Five Keys to a Meaningful Clinical Volunteer Experience

Most pre-health students and alumni know that it is important to volunteer in a health care setting before applying to medical or dental school, but it is also important to make that experience meaningful so that you offer your very best service and walk away with more knowledge and insight than you brought to the position.  Here are five points to keep in mind when choosing a clinical volunteer opportunity and while volunteering to have an excellent experience:

  • Choose your volunteer experience carefully.  If you already have a great deal of experience volunteering in hospitals, would another environment prove more engaging?  Would you prefer to work with pediatric patients, within a community clinic, or in a psychiatric treatment center?  Do you want to use a second language while volunteering or volunteer abroad?  Are there opportunities out there you may not have considered?  Good volunteers tend to be happy volunteers, and finding the right match for your interests and personality is important.  Sometimes this means finding something that isn’t the first thing that comes to your mind or what your friends are doing.
  • Think about when you would like to volunteer.  The earlier you think about when and for how long you might like to volunteer, the more success you are likely to have finding a satisfying opportunity.  Many positions require training or attention to application deadlines.  Some are quite compatible with an academic schedule while others are only possible during academic breaks.  It is never a good idea to look for clinical volunteer opportunities just before applying to medical or dental school.  Not only may you be unable to find one, it can appear that you did not make medically related service work a priority.
  • Commit yourself to being a dependable and responsible volunteer.  Quitting suddenly, not showing up for your scheduled hours, or not showing respect for your position won’t help you and won’t help others who wish to volunteer in the future.
  • Keep a journal.  Making notes and writing your memories and reflections about volunteering not only can help you clarify your thoughts about your future career, but can help you when you write your personal statement and prepare for interviews.  Use your powers of observation.  Many applicants when asked about their clinical volunteering have difficulty saying more than, “It was great.”  If you can share details about the things you noticed about the work environment, staff or patients as well as what you thought or felt while volunteering, you will communicate your interest in patient care in a personal and sharply defined way.
  • Remember that your service is important and valued.  You may be frustrated during times when your role feels small or not well defined or you’re anxious about academic commitments.  It means a great deal to staff to have a responsible person on the floor to free their hands for a heavy work load.  A cup of ice or friendly conversation can make a patient’s wait just bearable.  Even if you are doing nothing, you are learning something that will benefit somebody one day.  Perhaps as a doctor you will remember how boring the hospital can be for patients, what it’s like to live away from home to the rhythm of meal deliveries and medication doses.  Maybe you will be the dentist who welcomes pre-dental students into her office, taking a lively interest in the professional development of others.  No experience is ever lost and there is much to be gained in the time you give as a volunteer.

Author: Carol Hagan

Carol Hagan is a pre-health and pre-grad advisor in Career Services. She has a Ph.D. in art history from Penn and did her undergraduate work at Wesleyan University.