Subjects based on numbers are straightforward. There’s no room for ambiguity in math or chemistry, which is part of why you enjoy those disciplines. You wouldn’t be the first medical school-bound student to feel this way. But it’s also going to be in your best interest to accept that not everything is so straightforward.
If you’ve begun the early stages of the medical school application process, you may have already noticed that programs don’t always offer clear guidelines for everything. This is particularly true for volunteer work. While you know those experiences are important, you aren’t certain where to begin. You wonder how many volunteer hours for medical school will give you the type of experience you need.
Before you get too concerned about the number of hours, though, it’s important to understand why volunteer experience is important. It’s not just about checking a box.
Why is volunteer experience important for aspiring medical students?
Believe it or not, there are a few reasons why medical school admission committees value community service. Maintaining sustained involvement in volunteer activities makes it clear you aren’t just pursuing an MD on a whim. Medical school is rigorous. Programs don’t want to risk making the mistake of admitting students who aren’t prepared to overcome the inherent challenges.
“The cost of medical schools to train each physician is high,” says Dr. Jared Heathman of Your Family Psychiatrist. “They want students who are dedicated to succeed.”
"The cost of medical schools to train each physician is high."
Additionally, programs want to know you have the type of commitment to patient service that physicians need to be successful. This is why it’s usually a good idea to complete some volunteer work in a clinical setting.
“Pre-medical students must realize it’s not enough to say they want to be a physician—they must demonstrate it in their activities,” says Dr. Candice Williams, Anesthesiologist and founder of Premed Consultant Blog.
Bear in mind that a completed application should include clinical experience, even if it’s not considered volunteer work. Medical schools look for candidates who have shadowed physicians or been otherwise involved in patient care. Dr. Williams also notes that working as a medical scribe, which is a paid position, can help strengthen your application.
How many volunteer hours for medical school is ideal?
There is no hard-and-fast rule on how many volunteer hours for medical school applications is standard. Given the reasons medical schools like to see community service in the first place, this makes sense.
“Volunteer work shouldn’t be a chore or a checkbox to achieve,” Dr. Heathman offers, “so there is no minimum requirement.”
"Volunteer work shouldn’t be a chore or a checkbox to achieve."
More than anything, you should aim for balance when participating in community service. Volume does matter to a certain extent, but so does the quality of your involvement.
“I feel the mantra should be quality and quantity,” Dr. Williams offers. “The goal is to demonstrate a firm interest and commitment to pursuing medicine.” She suggests you find activities you’re truly interested in, and try to maintain involvement for at least a year.
What types of volunteer experiences are out there?
Admissions committees are interested in seeing candidates who demonstrate the 15 core competencies. “Any activity that shows commitment to a group of people or service that aligns with the student’s interest is acceptable,” Dr. Williams explains. Just keep in mind that you’ll need to seek other experiences involving patient exposure if you’re primarily involved in nonmedical volunteer work.
"Any activity that shows commitment to a group of people or service that aligns with the student’s interest is acceptable."
With that in mind, let’s explore some examples of community service you might consider. And remember that this is just a taste. You can find even more opportunities simply by researching nonprofit organizations in your area.
1. Contributing your talents at a hospital or clinic
Hospitals and clinics not only offer volunteer positions, they rely on them. Opportunities can include playing music, cuddling infants in the neonatal intensive care unit, visiting terminally ill patients, greeting hospital guests, and more.
Health care facilities take these services seriously, and they expect volunteers to as well. Many of these organizations require a formal background check, certain immunizations, and a minimum commitment of several months before they’ll even consider you. Dr. Williams mentions there are also volunteer opportunities with free clinics and mobile clinics.
2. Participating in a medical service trip
Many physicians are involved in service trips, but pre-med students also have plenty of opportunities to do their part. Depending on the volunteer trip, students may be able to shadow physicians, take patients’ vital signs, and even treat minor wounds. Experiences range in duration and price, so you can choose ones that work for you.
3. Volunteering as an emergency medical technician
Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) provide emergent medical care and transport to patients outside of the hospital. Something particularly notable about EMT experience is it requires a lot of time. You need to complete a course and pass both a knowledge exam and a skills exam to become certified.
Just note that this type of work doesn’t provide hospital experience. Because of this, Dr. Williams mentions that most students will need to seek other volunteer activities as well.
4. Working with organizations that serve people in need
There are countless organizations that are dedicated to assisting disadvantaged individuals. There are nonprofits that serve free meals, provide and build housing, deliver supplies to families that have been through some sort of emergency, and so on. While most opportunities in this arena fall firmly under the nonmedical category, they’re fantastic ways to get involved in causes you’re passionate about.
5. Volunteering at a nursing home
Nursing homes are always looking for motivated people to interact with residents and help host events. Social isolation among elderly individuals is a well-known issue, and some evidence indicates it can result in negative health outcomes. Spending time with older individuals is clearly important. And many volunteers find their experiences to be both enjoyable and rewarding.
Make your final medical school preparations
The most competitive medical school applicants have strong academics, a true passion for medicine, and a desire to serve others. Volunteering is one of the best ways to demonstrate that commitment to service. But it’s not so much how many volunteer hours for medical school you need as it is the quality of those experiences. Long-term commitments can help you develop key skills and may even result in a great letter of recommendation.
It’s also worth remembering that you shouldn’t pursue more volunteer experiences if it means risking your academic performance. Grades and scores on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) are among the most important criteria schools evaluate. If you have yet to take the MCAT, you’ll want to start preparing sooner rather than later.
Learn more about this exam and how to be successful by reading our article “How Long Is the MCAT? And 4 Other Things You Need to Know to Be Prepared.”
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