Are Volunteer Hours Really Necessary?

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OPM 286: Are Volunteer Hours Really Necessary?

Session 283

Does one really need to volunteer? Would schools frown upon lack of hours if time is spent in class, work, or with family? Listen as I discuss that and more!

Questions answered here on the podcast are taken directly from the Nontrad Premed Forum over at Please go ahead and register for an account, ask your question, and have fun with the community.

Also, please be sure to check out all our other podcasts on Meded Media as we try to bring you as many resources as you need on this journey.

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

[01:06] The MCAT Minute

The MCAT Minute is brought to you by Blueprint MCAT.

How many times can you take the MCAT? 

The AAMC has put a cap on it and you  can only take the MCAT seven times in your life. It’s most likely a response to test prep companies sending their people to go take the test lots of times to see what the test is all about and to constantly update their own tests. This is not a bad idea. People need to be prepared to take the MCAT but the AAMC insists it can only be taken 7 times max.

You can take it three times in a year, four times in a two year period, regardless, the maximum is seven times in a lifetime. Hopefully, none of you need to take it more than once or maybe twice.

[02:59] OldPreMeds Question of the Week

“I’m beginning my pre-med career while working full time as a speech-language pathologist in special education. I’ve seen volunteer hours come up as a med school requirement, and I’m wondering if that’s necessary. 

To be clear, I’m NOT asking this because I don’t want to help people. I’m asking because my current job in special education is so mentally, emotionally, and time-demanding that I fear getting more volunteer hours will take away from my students. While I’m still working in special education, I feel the need to give 100% to my students.

Ultimately, I feel that dedicating myself to my current job (while doing pre-med coursework at night) does a greater good than stretching myself too thin just to get technical volunteer hours. How would medical schools feel about this reasoning?”

[04:10] Volunteering and Clinical Experience are NOT the Same

When we talk about volunteer hours, that doesn’t tell me if it’s clinical or nonclinical. And too many students say volunteer when they really mean clinical volunteering. So let’s just clear that out.

There is paid clinical work and there’s volunteer clinical work. There’s paid community work, and then there’s volunteer community work. There’s also volunteering at the soup kitchen or Habitat for Humanity, which are non-clinical volunteer activities.

You can have clinical volunteer activities such as volunteering in the emergency department and doing clinical stuff. You can also volunteer for hospice and do clinic stuff.

'The term 'volunteer' gets thrown out there a lot as a synonym for clinical experience. Volunteer and clinical do not mean the same thing.'Click To Tweet

[05:18] It’s Clinical Experience!

A lot of schools like to see nonclinical volunteering such as the soup kitchen, Habitat for Humanity, etc. Because that shows that you are out there dedicating yourself to the community. However, most schools do not require it.

In our student’s case here, being a speech language pathologist is clinical experience. So there’s nothing wrong with this student who’s going to dedicate their time working in a clinical way.

Clinical experience is not better being volunteer versus being paid. A lot of students worry that all of their clinical experience, or the far majority of their clinical experience is paid and not volunteer. That does not matter.

'Paid or volunteer clinical experience is clinical experience. It's all valuable.' Click To Tweet

[06:36] Why These Experiences Are Important

This student definitely will have plenty of clinical experience. But they should hopefully get some shadowing experience. They don’t need a ton, but just a little bit. If they can get some volunteer experience or some research experience, great. But they are not must-haves.

Remember the far majority of everything you’re doing is not required. You are not checking boxes for the medical schools. 

'You are gaining experiences to prove to yourself that this is something you want to do.'Click To Tweet

You’re getting clinical experience to prove to yourself that you want to be a doctor. You’re getting shadowing experience to prove to yourself that you understand the role of a physician and what they do day-in and day-out. You understand what you’re getting yourself into and it’s not what you see on TV.

That’s what those experiences are for. They’re not to check off a box. But so that you can reflect on those experiences to help you understand and write about those in a personal statement. And to talk about why you want to be a doctor during the interview.

And so, don’t look at all of these things – research, clinical experience, nonclinical volunteering, and shadowing that – thinking you need each of those. That’s less important than doing the things that are important to you and the things that light up your life. 

Ultimately, it all comes down to you being able to clearly reflect on why you want to be a physician.

[08:36] Be Yourself

One of the biggest mistakes students make is they try to relate non clinical experiences to being a physician. Too many people think that because they’re dedicated to service, therefore, they want to be a physician. But that doesn’t make sense.

'Service alone is not a reason to be a physician.'Click To Tweet

Clinical experience and shadowing are important. Research is less important. Nonclinical volunteering is a lot less important.

Remember nothing is mandatory, do the things that you can do.

Tell the story appropriately about why you want to be a physician in your activity descriptions. Tell the story about who you are and the impact that you’ve had or the impact that it has had on you. Then you will ultimately tell a good story that someone will want to continue to have that conversation with you and invite you for an interview. Ultimately, you have to be yourself.

[09:41] Follow Your Passions

So when a student asks, “I don’t have time for this, is that okay?” The answer almost always is yes. That is okay. Because nothing is mandatory.

Nothing out there is a must do right outside of you need to understand why It is you’re chasing this. And this means you need clinical experience and shadowing. Outside of that, it’s fair game. So follow your dreams, follow your passions.

There was a podcast episode I did a few weeks ago now back in Episode 451 of The Premed Years Podcast wherein someone followed their passions. And it was an amazing story of a first generation immigrant to this country. She went from studying the arts and dance, to then wanting to go to medical school. She chased what she wanted to do and didn’t do things to check a box.


Meded Media

Episode 451 of The Premed Years Podcast

Nontrad Premed Forum

Blueprint MCAT