It’s one thing to say you want to be a doctor so that you can help people, but it’s another thing to actually do it. Admissions committees need to see that you put your money where your mouth is. Volunteering your time and energy to a worthy cause shows admissions committees that you’re serious about improving the lives of others. While the pay is good, being a doctor is an inherently altruistic vocation. Schools want to accept students who understand this, which is why they prize the experience of being an extracurricular volunteer so highly.
Our guide to extracurricular volunteering will discuss what volunteering entails, how to find volunteering opportunities, the benefits and drawbacks of volunteering, as well as how you can make the most of extracurricular volunteering.
Volunteering as an Extracurricular
The term ‘volunteering’ is quite vague, as it could refer to many different things. You could be a volunteer EMT or a volunteer research assistant, but it’s more likely that you’ll find a paid position as an EMT or be working with some kind of grant as a research assistant.
Volunteering has a lot of different flavors. You might volunteer for one-off annual events every year. For example, if The Sun Bus comes by your campus to raise awareness about skin cancer. Each month or each year, you may get to participate in that event. If you do that over four years, it illustrates your commitment and dedication.
There are so many volunteering experiences and humanitarian causes out there, and since your calling as a doctor is to help others, volunteering your time to a good cause is a must. These unique opportunities, which are sometimes outside of the traditional medical setting, will leave lasting memories and give you plenty to talk about during interviews.
Search for non-profits or community projects in your area. Do you want to dedicate your time to fighting poverty, caring for or mentoring children at home or abroad, or assisting in disaster or refugee relief? If you plan on taking a gap year or traveling during the summer, consider volunteering internationally to experience a different cultural perspective. Who can most benefit from your expertise?
With that said, be wary of committing to too many different things. You can only highlight 15 experiences in the Work and Activities section of your application, so including any more than two or three volunteering experiences will take away from your research and clinical experiences. Plus, if you’re working as an extracurricular EMT or research assistant, the time you have available to volunteer will be very limited.
It’s best if your volunteering experience augments your other activities. For example, if you’re an extracurricular EMT, you’ll work with the homeless a lot. Regularly volunteering at a soup kitchen for years is an excellent complement to working as an EMT. It supports your narrative that you want to help the less fortunate and shows your commitment to the population you want to serve. It’s a great story to tell an admissions committee.
Or if you’re working as an extracurricular research assistant, volunteering at a hospital or free care clinic shows that you made an effort to experience hospital life. You can be that academic, cerebral person, but you can also be on the frontlines of medical care.
Volunteering should be a complement to who you are as a student and as an employee of whatever you’re doing. The challenge is filtering through the good and bad volunteering opportunities. This is when it’s important to go to your premed or pre-health advisor and ask what the highest-yield volunteer experiences are according to other students. Talk to upper year students and ask about their volunteering experiences. What was most meaningful for them? Why did they enjoy that experience in particular?
Ultimately, what matters most is that you’re passionate about the type of volunteering work you’re signing up for so that you can dive in with enthusiasm, energy, and dedication. It may take time to find a position that can develop your skills, enrich your application, and be something you enjoy (or at least don’t dread doing), but it will be worth it in the end. If you know an opportunity isn’t working for you, continue your research to find a better fit—one that you can commit to long-term.
How to Find Volunteer Work
Since there are so many volunteering opportunities to choose from, the difficult part isn’t finding a position—it’s finding the ones that are truly meaningful to you.
Unlike research experience and clinical exposure, where you’re limited to what your school has available, you’ll have more than enough volunteering opportunities to choose from.
The main avenues for finding volunteer opportunities are:
- Asking fellow classmates and upper year students about their volunteer experiences.
- Asking your program advisors and premed clubs for recommendations.
- Going to local clinics and hospitals to ask if they need help.
Experiment with a few, but once you figure out what you like, commit to a couple and discard the rest. You only have so much time for unpaid experiences, so choose meaningful opportunities that will augment your clinical exposure and application narrative.
Limit the trial and error by speaking with your advisors as well as senior students. Ask about the student experience, the environment, and the people you’ll be working with. But know that even with this guidance, it can take time to find an opportunity you feel passionate about.
Once you find an opportunity you like, work to grow and expand in your role.
For example, stocking the shelves at a hospital every week may feel unfulfilling; however, it could open the door to being a care coordinator at a free clinic, helping care for people who don’t have health insurance. This will immerse you in the clinical environment, allowing you to work alongside residents, nurses, and doctors.
Keep in mind that some medical schools will ask how you specifically plan to help underserved populations in your career. Volunteering with an organization that serves traditionally underserved populations can help prove your commitment to doing just that.
While it’s true that students often gain clinical exposure when completing their volunteer work, volunteering is not limited to the clinic. Take a close look at your previous experiences to determine what application gaps can be addressed through volunteer work.
The Benefits of Volunteering
Next, let’s discuss the benefits of volunteering. You may not be paid in a monetary sense, but the experience you gain is invaluable.
