Aspiring medical students can do a number of things to be attractive candidates, such as scoring well on the MCAT or taking postbaccalaureate classes to boost a low science GPA. But sometimes it's work that can't be evaluated by a letter grade or numerical score that makes an applicant stand out.
Volunteer work falls in this category, experts say.
It has moved more to the forefront of admissions criteria because of the competency-based admissions process more schools are adopting, says Noreen Kerrigan, associate dean for student admissions at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine. This recent approach to the admissions process involves emphasizing a candidate's co-curricular activities and relevant experiences, among other things, and taking a less rigid approach for weighing a candidate's grades in classes such as chemistry and biology.
Doing volunteer work in a health care setting shows a student has tried to understand what it's like to have a career in medicine before committing to medical school.
"It's making sure they are ready to do this and equipped to do this," Kerrigan says. It also allows candidates to showcase something other than book smarts.
"We want to make sure we're not accepting brains on stilts," she says. "We want people with hearts."
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Medical school admissions staff look at how long a candidate volunteered and what the work entailed. To get volunteer experience that demonstrates a sincere interest in medicine and compliments other parts of an application, experts recommend candidates consider the following in selecting a volunteer opportunity.
1. Nature of the activity: Community service should be in line with a medical school application. Hospitals, supervised homes for developmentally disabled people and nursing homes are just a few places where hopeful M.D.s can get a feel for what doctors do and how to interact with patients.
Students who want to go the extra mile can take steps to become a more distinguished volunteer and focus on a specialized area of medicine.
"Lots of students coming into medical school get their EMT certification, or their certified nurse's aide certification," Kerrigan says.
Students can also look into volunteering at medical schools that interest them. Medical students at Einstein run a free clinic – the Einstein Community Health Outreach – that allows prospective students to participate.
"They volunteer along with our medical students," she says. "We have students in our class now who've volunteered at ECHO."
Even volunteering at organizations that aren't directly linked to medical care can be of great value, says Brandon Hunter, director of admissions at the Morehouse School of Medicine.
[Show compassion in your med school application.]
Hunter suggests students consider Habitat for Humanity, Big Brothers Big Sisters, soup kitchens and similar organizations that help disadvantaged people.
"It shows that you have an interest in just serving others," Hunter says.
If a prospective student is able to become a leader within the volunteer organization, that's also a plus, says Hunter. This role can be beneficial during their future M.D. career.
"When you look at the hospitals, typically the physicians are the leaders," he says.
2. Time: At least a year before filling out applications, students should spend a concerted amount of time on their volunteer activities, Hunter says. He suggests prospective students be mindful of balancing volunteer work with classes, jobs and other responsibilities to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
"I would say a minimum of at least 10 to 15 hours a month," he says.
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At the Einstein College of Medicine, prospective students are expected to think of their volunteer work as long-term commitments.
"We're looking for students to do at least six months somewhere," Kerrigan says.
3. Place: It's become in vogue to volunteer medical help in a developing nation, says Kerrigan. Students shouldn't assume this will give them an edge as applicants.
Overseas volunteer opportunities may only be available to students who have money to travel, Kerrigan notes, which isn't fair to those who don't have the financial resources.
"It is not necessary. People can stay in their own backyards and volunteer," she says.
Volunteering abroad can also add a small challenge for an admissions team.
"We have to figure out whether the applicant has been on a so-called tourist activity that happens to have a visit to a clinic involved, or are they sincerely and deeply involved in the needs of the people and understand what the problem is with international medical care," says James Willmore, associate dean for admissions and student affairs at the St. Louis University School of Medicine.
Volunteer work is often discussed during the interview portion of the admissions process. For students who volunteer abroad, Willmore has a special request.
"Tell me what your zip code is. And now tell me what the needs are for service where you live. And if they don't know that, that's really quite worrisome," he says. "Students need to think about what their needs are locally."
No matter where the student's volunteer activities take place or what they entail, medical school admissions experts emphasize that it should be done out of a student's need to serve others above all else.
"When students are volunteering some place, it really has to come from their heart," Kerrigan says. "It shouldn't be from gaming the system."
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