Why You Shouldn’t Volunteer

Many med school applicants volunteer for the sake of volunteering. They do it to write on their CV. They do it because everyone else is doing it. They volunteer because they believe it is what they should be doing. To all the volunteers with this mentality, “You’re wasting your time.”

When I use the term volunteering in this post, I am describing the many extracurricular activities people pursue. It can be helping out at the soup kitchen, spending time with residents at a nursing home, tutoring ESL students.  Any item on a typical premed laundry list. Now I understand that there are many instances where volunteering has a tremendous impact – running into a burning house to save a life, performing the Heimlich maneuver, forming a search party for missing individuals. I am not talking about these brave acts of volunteerism. I am talking about plain old, “I volunteer at a hospital, giving directions, providing drinks and warm blankets to patients, handling paper work.”

The main criteria of volunteering is that one offers an act of service without pay. So whether you’re a big brother/sister, a child care volunteer, doing data entry, coach of a sports team, playing piano for your church, communicating with dialysis patients, helping out in an African orphanage, you’re all doing this free of charge. The problem with the majority of volunteering activities is that they do not offer any valuable service. The easiest way to determine if you’re volunteering is worth anything, ask yourself, “how much would someone pay for me to do my job?” For the majority of cases: absolutely nothing.

There would be no difference if a volunteer disappeared, most organizations would still be functional. The hospitals would run just fine, perhaps maybe even better without all the confusion, training and interruptions of volunteers. Some will argue that teaching English to third-world children is valuable, English tutors are expensive! I would agree with you too, except for the fact that you cannot teach someone English in a week, a month, a summer or even a year. When you decide to give up several years of your life teaching English for free in a foreign country, I will change my mind. If you were a cardiovascular surgeon volunteering to do heart transplants for free, you are making a difference. For the majority of people who volunteer for the sake of doing it, the volunteering you do has no value.

Money is power. It allows people to buy useful goods and services. Volunteering does not generate any money, which leads to the point that volunteering is not self-sustaining. People cannot work for free forever, we all have bills to pay, necessities to buy. Eventually, funding will have to be brought in from somewhere. Even charity staff are paid for their work. Furthermore, if you’re motivation for volunteering is to put it on your CV, as a resume padder, you will hate your job. You will be emotionally drained. You are better off not volunteering at all.

So am I against volunteering? Absolutely not. Volunteering has a lot of good merits and I believe people should volunteer. Medical schools will look favourable on volunteer experiences. What I want to get across is to volunteer for the right reasons. Volunteering won’t change the world, but volunteering will change you. You will learn and grow with your experiences and hopefully, you can go on afterwards to change the world.

[Article coming soon: How to make the most of your Volunteering]

19 Responses to Why You Shouldn’t Volunteer

  1. N. T. says:

    Good post.

    I find it somewhat frightening that the qualifications to “get into medical school” span a few years of university. How clearly does this show who will be a dedicated physician for the long run?

    Statistically, 75% of people in North America describe being in the “WRONG CAREERS” (sampel representative), losing interest in their careers, etc. So what for those people who “volunteer, I-love-sick-people” what happens when the glory fades and hardship rolls along. What happens when the difference between life and death takes the extra push and its easier not to give the extra push? Will all of those marvelous ECs, volunteering, and grades push someone at that point?

    Frightens me, people going in who look good NOW but who will last? ..ie. family member died from a preventable cause, negligence, doctor too distracted to notice…probably got into med school with a 90% average

  2. medaholic says:

    You make a good point N.T. And I often think of that question myself, “Am I in the right place?”
    The catch with medicine is that you really don’t know what it’s going to be like until you are on the wards, in the hospitals practicing. However, if you find out by then that you don’t like it, you would have already sunk down at least 4-8 years of your life along with over a hundred thousand dollars in education, and the only way to survive is to continue practicing.

    I think it is because of that reason, schools are starting to prefer older more mature applicants, who have taken a few years off school and have seen what the world is like. Because a few years of extracurricular activities in university frankly doesn’t hold much significance.

  3. Marika D says:

    Thanks for this post medaholic! It was very enlightening.

    I am one of those aspiring undergraduates who does volunteer. I’ve been doing it for three years now, however I do agree that you must do it for the right reasons. I’ve switched departments and quit shifts because it was so pointless and I felt I was learning nothing! I myself went in to volunteer not because of medicine but to see what healthcare was like. I have decided that the healthcare/medical/health sciences field is definitely my area… however in what form? Clinical, research, administrative? This I have yet to figure out. But it is unfortunate talking to the younger ones who are volunteering because it’s what everyone does. Sometimes I want to give them a nice slap upside the head. Volunteering in a hospital does not get you into medicine. And what if you change your mind? Will you regret all those years handing out drinks and stamping papers when you land a job in real estate?

    I agree with N.T. and medaholic, you guys are right. How do you know that you won’t change your mind afterwards? After all, I know many undergraduates who cannot make up their minds on what to study, let alone make careers of! It is a great disservice to take the places of those who truly would make incredible professionals due to those 90s and ECs and profiles.

    There is always room for improvement… let us hope the selection committees make fewer mistakes as they see through the fluff.

  4. medaholic says:

    Hi Marika,
    Thanks for commenting. Keep exploring your options and keep an open mind. The more you expose yourself too, the more you will know about yourself. I’m also part of the adcom at my school, and trust me, we can see through the fluff pretty easily.

  5. joyful says:

    Woah…. I totally agree.

    One of the things that bugs me the most is how people keep on creating new clubs or doing brain draining stuff (like dirty work) just for the sake of admission and scholarships. And I’m just like… get a life. Do stuff you enjoy and stuff that will help you, not stuff that you’re forcing yourself into.

  6. the good thing about choosing a medical career is that it is a high paying job.*”`

    • medaholic says:

      Hmmm, not all doctors are paid large amounts of money. I think what’s more important than income is job stability and autonomy. Doctors are “self-employed” and have quite a bit of control over their work. To me, that is much more appealing than working at a large company earning a six-figure income but having to always worry about being fired.

  7. Chloe Davies says:

    i would also like to pursue a medical career since the pay is good.-~.

  8. Mete says:

    Volunteers do help , but what is really required is high quality staff running the charities

  9. Emma Johnson says:

    medical career is one of the highest paying jobs on these days.’.

  10. the great thing about medical career is that the payout rate is high.-`

  11. Stevia : says:

    i enrolled in a medical school to improve my medical career. i chose a medical career because of the high wage and demand,`-

  12. LED Torch says:

    when i went to college, i chose a medical career because it is high paying job ~.;

  13. Dental Labs says:

    Volunteering should be made compulsory, as ironic as that statement is. Of course, people can’t provide free services forever, but for students it should be made compulsory. Who else is going to do tasks which no money can be spared for?

    As for those who are saying the only good thing about medical career is its high wages, that is untrue. There is a sense of respect that doctors command; and you cannot put a price on that.

  14. brett melton says:

    Volunteering is a great community service that allows you to connect to others and show people that you care… I believe in it… 🙂

  15. […] seems like everyone else is doing it. If you are one of these people, I would like you to consider NOT volunteering. Now, I have previously talked about why people shouldn’t volunteer. Overall, I still believe […]

  16. Al says:

    man, the stress with med school is too much. Ppl will tell u VOLUNTEER 10 hours a week . Community service
    Porter ppl on whlchhairs . And u think that u are motivated enough to do wateva it takes. And then someone
    Comes and tells u that might not be the right approach. it’s frustrating. IMHO volunteer as much as possible even if u don’t
    Enjoy it. When someone tells me that volunteering does not impress adcom, I will stop. -___-

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