Volunteer experiences can make or break your med school application. These activities and commitments have great effect on medical school acceptance rates. Are you wondering why volunteering is important for premeds? Do you want to know the optimal number of hours of volunteering you need to stand out in your application? Would you like to find out what type of activities are best? Check out this blog to learn the answers to these questions and more!
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Why Volunteering is Important for PreMeds
Between maintaining an exceptional GPA, juggling extra-curricular activities and looking for research opportunities, the process of applying to medical school can leave you white-knuckled countless times a day. The answer to the age-old question, "How hard is it to get into medical school?" is - to put it briefly - "It's really hard!" On a practical level, volunteer hours are going to be an essential part of your profile as a premed applicant. After all, you will draw upon your volunteering experiences for both the AMCAS Work and Activities Section and your AMCAS Most Meaningful Experiences. But it’s not just about what looks good on paper – volunteering experience also helps to foster some of the abilities and skills a good physician needs.
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 – it emphasizes that you are also a well-rounded human being who can demonstrate selflessness, compassion, and altruism. Volunteering also provides opportunities to work with people in your community, teaching you valuable skills along the way. Being involved in your community is one way to truly set yourself apart, while also preparing you to be an excellent physician in your career.
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 than to focus on the simple act of logging hours. Volunteering is an opportunity to discover what 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, 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 for 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 accepted had less than 10-15 hours/month, while others had more.
Types of Volunteer Activities
When looking for volunteer experiences that you will be passionate about, there are two basic groups you should be looking at:
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.
Choosing Your Volunteer Activities
When choosing the right volunteer activities for you, keep the following criteria in mind:
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 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, which is 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 has become, for lack of a better word, the “vogue” thing to do. Many prospective medical school applicants may think that volunteering overseas could 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?
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.
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.
How to Find Volunteer Opportunities
It can sometimes be a bit tricky to know where to look for volunteer opportunities, especially if you’re just starting out. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Benefits of Volunteering
Volunteering doesn’t just benefit the people you serve – it also benefits you, too! Here are some of the benefits volunteering can offer:
- Gain new experiences. Have you ever worked in a soup kitchen before? Planted trees in a local park? Tutored at-risk youth? Volunteering can open you up to new experiences you have never had before, giving you the chance to explore new settings and activities. It may lead you to discover a new activity you really love, or a cause you will soon become passionate about. Remember that AAMC MSAR shows that most matriculants to medical schools have extensive background in extracurriculars.
- Self-Discovery. New experiences can also teach you new things about yourself. You may discover hidden talents and skills that you will finally get the chance to develop. You may also discover some of your personal strengths and weaknesses, and work to improve them. If, for example, you have always struggled with speaking to strangers, doing fundraising activities like calling donors or helping out at public charitable events can help you gain more confidence in your social skills.
- Learn new skills. Volunteering helps you develop both practical and personal skills. Medical schools often adhere to the national guidelines for essential attributes in aspiring physicians, such as the CanMEDS framework or the 15 Core Competencies. Volunteering activities will help you develop these competencies, such as service orientation, social skills, and ethical responsibility. Practical skills such as planning and fundraising can teach you about addressing social needs and the practicalities of running an organization. Volunteering also allows you to develop valuable interpersonal skills such as leadership, teamwork, and communication. As a premed student, developing all of these competencies will help prepare you for both medical school and your career as a physician.
- Building Relationships/Networking. Volunteering also allows you to meet and work alongside people you might not have had the chance to interact with otherwise. You may find a great new friend or mentor! The connections you form can lead to important personal and professional networks that you can draw upon for support, advice, or even opportunities later on. Learning how to build and maintain strong networks is key for anyone in the medical field, as medicine is often a team effort. Additionally, these people may become ideals candidates to write your medical school recommendation letters.
- Reaffirming your life's calling. Volunteering will help you reflect in new ways on the common medical school interview question, "Why do you want to be a doctor?". Volunteering is an opportunity to gain perspective and to determine what your passions are, and why. It can also introduce you to specific aspects of medicine that you feel drawn to, such as public health issues or geriatric care. Real-world exposure can help clarify the path you wish to take in a way classroom learning alone never will.
- A sense of purpose and accomplishment. Volunteering can bring balance to your life, boosting your mental well-being. While it is easy to get caught up in obsessively measuring individual accomplishments such as a high GPA and MCAT score, or personal awards, volunteering will remind you that some of the most meaningful accomplishments in your life will involve contributing to the greater good. As a physician, having a sense of greater purpose will be key to your success. A sense of purpose will also make volunteering feel rewarding for you, even when it is challenging.
- Giving back to your community. Making a meaningful difference in the lives of others helps to strengthen your ties to your community. In giving back, you will learn about your community on a deeper level, and end up with a stronger sense of belonging. Since every physician is an essential member of his/her community, learning how to best support and nurture your community will serve you well while practicing medicine.
Check out more tips about volunteering in our video:
All in all, years after the admissions process, after successfully gaining acceptance and thereby completing my medical degree, I can definitely attest that my personal moments of tranquility, regrouping, and re-setting all take place during the time I carve out to volunteer -- not because I am obliged 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 you will find as much fulfillment and personal growth through your volunteer experiences as I have with mine!
1. Why is volunteering important for a premed student?
Your volunteer experiences will form an important component of your medical school application. Volunteering helps you develop some of the key attributes and competencies medical schools look for in applicants, and will also demonstrate that you are a well-rounded, community-minded individual.
2. How many hours should I volunteer?
You should usually aim to commit to 10-15 hours a month, for at least six months, with an organization. Make sure you are choosing “quality over quantity” in pursuing activities that genuinely matter to you.
3. What types of volunteer activities should I do?
Most volunteer activities will fall into one of two categories. There are experiences directly linked to healthcare settings, such as volunteer work with clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, etc. Then there are experiences indirectly linked to healthcare, which include working with organizations like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, soup kitchens, teaching, etc.
4. Is it best to stick to volunteer activities related to medicine?
It is best to pursue a mix of activities both directly and indirectly linked to healthcare/medicine. While exposure to clinical settings is great, it is also important to not limit yourself to just what you think will look good on your medical school application. Choose activities you are passionate about to show your range.
5. How do I find volunteering activities?
You can find volunteer activities through various sources, such as friends and family, resources at your university, and the official website of your municipality. See “How to Find Volunteer Opportunities” for more details.
6. What are the benefits of volunteering?
Volunteering brings many benefits, such as helping you develop your core competencies and skills, introducing you to new people and experiences, and providing a sense of purpose. See “Benefits of Volunteering” for more details.
7. Are there volunteer activities I should not highlight in my medical school application?
Do not include an activity you do once or twice a year. If you volunteer in a soup kitchen only once a year on Christmas, this is not going to demonstrate dedication, commitment, and your ability to forge strong relationships. In your application, try to include activities you have had the chance to pursue for a prolonged period of time
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