Are you interested in volunteering this summer? Whether you’re in the midst of volunteering or considering it, our tips to succeed when volunteering will help you make the most of these important months.
While this post is primarily aimed at undergraduate students applying to medical school, the same concepts should apply to anyone who is spending time giving back to their community this summer. This includes anyone applying for advanced medical degrees or even those looking ahead towards residency.
1 | Understand Why You Are Volunteering
Don’t look at your volunteer work as another mandatory checkbox to tick off when going through the litany of requirements for applying to medical school or doctorate programs. It is crucial to remember that the other people involved, including the preceptors and those you are aiming to help, are depending on you.
For this reason, only take volunteering opportunities you yourself are also passionate about. This way, you will be just as interested and invested as your peers.
It is always clear when students volunteering or shadowing are doing it for the wrong reasons. There is a major difference between working with someone who is interested in what you want to teach them and someone who is only in it to satisfy extracurricular hours.
Of course, we all must do things we do not want to do, but that being said, it’s best to stay involved and interested, particularly in volunteering tasks that entail working with patients. Remember, you are there to help them, not just yourself.
2 | Manage Your Time and Mental Health
As students, most of you will be constantly stressed during the school year, trying to juggle classes, research, and what little time you have left for yourselves. Thus, it is not surprising that the little time you have off during the summer is precious and goes quickly.
I remember wanting to travel, spend time with my friends, and relax as much as possible between each semester. I found it helpful to budget my time wisely and not overdo things.
All the fun plans you have for your time away from classes are key factors in the battle to maintain proper mental health while preparing yourself for a long career in medicine. It is important that you don’t sacrifice your own health in order to volunteer to help others; after all, your goal is to spend a lifetime healing and caring for people.
If I knew I had a particularly busy week ahead, I would avoid scheduling a bunch of volunteer shifts and make up for it in the future. Much like those who are volunteering for something they are not passionate about, it is also clear when a volunteer’s mind is elsewhere. If you do not think you can be fully present for the task ahead, it is better to reserve your energy for the next time you can come in to help.
3 | Treat Volunteering as a Job and Remain Professional
The issues above are brought about by the fact that volunteering opportunities are unpaid work, often managed by someone who is also volunteering. This type of opportunity can lack the organization and structure of a job or coursework. Hence, people often get sloppy and treat it as something that can be blown off or done without putting in their full effort. Again, that mentality goes to the “checking boxes” of applying to medical school or higher education.
Those who come to volunteer work with a clear task and goal in mind are always more respected. Even for the most simple and menial task, show up ready to help and make someone’s day (or life) better.
This will often lead you to find a new passion or learn a new skill—things that you can carry on with you beyond the confines of that experience. I first learned how to suture lacerations while volunteering in a clinic for the uninsured population of my community.
By being present and motivated, those above you (in rank) will hopefully take notice and aim to reward your professional and diligent attitude by giving something back to you in the form of teaching or recommendations.
4 | Enjoy Yourself and Lean Into the Experience
This goes without saying, but volunteering should be fun! There is no reason this should be a grueling task. For those of us who are truly dedicated to clinical medicine, volunteering is one of the few times we get to help others without being weighed down by bureaucracy or meaningless paperwork.
Learn to enjoy working with others who need your help—be it those who need medical care, research volunteering, or otherwise. As with any task, you will get a lot more out of it if you are enjoying yourself.
5 | Look for Opportunities
Any time you are assigned a task, look for opportunities. Often, you will find that you can achieve a higher level of involvement in patient care, no matter what your role is or what type of volunteering you are doing, if you look for opportunities to help solve challenges. Volunteering organizations can be understaffed or may have unresolved issues that no one has had the time to solve. Look forward to these issues as a way to make your mark.
Similarly, volunteering is a great way to build strong relationships and meet like-minded preceptors and mentors. Developing bonds with people who care about a task as much as you do but who have a slightly more advanced outlook can help propel your own education.
Most medically-oriented people have an inherent love for teaching and a passion for their craft and knowledge. Use this to your advantage by finding ways to enhance your own life beyond the joy of helping others.
Some of the best learning I have done and many of the life-defining conversations and experiences I have had came through being at the right place at the right time. Volunteering for something you care about deeply could be the opportunity that opens the right doors and propels your journey to becoming a doctor forward.
There is no answer in the foreseeable future for managing the stress of applying to advanced medical degrees, be it medical school, physician’s assistant school, advanced nursing degrees, and residency beyond a doctorate program. For some, the crushing level of commitment it takes to achieve success in these endeavors can be a source of bitterness and resentment towards the whole process.
I urge you not to think of volunteering as just another task to get done so that you can get to the next step. If you are someone who cannot find joy in any of the opportunities around you, then consider finding paid employment or research positions to fill your time and application instead.
Volunteering should be a fun and exciting time in your life, and that is easiest to achieve if you find something you are passionate about. We all find our passions eventually, and expanding your mind and education through as many opportunities as you can will help you do that. Approach every volunteer experience with that in mind and try to make the most of your time making healthcare better.
Follow the Med School Insiders blog for more content like this, including our 5 Tips for Summer Research Success and a Month by Month Medical School Application Timeline.