A better question to ask would be “how does my volunteer hours for medical school fit within my medical school application?” As Noreen Kerrigan, Assistant Dean of Albert Einstein’s College of Medicine says, medical schools “want to make sure we are not accepting brains on stilts. We want people with hearts”. Instead of checking off that you completed x amount of volunteer hours for medical school, ask yourself:
This is your chance to share with the medical school admissions committee a personal volunteer experience to show them your traits of altruism, empathy, and care.
As you are working on your AMCAS application, think about the overall picture of the type of person you are trying to present in front of the committee. You want to present as much of you as possible, whether that be your selflessness, your compassion, your kindness etc. Instead of asking yourself “what counts as volunteer work for med school?” ask yourself “what volunteer work have I done that highlights (insert trait) I want medical school committees to know about me?”.
One of the best ways you can show medical school committees your personal qualities is through sharing a volunteer experience with them. For example, you can highlight a volunteer experience for med school in your “Most Meaningful Experience” sub-section. To get a good overview of this section, check out this article first. The article gives you some great tips on how to start planning your AMCAS “Most Meaningful Experience” section.
Once you have an experience you want to write about, you are now ready to go into more details on how you can actually put these tips to action. Let’s go through an example of how Applicant A, Jonny Amcas, uses this AMCAS Meaningful Experience worksheet to break down the process of his volunteering experience for med school.
Jonny’s first step is to do a “brain dump,” and start writing about his experience with the Medical Brigade in the most relevant sections of the worksheet. Jonny Amcas is not trying to be a perfectionist or to create well crafted sentences at this stage of writing. He is just writing down a few notes that he remembered about his Medical Brigade volunteer trip that made an impact on him. This process is so Jonny can get whatever it is in his head down on paper. He can worry about organizing it to make sense later.
Jonny’s next step is to use the worksheet as a guide to start writing more complete sentences about his volunteer experience. He will rearrange the sentences later to make more sense when he starts writing his final draft. Jonny’s volunteering experiences for med school document may look something like this:
My most meaningful experience is: I spent a summer in Honduras volunteering in primary healthcare clinics. I helped physicians provide care to underserved, rural communities. I helped triage patients, collect vitals, and distribute medicine in the pharmacy.
I learned from this experience: Physicians need to have great communication skills in order to gain the trust of their patients quickly on personal issues that affect their patient's mental, physical, and emotional health. The diagnosis is important, but more important is how they communicate and support their patient through their worries about their health and wellbeing.
I grew from this experience because: Before this experience I thought medicine was a complicated diagnosis puzzle. Patients tell you about their symptoms and doctors figure out the diagnosis and treatment. After this experience, I realize that a physician's role is not only to treat a sickness, but to care for their patients.
This will make me a better physician because: It has shown me how important establishing a personal connection with my patient is just as important as figuring out the diagnosis. It further proves the saying that, "people don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care." I will continue to look back at this experience when I am running around seeing 40 patients, and remind myself that more important than the checklist and orders and diagnosis, is the process of caring for the patient.
Notice that it's not perfect, but at least the sentences have concrete ideas behind them. As Jonny is writing in each section of the worksheet, he asks himself if his writing is addressing the following questions:
For Jonny Amcas the answers to these questions could look like:
1. How is this related to medicine? helping and shadowing physicians, relevant volunteering for med school by showing direct patient interaction
2. What personal quality am I highlighting? care and empathy for my patients is good trait that I developed in this volunteering experience for med school, even when it gets busy physician still shows he cares
3. What does this say about my personal growth? before I thought the diagnosis was the most important, now I know that communication and empathy are equally as important to the care of my future patients.
Putting it together might look something like this:
I spent a summer in Honduras as a student volunteer for Medical Brigades. I volunteered in a rural primary clinic and I helped physicians triage patients, collect vitals, and distribute medicine in the pharmacy. Every day that summer was busy, and each physician saw at least 50 patients a day. Despite how busy the physicians were, they made it a point to show they cared by patting the patient’s knee when the patient was scared, or saying a small but kind sentence that showed they cared (I am sorry you are in pain”). Physicians need to have great communication skills in order to quickly gain the trust of their patients on personal issues that affect their patient's mental, physical, and emotional health. The diagnosis is important, but more important is how physicians support their patients through their worries and fears during a vulnerable time in their health condition. Before this experience, I thought medicine was a complicated diagnosis puzzle. Patients tell physicians about their symptoms and the physicians figure out the diagnosis and treatment. After this experience, I realize that a physician's role is not only to treat, but also to care. This experience will make me a better physician because I’ve seen the power of small gestures when interacting with patients. In the future, I would like to practice in the same ways I saw the physicians from Medical Brigades practice. It further proves the saying that, "People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care." I will continue to look back at this experience when I am running around seeing my 40 patients in my busy primary care practice and remember to treat, but more importantly, to care.
Jonny may need to re-arrange this to format this volunteer experience to fit the AMCAS format, but it touches on all the important stuff that medical school committees are looking for (it describes the experience, what he learned from the experience, and how this experience can make him a better physician in the future).
Do volunteer hours for medical schools actually matter? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: The volunteer experience has to mean something to you for you to be able to talk about the experience naturally and authentically during an interview. How many hours do I need for medical school? The number of hours is not as important as what you get out of it. If you are volunteering consistently in an organization you care about, personal growth and traits of service and selflessness are natural by-products of the experience. Take some time to reflect on your last volunteer experience and go through the worksheet. You may find that you have grown more than you have realized from the volunteer experience, and it would be a good experience to highlight in your medical school application.