Build the Narrative of Your Application
First, and most importantly, volunteering can help you establish the overall narrative of your application. What’s the story you want to convey to admissions committees?
For example, let’s say you want to show admissions committees you care deeply about helping the less fortunate. You are currently working as an EMT and often work with the homeless. Regularly volunteering at a soup kitchen is an excellent complement to working as an EMT, as it supports your narrative that you want to help the less fortunate and shows your commitment to the population you want to serve.
What’s currently missing from your story? Use your volunteering experiences to augment your other activities and overall narrative.
Opens the Doors
Second, volunteering opens the doors to meeting people who share your values as well as experiences you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else.
If you’re volunteering in a hospital or clinic, you’ll get to work with medical students, residents, nurses, pharmacists, and doctors. You’ll get to see how a hospital operates and pick the brains of people a few years further than you in their own medical journey—people who could one day be your colleagues.
When I was volunteering at my university hospital, I was able to hit three birds with one stone. I was volunteering, doing clinical research, and interacting with patients. By combining these different experiences into one, my volunteering time became that much more valuable.
It was through this experience that I got exposed to neurology and neurosurgery, which helped solidify my interest in neuroscience. I got to explore that curiosity and see what it was actually like to work as a practicing physician. I wasn’t just shadowing doctors, I was enrolling patients in a clinical study alongside them. I was even able to observe some procedures. This type of real world experience is much harder to find outside of volunteering.
Opportunity to Stand Out
Third, volunteering gives you the opportunity to stand out.
It’s easy to separate yourself from the competition through volunteering since many people don’t take it as seriously. Without the paycheck, it’s common for students to slack off, show up late, or put other commitments first. They do it to check a box, not because they’re passionate for and invested in the work.
The more you put into volunteering, the more you get out. Impress your supervisors enough, and they’ll remember you down the road. By putting in the work, you can get noticed and secure a strong letter of recommendation.
Volunteering allows the people you’re working with to get to know you, your enthusiasm, and your work ethic.
Many Different Opportunities Available
Next, unlike more competitive extracurriculars, like research, there’s no shortage of volunteer opportunities. You’ll find a wide variety of options, and since you’re donating your time, there usually aren’t many hoops to jump through to gain a position. Many opportunities are entry level, and if you find something you enjoy, you can work your way up from there, potentially even securing a leadership role.
That said, the huge number of opportunities is both a blessing and a curse. So many options make it difficult to pick just one or two, and you may feel some FOMO for all of the opportunities you don’t have time for.
The Drawbacks of Volunteering
Speaking of negatives, let’s discuss the drawbacks of volunteering.
Not a Paid Position
First off, volunteering is not a paid position. You are donating your time and energy to a worthy cause. As a premed, you have very little time or money to donate. Not only are you not getting paid for your time, but you’re also missing out on other opportunities that do pay.
Not making money for the hours upon hours you’ll spend volunteering is a definite drawback. But the beauty of volunteer work is that you’re often getting a better experience where you have more opportunities to excel. This is the tradeoff and the balancing act premeds must manage.
When evaluating volunteer opportunities, don’t only consider the lack of pay—think of what you’ll gain in return.
You May Feel Underappreciated
Another downside is that you may not feel as appreciated as you would in other paid positions. You’re often doing the grunt work as a volunteer. You might go many days without hearing words of appreciation or affirmation from the people or community you’re working with. This can sink your self-esteem and enthusiasm.
It can be frustrating when you’re working hard, taking other people’s flak, and often doing a job that others don’t want to do, all while not getting paid. This can wear you down and weigh on you.
You also may not see the impact of your work, as certain volunteering experiences won’t feel as rewarding as others. If you cannot see how your commitment is helping, your interest and motivation may wane.
Tips for Getting the Most Out of Volunteering
Despite the disadvantages, volunteering is a huge opportunity for premeds. It is critical that you don’t look at volunteering as a box to check off but rather as a chance to network, expand your skills, and build upon your application narrative.
Let’s go over 4 tips for getting the most out of volunteering.
1 | Don’t Overcommit
First, don’t overcommit. Although there are countless opportunities to volunteer, you can’t do everything. Picking one or two opportunities and committing to them fully both gives you a richer experience and looks much better on your application.
Examine your schedule closely to figure out how much time you realistically have to give. When you are helping those in need, it can be tough to say no because you want to help. But taking on more than you can handle hinders your schooling, application, mental and physical wellness, and ability to give your all to your volunteer work.
Remember every “yes” you commit to is saying “no” to something else. You only have so many hours a day. You must intentionally choose how you spend your time while keeping up with your regular coursework.
Overcommitting and overextending yourself will lead to burnout. And if you’re burnt out, you’re not going to be able to help anyone.
2 | Treat Volunteering Like a Job
Second, treat volunteering experiences like a job.
Not being paid for your volunteering position doesn’t make it any less important than your other commitments. You must take volunteering seriously, as people are depending on you. Plus, it’s your own integrity and possible letters of recommendation on the line.
