MyMentor FAQs: Volunteering

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In short: 100 hours within the past four years. But please read on, for this is complicated.

Volunteering is an opportunity for applicants to communicate their level of engagement within their community, evaluate an applicant’s thought processes, understand an applicant’s interests, and gauge the maturity of an applicant. Applicants need to understand that the volunteering aspect of an application is really where one can set themselves apart from their peers. An applicant with 200 hours of volunteering that consisted of trail clean-up on weekends is not superior to an applicant with 50 hours of volunteer firefighter/EMS experience.

The quality of the volunteer service is absolutely critical. Quantity is important for “at a glance” statistics, but when two applicants are being compared, the quality will always win. Thus, it is likely best to have 100 hours (minimum) of volunteering, but err on the side of quality volunteering versus quantity. That being said, repeatedly participating in a recurring volunteer experience also reflects well on an applicant so finding a balance between quality and quantity is essential.

If one follows the advice in the FAQ about “Important Aspects to Consider When Choosing a Volunteer Experience,” applicants can choose volunteering opportunities that permit growth while providing a recreational benefit.

Clearly volunteering is about contributing to the community for altruistic purposes. However in the context of Medical School applications, there inevitably is a non-altruistic aspect of volunteering as it is a metric used to distinguish applicants from one another. This is not meant to denigrate volunteer work, but merely illustrate an uncomfortable truth about the application process.

Therefore, there are three factors one should use when screening potential volunteering applications: synergy, growth, and enjoyment. 

A volunteering opportunity should be synergistic with your current life. This means one should seek a volunteering opportunity that satisfies more than one goal for your application at one time. For instance, if there is a community award presented to a volunteer for a local event, that opportunity rewards the applicant with not only the volunteer hours, but the potential for a community award as well. Thus, the applicant has doubled the accomplishments in volunteering (Hours and Award) by judiciously choosing that volunteering opportunity. 

Growth is important in a volunteering opportunity. Almost every interview will include a form of growth or adaptation question. These questions will ask how the applicant overcame a hurdle or about a time where the applicant experienced personal growth. For applicants without a great personal growth story, choosing a volunteering opportunity that offers personal growth will help in this instance. Growth is not limited to personal growth, but also to educational knowledge as well. Choosing a volunteering opportunity that allows you to strengthen weak academic areas can help grow your intellect and prepare you for medical school.

Finally, enjoyment is probably the most critical aspect of volunteering in this context. You are a crazy busy pre-med applicant, so every spare minute of time counts. Imagine if you could turn the volunteering portion of your application into something you would already do in your free time. Imagine you enjoy hiking on weekends, so you volunteer at the state park to clean up trash on the trails. You have successfully parlayed a relaxing hobby into a volunteering opportunity.

The proper mixture of the above factors is applicant dependent. While altruism is the primary goal of all volunteering opportunities, applicants should be meticulous in choosing experiences that help tell their story to the admissions committee.

Clinical volunteering can take numerous forms. It really is up to the applicant and the level of interest and motivation. The recent pandemic has halted many clinical volunteering opportunities. This makes it more important than ever for applicants to be creative and tenacious with finding clinical volunteering opportunities. 

In general, clinical volunteering includes volunteering at a hospital, hospice facility, some medical retirement centers, and clinics. These positions are generally more of an administrative or assistant-type role. In medical retirement centers, this could be assisting patients with art therapy or visiting with residents. In the clinical setting, this could mean helping at the front desk admitting patients, transporting patients, or babysitting toddlers for parents undergoing exams. It all depends on the facility and their level of comfort and experience with volunteer programs. 

Non-Clinical volunteering is an opportunity for applicants to give back to their local community. These volunteering experiences are somewhat divorced from medicine and focus primarily on the betterment of the community as a whole. Examples include volunteering in shelters, non-profits, or food pantries.

These opportunities are generally easier to find and are accommodating to inexperienced volunteers. If you are just starting volunteering, these non-clinical experiences might be the way to gauge your interests and begin your volunteering journey.

