, compassion, and empathy are all great qualities to hone as admissions committees seek these in their applicants. Leadership skills are also great to work on, and volunteering offers you a chance to challenge yourself to become a better leader.
Consider the qualities you would want to see in your doctor and apply those to yourself. Volunteering is a great way to learn new ways of becoming an excellent doctor. Volunteering is not only beneficial for you as a person but also for your medical school application.
John Williams, a current student at Ross University School of Medicine, stresses the importance of his volunteer experience when applying to medical school:
“Do it. I know it can feel menial at times but do it. And not just to check a box in your experience. You get out of it what you put in. Volunteering shows your commitment to learning about the field without compensation.”
Even if a medical school does not explicitly state that prospective students should have this kind of experience, it is highly recommended to include it if you wish to be considered.
Because volunteering varies based on each medical school, you want to check with them to see if they have a minimum number of volunteer hours required. However, if medical schools give suggestions, they generally recommend at least 100 hours of volunteering. The general rule of thumb is that your volunteer work should focus on quality more than quantity.
Medical schools prefer to see volunteer projects that took more effort than many small, simple ones. It isn’t about logging in hours to make your application seem better; instead, it is about making sure you obtain a well-rounded experience to discover what you are genuinely passionate in.
You also want to show your commitment to each experience for which you volunteer. Generally, you want to show that you have spent a consistent amount of time volunteering. For example, if you volunteer at a local clinic, you may work 10 to 15 hours a month for a few years.
This will not only show your commitment to helping people but also your dedication to pursuing medicine. Wherever you choose to volunteer, you must demonstrate time, commitment, and consistency.
Do not volunteer for projects you will not invest in. When you volunteer for many projects for the sake of quantity, you are doing what is known as “resume-boosting.”
This is an evident and ineffective technique for medical school applications because admissions committee members see through this, and it lessens your application’s chances of moving forward in the review process.
Many applicants expand on their volunteer work in secondary applications and personal statements, so having a few significant volunteering experiences trumps many simple projects. Aim to accumulate at least 100 hours of volunteering, but strive for more.
Consider the following factors when looking into volunteering opportunities:
Type of work. You want to look for extracurricular activities that you are passionate about. It is highly recommended that students volunteer for opportunities, directly and indirectly, related to healthcare. Some examples of direct healthcare opportunities include working at a local clinic, nursing home, or hospital.
Indirect options include Habitat for Humanity, soup kitchens, and tutoring. It would help if you tried to expose yourself to both forms of work to make yourself more well-rounded in the healthcare field.
Skill-building opportunities. Your volunteer work is a great way to demonstrate to medical schools that you have the qualities they search for in their students, such as leadership abilities, compassion, and dedication. Search for opportunities that challenge you and build on your current skills, learning new ones along the way.
Time. Find opportunities that offer long-term projects. These will require more of a commitment out of you, but they show your dedication to helping people–a quality every med school favors in their candidates. Strive for projects that require at least 10 to 15 hours a month for six months..
Location. Volunteer locally to show that you are dedicated to helping your community. Volunteering out of the country seems like a good idea, but it concerns medical schools.
A common question is whether the student wants to volunteer or take advantage of the work to get a trip out of it. Volunteering locally is the safe bet, and it also allows you to establish a network that can be beneficial when applying for jobs after medical school.
Let’s put these criteria into perspective. Take a look at the chart comparing the volunteer work of two students.
Student A has more volunteer projects in which they have participated, but Student B only has a few. At first glance, your eye is drawn towards Student A because of the number of projects, but remember that quality does not precisely correlate with quantity.
Student A only volunteered at each project for a short duration, such as working in the soup kitchen on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day; Student B volunteered for long-term projects that involved much more time and commitment, such as Habitat for Humanity.
Med schools prefer to see a commitment to volunteer work shown by Student B than a list of short-term projects such as Student A. Find activities that are more well-rounded and give you a better understanding of your pursuit of a career in medicine.
There are more volunteering opportunities available than you think, so it can be overwhelming when you start searching for one that works for you. Here are a few tips that can help you get the most out of your volunteering experience:
Be passionate about each project. Find volunteering opportunities you are passionate about. This will make you more dedicated to them, and it will allow you to engage your abilities actively. Don’t volunteer for a project just because it is available; there are many opportunities, and you don’t want to settle just because it is the first one you found.
