By: Ryan Kelly
Community service should only feel obligatory when it’s court-mandated. If your service in college feels like the metaphorical equivalent of picking up trash on the freeway, then you’re doing something wrong.
The biggest mistake pre-meds make is treating community service as a requirement, as opposed to an activity they’re genuinely passionate about. Yes, you need community service to get into medical school, but if you do it just for the sake of it, you’ll probably have little to say or show for your efforts.
So how should you choose your community service experiences? What are medical schools looking for? Never fear - we’ve devised four questions to help you narrow down the options and find the right service activities for you.
Question #1 - “Do I have interesting stories to tell from this community service?”
There are plenty of impressive community service experiences that yield very little in terms of interesting and engaging essay writing and interview stories.
Most pre-meds focus on quantity over quality. For example, if you visit a local library once a week with your fraternity to read to disadvantaged youth, you might only volunteer for an hour or two at a time, and you might not work with the same children each week. So you might have a lot of visits under your belt, but they will lack the depth and continuity that make for great essays.
Instead of focusing on your total hours, seek out experiences that challenge you personally, that expose you to a wide range of people, and that show you another side of the human condition. Inevitably those experiences will yield stories you can tell in your application.
Question #2 - “Will I do this activity only once or throughout my college career?”
Often, the one-time activity will seem the most impressive or prestigious. A classic example would be a summer trip to an impoverished country like Honduras. Who wouldn’t want the chance to immerse themselves in a new culture and way of life, all while providing service to those in dire need?
It’s a great cause, and it might very well be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. However, besides the fact that they’re a dime a dozen amongst pre-meds, one-time trips are often too brief to make a meaningful impact. If you spend a week in Honduras, part of it will be traveling, part of it will be building houses (or some equivalent), and perhaps a small part will involve real immersion with the country and its people. The time constraint also makes any lessons or takeaways seem shortsighted or simplistic. That’s why medical schools often call these experiences Volun-tourism.
You’re more likely to impress medical schools by organizing a continuous project in your own local community. It all comes down to consistency and depth. If you recognize some need in your community as a freshman and then take steps to address it throughout your college career, you’ll show medical schools that you’re committed to real change, as opposed to just grasping for whatever community service is available when you need it. And how great will it look to show that you’ve left a legacy behind at your school or in your local community?
Question #3 - “Is this service experience personally meaningful to me?”
Your choices should ultimately hinge on what’s most meaningful to you. Many students clamor for any and every community service activity they can find, whether that be blood drives, tutoring, serving food at homeless shelters, etc. But if the students have no personal connection to the volunteering, then the experiences will come across as uninspired.
If you can find causes that connect to your background, your experiences will be far more convincing to medical school admissions committees. For example, let’s say a student had a family member who was a victim of rape or sexual assault. After aiding his or her loved one through the trauma and recovery, the student feels inspired to organize workshops on campus to promote rape prevention and victim advocacy. This personal connection to the work will elevate any written essays or interview answers regarding the community service. It will provide emotional appeal, as well as show a genuine motivation beyond filling a resume. The bottom line: seek experiences that appeal to your sense of justice and compassion, and focus your efforts around a particular topic (it doesn’t have to be medically oriented).
Question #4 - “Will I connect with people who are different from me?”
Volunteering to help raise money by putting on a big campus soiree will not be as impressive as directly interacting with the diverse people who will form the pool of patients you will serve as a doctor. Rather than raising money for diabetes research, you should volunteer to work at free clinics and educate patients about their blood sugar. You should strive to roll up your sleeves and dive in: to teach sex ed to homeless teenagers, or counsel drug addicts, or work the phones at a suicide prevention hotline.
Anyone can help raise money, and anyone can work with people who are similar to them. Medical schools recognize that real growth comes from stepping out of your comfort zone and engaging with the marginalized populations you’ll encounter as a future doctor.