Ideally a candidate has an extracurricular activity that permits or requires volunteering such as Boy Scouts (BSA), Venturing, Girl Scouts, Campfire, or Civil Air Patrol. These organizations have badges/accomplishments that are largely driven by the number of volunteer hours. Since volunteering is so critical to advancement in these organizations, members are well educated concerning volunteering opportunities within the local area. Even for non-members, these organizations will gladly welcome outside assistance with the myriad of community service projects they execute on an ongoing basis. Getting in touch with them is as simple as an internet search for the desired organization and your locale. Contact information is generally found within the top five results.

Pre-Med counsellors (Academic Counsellors) are great resources to leverage for volunteering opportunities. As they understand an applicant’s requirements, they are an excellent avenue into non-clinical volunteering.

For clinical volunteering, contacting a healthcare facility directly is an excellent way of finding opportunities. Most hospital/healthcare systems actually have a dedicated volunteering page on their website which can be found via a simple web search. They are used to pre-med students trying to find volunteer time and are more than happily to put you to work!

Community centers and churches also often organize volunteering events. If you belong to a church or frequent a community center, bulletin boards and newsletters are great locations to find volunteering opportunities, not to mention network!

When seeking volunteering opportunities for a medical school application, one must look at the meta context of the organization and decide accordingly. Within our society, there are organizations, movements, activist campaigns, etc. which can be quite polarizing for people. An organization that is widely accepted in one part of the country, might not be as well tolerated in another part of the country. When volunteering opportunities are offered at a potentially polarizing organization or a non-polarizing organization, I counsel non-polarizing. This takes a great deal of maturity and insight for applicants. With this in mind, do not let this advice stop you from volunteering altogether, just take it in moderation and understand some volunteering opportunities might not be as useful as one may think.

Please do not do this. No one will stop you from doing so, but we would advise heavily against it. As aforementioned, volunteering is about altruism. Volunteering in the context of a medical school application is altruism followed by demonstrating the quality and content of your character. While a school might not know about those travel hours, it is somewhat antithetical to the altruistic nature of volunteering.

In short, no. Schools place a lot of trust in applicants being truthful on their applications. However awards, honors, or recognition for volunteering that makes it into your application provides an added level of validation to an admissions committee. Remember, you must be able to speak about your experiences, including your volunteering, and a red flag to admissions committees is the inability to do so. 

If a Letter of Recommendation cites volunteer hours or that the applicant received a volunteering award from the community, these all add up as separate items within an application. They serve to reinforce the fact that the applicant volunteered. Instead of a committee seeing the volunteering reference once, they see it multiple times throughout the application. This helps craft and support a narrative that the applicant thoroughly contributes to the community.

To re-address the question, proof is not needed, but proof provided in the right fashion will strategically strengthen an application.

No, this would be more of a work experience. However work experience is absolutely essential to include in an application. Be sure to delineate what you did as a volunteer and what you did as an employee/contractor.

The volunteering “bolus” of 24 hours in a weekend can be viewed as “resume-boosting” and not a genuine attempt to volunteer. If you have the option and capability to volunteer continuously over a long period of time, the admissions committee will see an applicant who is committed to an organization and works hard. The weekend “bolus” may be viewed as simply an attempt to meet an admissions requirement and not an internalization of the principle.

That said, do not turn down that weekend volunteering opportunity! All that is being said is when one opportunity is compared to the other, the longer term volunteering strategy is more attractive if you can only choose one.

Info Source: AMCAS

Additional Information

How much volunteer work do I need to get into medical school? Well, how much do you enjoy volunteering? If you do not enjoy volunteering, do not focus on it and do something you actually enjoy. If you do enjoy volunteering, volunteer with an organization that is related to healthcare or will give you some exposure to medicine.

Strategic, pro-tip: Remote Area Medical (RAM) sets up free clinics throughout the US. Volunteering at their clinics is fun and provides some exposure to medicine. Medical schools love to see RAM on applications. RAM provides exposure to medicine as well as a big issue in medicine: unequal care and access.

Medical school applicants need not just exposure to medicine but awareness of what is going on in healthcare. Many of our classmates actually held leadership positions within RAM. Hopefully by now, you will have realized that the key to successfully getting accepted to medical school is not scoring higher on the MCAT or getting a higher GPA but in making meaningful, strategic decisions.

Do things you are interested in that give you exposure to medicine. Start learning how to kill multiple birds with one stone. Efficiency is key! Less is more if that “less” provides more meaningful experiences!