23 December, 2021
Many prospective medical students volunteer in the medical field to gain exposure to medical settings and to give back to their communities. Furthermore, volunteering is a great way to gain experiences that you can write about on your portfolio if you are applying to the University of Notre Dame and/or University of Wollongong. In this blog post, I will discuss different types of volunteering opportunities, and how to make the most of your experiences to help with your medical school application process.
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Where to Volunteer
There are plenty of volunteering opportunities to go around. For prospective med students, opportunities related to medicine are the obvious choice. Have a look at the websites of your local hospitals, as they will likely list the volunteering opportunities available and who to apply to. Be aware that hospital volunteering is very popular, especially with prospective med students as well as with current nursing and allied health students who may have to do community service as part of their degree.
Ambulance services may also be a possible option. St John’s Ambulance in Western Australia takes on volunteers to help at first aid stalls at events. Outside of Perth, volunteers actually go out with the ambulance crew, so you get to experience what it is like to be a first responder! If you are in another state, have a look at what volunteering opportunities your local ambulance service has to offer.
Aged care is another area that is often looking for volunteers, though many aged care homes may be subject to COVID restrictions. Many people living in aged care homes appreciate having visitors, especially if they have been unable to see their children and grandchildren due to COVID.
Aside from the above, there are many great opportunities throughout the community. Don’t just limit yourself to medical opportunities either! If there is something else you are passionate about, even if it isn’t medical, I would say go for it. When it comes time to write about it in your portfolio, if you’re applying to portfolio schools, you’ll be able to write about your experience with passion and flair.
When to Volunteer
It’s likely that you are living a busy life right now, with GAMSAT study and/or work. Don’t overcommit yourself with volunteering. While it is a valuable experience, you don’t want to burn yourself out either. Therefore, in applying for volunteering opportunities, you should also look at the time commitment required. Some places may require volunteers to come in once a week or once a month, whereas others might be more ad-hoc. If you are volunteering with an ambulance service, you may be required to attend refresher training on a regular basis.
As for when you should start volunteering, or how long you should volunteer for, that is totally up to you. The longer you volunteer somewhere, the more experiences you will gain, and the easier it will be to find someone who is willing to vouch for you on the portfolio part of your application (or as a reference if applying for paid jobs). However, if you find that the volunteering experience isn’t quite what you expected, or you have lost your passion for that area, don’t be afraid to look around for a different position elsewhere. Volunteering should be enjoyable or, at the very least, meaningful!
What You'll Gain
You’ll gain a variety of different skills and experiences depending on where you have chosen to volunteer. Obviously, with ambulance-based volunteering, you will likely be given free training in basic first aid and some more advanced first aid skills. Skills you will gain in virtually any volunteer role include communication skills, as you’ll likely have to work with a diverse range of people (both other employees or volunteers and the people you are serving). These skills are foundational for building good bedside manner once you get into medicine and become a doctor.
Aside from the skills, you’ll also gain the warm sense of satisfaction that comes with having helped others! Sometimes, that feeling is easy to come by. If you are a volunteer at a first-aid stall, or a volunteer lifeguard, you can see the effects of your help right away. Other times, it may feel like you haven’t made a difference, because it feels that you’ve “just” made someone a coffee or that you’ve “just” read to someone. However, that coffee made a massive difference to that tired mother trying to contain a screaming two-year-old and a bored five-year-old, and that book that you read made a massive difference to that elderly nursing home resident who lost his eyesight during a war. Don’t forget that it’s often the small things that we can help out with that can make all the difference when someone else is in need.
During my first year of undergrad, I decided to start volunteering at the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital (SCGH) just in case I decided to study medicine in the future. (At the time, I was majoring in biomedical science as I was hoping to go into medical research.) As I said before, hospital volunteering is very popular. The two volunteering groups at SCGH that I applied to didn’t have any room for me at first, but one of them referred me onto the Auxiliary Shop, which accepted me. At the Auxiliary Shop, my job was working the till. Although this was possibly as far away from patient care as I could have possibly gotten, I had plenty of opportunities to provide a listening ear to patients and/or family members who wanted to vent, and to help frail patients carry their shopping bags up to their rooms. Furthermore, all of our profits went back to the hospital. Towards the end of my four-and-a-half-year stint there, there was a newspaper article saying that the Auxiliary Shop had raised $7 million since it had opened, so I could be confident that I was doing a good thing!
During COVID, the shop that I volunteered at on Saturday afternoons closed. There was a second shop, but they only opened during weekdays, which wasn’t ideal for me as I was a second-year medical student by that point, so I applied for Perth Children’s Hospital (PCH). My job now is assisting on the wards as needed, mainly with playing with children or babies whose parents aren’t there (often at home looking after other children). Every week is different. One week I might be a human bed for a tired, febrile baby, and another week a 4-year-old patient might be teaching me ballet. There have also been times when I’ve stayed and chatted with parents who are stuck in rooms with their children due to infection control reasons, and those parents have been so grateful to be able to talk to another adult.
While I’ve never used my volunteer experiences to apply for med (I did not apply for either UoW or UNDF/UNDS), the experiences have been valuable overall, and I have no regrets. SCGH and PCH are now familiar territory for me, which is great when I have clinical placements there. I’ve gained a lot of skills in talking to people who are experiencing a horrible time (rest assured that the Auxiliary Shop never required us to use the all-too-common retail refrain of “Have a nice day!”) and looking after babies and young children. And finally, I feel satisfied that I have made a difference to the customer who was distressed and wanted someone to talk to, or the child that was in hospital for months awaiting foster care placement, or the mother who just wanted someone to mind their child for fifteen minutes while she went to get lunch.
Volunteering is a meaningful and valuable experience, both in terms of benefits to yourself and to the community. There are lots of volunteering experiences around, so find something that you’re passionate about and just go for it! Furthermore, as has been said several times throughout this article, you can write about your experiences in your UNDF/UNDS and UoW portfolios, so what you’ll see and do may very well be your ticket to becoming a doctor. All the best in your endeavours!
Another thing that’s pivotal on your journey to becoming a medical doctor is the GAMSAT exam. Take advantage of our collection of free GAMSAT preparation materials today!