For example, you may volunteer at a Cancer Research Center because you have lost loved ones to cancer and want to help find a cure. You may have a family member with autism, and because of this you want to dedicate your volunteering at an autism learning center. Find opportunities that are meaningful and significant to you.
Have various volunteer experiences. Volunteering can help you decide which areas of medicine you’re interested in pursuing. Be well-rounded and have your projects be on different spectrums. Don’t be afraid to volunteer for something exciting, but out of your comfort zone. The point is for you to grow, understand the commitment, and learn what you want to do.
Be proactive. When you volunteer, you want to get the most out of your experience. Do not stand around; find something to do. Be hands-on and ask questions. You are there to learn and find out if this is what you want to do. Communicate your interest by being present and active.
Be aware of the time commitment. You might be interested in participating in a variety of volunteer opportunities but you want to make sure you have the time to do them. Do not sign up for volunteer work for which you won’t have time to commit.
You will stretch yourself thin and burn out, which deters many students from doing more volunteer work. Be aware of the time commitment each volunteer project requires.
Do not wait until the last minute. You do not want to be running around a week before applying to medical school, trying to find volunteer opportunities. Chances are they won’t boost your application because med schools see the period of time and duration of each project. They will know you waited until the last minute to volunteer, which does not demonstrate good qualities for a future physician.
Record your experience. The Association of American Medical Colleges suggests maintaining a resume that documents where and when you volunteered and who supervised you.
Recording your experiences allows you to track the number of hours you spend on each volunteer project and what responsibilities you have. Having this experience written down comes in handy when you are writing your personal statement and essays for med school applications.
1. Do I have to volunteer in health care?
No, you do not. However, it is recommended. Brown University states that “medical and other health profession schools are looking for evidence that candidates for admission are making an informed choice and that they are altruistically oriented.”
Therefore, it would be beneficial for you to have some volunteer experiences in health care to reiterate your dedication to helping people and your desire to pursue medicine.
2. Can I still apply for medical school without volunteer experiences?
Some schools require medical school applicants to have volunteering experience, so research those requirements for the med schools you intend to apply to. For example, Harvard Medical School does not specifically state volunteer experiences as a requirement to apply, but if you want to be considered you should volunteer.
Meanwhile, Weill Cornell requires extracurricular activities as a prerequisite. You can technically apply without volunteer experience, but it significantly lowers your chances of getting accepted. Check with the med schools to which you wish to apply and see whether or not volunteering is required as one of the extracurricular activities.
3. When is the best time to start volunteering?
You want to start as early as possible. Waiting until the last minute can be detrimental to your medical school applications. Like with medical shadowing, volunteering may require paperwork and formalities that must be completed before you can begin.
Starting early allows you to have time to handle any concerns and gives you a chance to work on projects for a longer period of time. Consider starting in your freshman year of undergraduate school. Some students start as early as high school with activities they continue in college, which is great. If not, strive for your freshman year of college.
4. Will volunteer opportunities through universities count?
Yes! Start by looking at local colleges and universities' volunteer work as this is a great place to begin your search. Many of them include projects in healthcare that may pique your interest.
5. Can I include letters of recommendation from supervisors under which I volunteered?
Yes. Hopefully, your supervisors have spent many hours with you and have gotten to know who you are as a person. Getting a letter of recommendation from them would be great to have in your med school application.
6. Where do I find volunteer opportunities?
Pre-health advisors are a great place to start. They can recommend volunteer opportunities available through universities and give you an idea of the time commitment those projects will take. For example, University of California, San Diego offers a list of volunteer opportunities on their pre-health advising webpage.
Joining premed or service clubs is also a great way to hear about new volunteer opportunities, clinical and research experiences, and more. You can also check out the AAMC’s recommendations for volunteering.
Volunteering for med school is one of the best boosters for your application; it shows admissions committee members that you are committed to pursuing medicine for the right reasons. Additionally, volunteering helps you become a better person, and helps strengthen a variety of soft skills required for med school.
Overall, volunteer work can make or break your application, so start as early as possible, focus on quality rather than quantity, and give yourself plenty of time to find opportunities that interest you. By following this guide, you will get the most out of your volunteer experiences.