Volunteering is an important part of every medical school application, and it can help not only to build empathy as an applicant, but also to intensify your passion for healthcare and medicine. However, knowing where to start in getting volunteering experiences can be tricky. Depending on your location, you may find yourself overwhelmed by a sea of curated opportunities in hospitals or nursing homes, or you may be stuck searching your local area for impromptu positions. In this guide, I’ll break down the types of volunteering available, what you can expect from volunteering, and how to find positions that match your interests.
Types of Volunteering
So what kind of experience help you shine as an applicant? Let’s start by talking about the types of volunteering available to a pre-medical student. I would say that there are two main categories of pre-med volunteering experiences: clinical, and non-clinical.
Clinical experiences are any activities that directly expose you to healthcare (a good rule of thumb is that if you can smell the patients, then it is a clinical experience). Commonly you can gain clinical experiences in clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes/hospices. These experiences expose you to patients, their illnesses, and the healthcare environment. They can help you build empathy while building your understanding of what healthcare professionals do, showing medical schools that you know what you are signing up for.
Non-clinical activities are a great opportunity to show admissions communities your passions outside of medicine – its important to be more than a one-dimensional applicant. Non-clinical volunteering happens outside of the healthcare setting – and they may have nothing to do with medicine at all. Feel free to follow your passions: if you love animals, go volunteer at a local animal shelter. If teaching is your passion, hold free tutoring sessions. Or if you’re a wizard with with food and the spatula, go help out the local soup kitchen. These activities can be fun, immensely rewarding, and provide a much-needed break from studying for your classes.
Clinical or Non-Clinical Volunteering?
Now to the question you’ve all been thinking. Should I do clinical or non-clinical volunteering? The short answer is that you should do both. Since you are applying to medical school, clinical experiences tend to be a bit more important. That’s why I recommend spending at least two-thirds of your volunteering hours in healthcare-related roles while spending the remaining one-third on non-clinical volunteering activities that align with your interests.
What Can You Expect as a Volunteer?
Not all clinical experiences are created equal. Unless you don’t mind cleaning hospital beds and pushing wheelchairs, volunteering at a major hospital may not provide the clinical experiences you want. Hospitals tend to have the trained staff to perform patient care, and don’t want the additional responsibility or liability of exposing lesser-trained volunteers to their paying patients. Therefore when volunteering at a major hospital as an undergraduate, you can expect to work at the gift shop, provide comfort to patient families, and conduct clerical duties. There are obviously exceptions to this, but this is largely dependent on location and setting.
For more hands-on patient experiences, I would recommend you find a free healthcare clinic. These clinics tend to run solely by the work of volunteers, creating more opportunities to develop your medical skills. In these clinics, you will be allowed to conduct patient intake and perform triage. And the longer you volunteer, the more they will trust you to do (last week, I was asked to perform three prostate exams – I’m kind of their go-to prostate exam guy now).
Finding Volunteer Opportunities
Now, where do we even start? Finding volunteering opportunities can be daunting, and you may not always get the first position you apply for.
First, if you are currently enrolled at a university, schedule a meeting with your school’s pre-med or pre-health advisor. You are certainly not the first pre-med to come through those doors, so these advisors will usually have a list of available volunteering opportunities in your area. In addition, ask your pre-med friends where they volunteer and find out who you can contact to get started. And if you’re like me and constantly find a poodle on your lap, reach out to local animal shelters, and ask them how you can help!
Becoming a volunteer may not always be so simple, If you are starting out in a new position, you will probably be introduced to some paperwork, and even maybe an interview. Sometimes positions may be full, or you may not meet the organization’s requirements: don’t be discouraged, just apply somewhere else. There are opportunities all around you, so keep an open mind, and find what you enjoy!
Volunteering is immensely satisfying, and the relationships you will build can help motivate you to pursue a rigorous career in medicine. You are at a time where you can grow tremendously both as a person and as a future physician. So go scour your area for opportunities that will fuel your passion, and most importantly: have fun!
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