- Volunteer experiences can make or break your med school application
- Why volunteering is important for pre-meds
- The optimal number of hours of volunteerism
- What type of activities are best?
- Final thoughts
Volunteer Experiences Can Make or Break Your Medical School Application
Between maintaining an exceptional GPA, juggling numerous extra-curricular activities and looking for opportunities to engage in meaningful research, the process of applying to medical school can leave one white-knuckled countless times a day. In spite of all this, I truly believe that some of my most valuable learning experiences to date have occurred while volunteering. Volunteering to do the things that I am most passionate about has helped to shape me into the person I am today. In this blog post, I will cover some of the most common questions that students ask about volunteering, including how many volunteer hours you need for a strong medical school application, and what every pre-med hopeful should be looking for in their volunteer experiences.
Why is Volunteering Important as a Pre-Medical Student?
As Noreen Kerrigan, Assistant Dean of Albert Einstein’s College of Medicine says, medical schools “want to make sure we’re not accepting brains on stilts. We want people with hearts”. The volunteering section of your medical school application is meant to illustrate that you are more than just book smart, you are a human being with an insurmountable level of selflessness, compassion, and altruism. Volunteering also provides an amazing opportunity to work with people in your community, allowing you to learn valuable skills such as leadership, teamwork, and communication. The world of medicine, and medical professional hopefuls is filled to the brim with high-achieving, motivated, and competitive beings. Being involved in your community is one way to truly set yourself apart, while also learning the skills required to be an excellent physician.
The benefits of volunteering include gaining new experiences, building long-lasting and substantial relationships with others, self-discovery, networking, reaffirming your life's calling, having a sense of purpose and accomplishment, giving back to your community and, of course, helping others. Volunteering also allows you to work alongside and meet people who you might not otherwise have had the chance to interact with. Volunteering is an opportunity to gain perspective and build the skills that will one day make you an excellent and empathetic physician.
How Many Hours of Volunteering Do I Need For Medical School?
When it comes to service work, QUALITY outweighs quantity. It is more important to actually reflect on what you’ve learned and attained through your volunteering journey then to focus on the simple act of logging hours. Volunteering is an opportunity to discover that which you are truly passionate about.
Instead of perceiving service work as a rat-race to log an infinite number of hours in the hopes of impressing a medical school admission committee member, volunteering should be regarded as a step towards growth, exploration, and the adventure of discovering who we truly are as individuals. This ever-evolving journey of discovering what we are capable of when pursuing something that we are passionate about has unequivocal benefits when it comes to your surrounding environment and community as a whole! The act of service work should be a personal choice, one that speaks to YOUR ethos, a mandate that you believe in, and the part of your day that you most look forward to. If the type of activity that you’ve chosen to explore feels like it is one you need to “tolerate” for the greater good of your admissions application, then it probably isn't the right fit.
Although, there is really no formula, typically, if the activity is something you really care about, it is common to show that you had committed to this activity on a consistent basis for several years at least 10-15 hours/month. But again it is important to note that this is not set in stone. Some of our students who have gotten excepted had less than 10-15 hours/month some had more.
So, What Type of Volunteer Activities Should I Engage in as a Med School Hopeful?
Choose activities that satisfy the following criteria:
1) Type of Service/Volunteer Work:
When looking for volunteer experiences that you will be passionate about, there are two basic groups you should be looking at:
- Experiences DIRECTLY linked with a medical school application: Volunteer work with clinics, hospitals, camps/homes for the cognitively/physically disabled, nursing homes, etc.
- Experiences INDIRECTLY linked to healthcare: Volunteer work with organizations like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, child/adult tutoring, Habitat for Humanity, soup kitchens, teaching, etc. A lot of activities can fit into this category, depending on how you frame them during your application.
Choosing service work in a healthcare-related field may show a medical admissions committee that you have taken the time to explore and understand what it would mean to pursue a career in medicine. Conversely, choosing to explore service work that is indirectly related to medical care illustrates that you are truly interested in the act of serving and helping others. You should strive to try experiences in both categories.
2) Time Commitment:
Remember earlier when we stated that when it comes to service work, quality trumps quantity? This is absolutely true, but we also cannot ignore the numbers when it comes to medical school admission requirements. Admissions committees are looking for well-rounded individuals, and one of the best ways to show this is through a long-standing dedication to volunteer activities.
Quantitatively, medical schools suggest:
- AT LEAST 10-15 hours a month (give or take)
Medical School Admissions also view service work as a LONG-TERM commitment, where a prospective applicant has committed AT LEAST 6 months to a given organization. Making a long-term commitment shows that you are dedicated, an important quality in future physicians. If you’ve truly found your calling, and an activity that truly speaks to you, time should fly!
In an interview from a few years back, a Dean of an American medical school had stated that overseas volunteering, for lack of a better word, has become the “vogue” thing to do. Many prospective medical school applicants may think that volunteering overseas may give the applicant an edge, but for admissions officers, this type of experience may raise some flags. When considering overseas volunteer experiences, admissions committee members will be considering:
- Did this applicant use this opportunity to take advantage of a “trip,” or did they completely immerse themselves in a community, striving to fulfill the needs of marginalized and disenfranchised individuals, thereby gaining an understanding of the problems facing global medical care?
For a more in-depth consideration of overseas volunteer experiences and what to look for when selecting one, read this post.
To avoid any misinterpretation of your experience, volunteer in your OWN backyard! There are likely a ton of opportunities to be of service in your own community, and to try and become a part of re-building your own community from its roots demonstrates that as an applicant you are truly grounded, and understand what it means to be a contributing member of your own community.
4) Progression and Skill Building:
Look for experiences that will:
- Allow you to learn new skills or build on existing ones.
- Provide opportunities for leadership or taking on roles with increasing levels of responsibility.
- Challenge you and help you grow as a person.
Above all, choose activities that you are passionate about! This will make it far easier to fulfill the time commitment and remain dedicated.
Final Thoughts About Volunteering:
All in all, years later, after the admissions process, after successfully gaining acceptance and thereby completing my medical degree, I can definitely attest that my safe haven, and my personal moments of tranquility, regrouping, and re-setting all take place during the time I carve out to volunteer, not because I am OBLIGATED to, but because I have truly found my calling with these organizations. My journey in navigating my way through the world of giving back to my community is what has truly made me the person I am today, and allows me to aspire to continuously grow to be the best physician I can be. I hope that all of you all will find as much fulfillment and personal growth through your volunteer experiences as I have with mine!
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About the author:
Dr. Karim Wafa is a resident in anesthesiology and an Academic Consultant at BeMo.
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Your friends at BeMo