The Benefits of Volunteering

As an aspiring medical school student, I am sure you have heard over and over that your resume should include substantial amounts of volunteer time in order to increase your chances of acceptance.  And while it is true that medical schools look very favorably at volunteer hours, there is more to volunteering than simply improving your resume.  Volunteering is an opportunity to gain real-world experience, to improve your leadership and teamwork skills, and to work for a cause greater than yourself.

The most tangible benefit of your volunteer work is the experience you acquire.  Whether it is volunteering at a clinic, a hospital, a charity, or something else entirely, there is no substitute to real-life experience.  You can read about an emergency room as much as you like, but if you haven’t worked there, you cannot possibly understand what it is really like.  You may have heard about the growing numbers of people who cannot afford medical care, but until you volunteer in a free clinic you can’t comprehend the magnitude of the problem.  The experience you gain while volunteering will give you valuable perspective on real-world challenges, and it will help you identify your true passion.  I’ve known plenty of students who have shifted their career goals based on their volunteer experience, and every one of them is happy with the decision they made!  There is no substitute for real-world experience.

Many medical students and even professionals struggle to work well in team environments.  In addition, many doctors never develop strong leadership skills—which makes it very difficult for them to successfully start their own practices.  Volunteering gives you the valuable opportunity to work as part of a team.  You will learn firsthand how to be a valuable contributor to a team effort—and in many cases, you will find opportunities to practice and refine your leadership skills.  My advice to students who are volunteering is to actively seek opportunities to develop these skills—it may not seem like a big deal at the moment, but trust me, as you progress in your career you’ll be thankful for the skills you have developed!

The ultimate purpose of medicine is to help others.  This is obvious, but it is easily forgotten for many medical students and doctors.  In medical school, the sheer weight of the expectations and requirements is enough to make you forget everything else.  And as a medical professional, life can be so hectic and stressful that it is easy to forget why you are in medicine to begin with.  The time you spend volunteering will remind you of the true purpose behind your aspirations.  The most basic function of a doctor is to take care of those who need your care—and as a volunteer, that is often exactly what you do.  Your volunteer time will remind you that you are working towards something bigger than yourself.

Yes, volunteering looks good on your resume, and yes, many medical schools expect to see volunteer hours on your resume.  But if that is all you get out of your volunteer time, you are missing the opportunity for a life and career-altering experience.  Make the most of your volunteer hours!

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