We’re not saying this will be easy. Volunteering work often lacks the structure and organization of a job or coursework since it’s usually being managed by other volunteers.
But you can use this to your advantage. Volunteering organizations are often understaffed. If you notice gaps in how things are run, see if there’s an opportunity for you to take on more ownership and responsibility. Do they need a person to coordinate clinic availability and scheduling? Do they need someone to restock supplies? Are they in need of a leader? How can you help solve the problems the organization is facing without stepping on anyone’s toes?
Admissions committees love to see students take on leadership roles. It shows initiative and demonstrates the kind of skills it takes to become a successful doctor.
3 | Show Up With Passion and Energy
Third, show up with passion and enthusiasm. Be someone other people want to be around. Medicine is a team sport, and volunteering is a great opportunity to hone your social skills and work with the public.
You never know what each day will bring. For example, if you work in a free clinic, you could learn how to take blood pressure. This is a skill you can actually apply to patient care, which can inspire you to push yourself further and deepen your medical knowledge early on.
The more energy, enthusiasm, proactiveness, and professionalism you bring to volunteering, the more you will be noticed by your supervisors. They will likely aim to return the favor by offering to teach you a new skill or writing you a strong letter of recommendation.
4 | Treat Everyone With Empathy
Lastly, treat everyone with empathy, and remember your job is to help, not judge. The population you’re serving may not be particularly grateful for you, and the people you work with may be stressed or overextended. Be patient, and be kind.
All connections and relationships are important. You never know who you will meet, and you never know who will see you on a bad day and remember it. Lead with empathy when dealing with each person you interact with. It won’t always be easy, and people will try your patience, but dealing with difficult people in a calm and empathetic way is an invaluable experience to take with you into medical school and beyond.
The Purpose of Extracurriculars—What Schools Look For
Although it’s the fifth section of your application, your extracurriculars (Work and Activities) are the first place admissions committees look to get a sense of your motivation, interests, personality, and if you fit the mold of the kind of student they’re looking for.
You are able to include as many as 15 premed experiences in the AMCAS Work and Activities section, ranging from honors to volunteering experiences to research to employment and more. Below each activity, you will have the chance to briefly explain the impact each activity had on you and your decision to pursue a career in medicine.
Admissions committees want to ensure the students they accept know what they’re getting into. A wide range of activities shows that your interests are well-rounded and that you have the skills and experience necessary to face the challenges you’ll be up against in medical school.
For the most part, admissions committees are looking for activities in a few core areas:
- Research experience
- Clinical exposure
- Community involvement
Demonstrating well-roundedness is essential, but you do not have to spend the same amount of time in each of these areas. It’s much more valuable to choose activities you are genuinely passionate about. This way, you’re much more likely to take an active role in the activity, perhaps in a leadership capacity. Medical schools want strong leaders in their student body, so demonstrating your ability to lead a team will be extremely attractive to admissions committees.
Choosing a variety of experiences you are genuinely excited by gives admissions committees a better picture of who you are, what you’re capable of, your values, and how you will enrich their campus.
For more information, read our AMCAS Work and Activities Section Guide. For osteopathic applicants, read our AACOMAS Experiences and Achievements Guide, and for Texas medical school applicants, we have a TMDSAS Activities Section Guide.
How to Choose Your Extracurricular Activities
Choosing extracurricular volunteering activities you actually care about and are willing to fully invest in is a must. If you choose something you don’t feel fulfilled by, the hours are going to pass very slowly, and your lack of enthusiasm will not go unnoticed.
Ask yourself: What are you hoping to gain from the experience? Who in your community or the world do you most want to help? Finding volunteer opportunities is easy; finding ones you have a genuine passion for is more difficult. Take care to find the volunteering opportunities that mean the most to you, and then stick with them. Medical schools care about the length of time you’ve spent volunteering with an organization, not the variety of your volunteering experiences.
While volunteering looks great on an application, don’t prioritize it at the expense of not gaining enough research or clinical exposure. Admissions committees want to see that you understand what you’re getting yourself into. Dedicating your time to helping others is a big part of being a doctor, but research and clinical exposure is where you get into more of the nitty-gritty experience of medicine.
Keep in mind that you can only mention 15 experiences and activities. Choose one or two volunteering experiences to include, but not more than three.
Become a Well-Rounded Applicant
Many applicants make the mistake of believing the Work and Activities section isn’t as important as the other sections of their application, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The experiences section gives admissions committees an idea of who you are, if you will make meaningful contributions to their student body, and whether or not you have the experience to know you want to pursue a medical career.
If your dream is to become a doctor, be sure to check out the Med School Insiders Premed Roadmap to Medical School Acceptance course. We cover the nuances and details of how to be a stand out premed, including course scheduling, extracurriculars beyond research, common mistakes and pitfalls to avoid, and our tactics to securing full scholarships to top medical schools. This is the guide we wish we had back as premeds ourselves.
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