02 May 2006
by Erica Smith
Conquering pre-med requirements, battling stubborn grade-point averages, and trudging through gruelling seven-hour MCATS: This is the typical life of a pre-med student. But another aspect of their busy lives may be just as important: volunteer work. According to medical schools, it’s essential.
In recent phone interviews, the assistant deans of admission from Michigan State University, University of Wisconsin, University of Virginia and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York were unanimous that community service was expected from all their admissions candidates. They didn’t even hesitate.
Beth Bailey of the University of Virginia said her school does not like it “when we see a student who has lots of other great qualities, but they haven’t bothered to do anything in the community.”
“It’s a very negative flag,” she said in her southern accent.
Noreen Kerrigan of Albert Einstein College agreed. “What we care about most is your ability to put your patient first,” she said.
Despite their already packed schedules, it seems that most pre-med students at Stony Brook understand and are even enthusiastic about this policy.
Anna Verde, a junior Italian major, volunteers at the blood bank and paediatrics section of Stony Brook Hospital. Verde said she believes the policy is necessary to weed out potentially poor doctors.
“You can be book smart and know everything, but if you don’t know how to deal with people you’re not going to make a good doctor," she said. “You need to show compassion, because that’s your job.”
Kerrigan would agree. “We don’t want brains on stilts,” she said.
Since medical schools also require medical experience of their applicants, pre-med students often combine the two requirements and volunteer in hospitals.
Bailey said she also recommends volunteering in free clinics, nursing homes, hospices, or as an emergency medical technician. “Go where you think you can get the most valuable experience,” she said.
She warns, however, against volunteering in pharmacies or in “the bowels of the hospital” where one may never lay eyes on a patient or a physician.
Whatever students decide to do, they should start early. Medical schools tend to frown upon students who start volunteering only a few months before their applications are due.
Lucy Wall of University of Wisconsin said that this shows a student is not prepared to apply. She recommends that such students take a year off and gain more experience before sending in their application.
Kerrigan agreed that such an applicant does not sit well with an admissions committee. “If nothing else, it looks like they’re rushing to get brownie points,” she said, but added unenthusiastically, “it’s better than nothing.”
Medical schools also seem to be wary of students who appear to jump from one activity to another without consistency or substantial commitment- “tourists” as two of the deans described them.
There is, however, at least one exception to this stringent evaluation process.
Candidates who need to work many hours to support themselves or their families are usually not held to the same volunteering standards as other candidates.
“We would cut hours for hard workers. We just look for feeling, not hours,” Kerrigan said.
These four schools are not the only medical schools who take community service so seriously. Books like "US News’s Utimate Guide to Medical Schools" and "Medical School Admissions: The Insider’s Guide" emphasize the importance of volunteering for every medical school.
While pre-med students seem to agree that volunteer requirements are reasonable, some regret that it makes a difficult field even more competitive.
Guang Yao, a business major, is currently questioning his medical school plans because of this competition.
“The end goal of being a doctor is not about the money or prestige, it’s about the patients. Theoretically, doing volunteer service should promote that type of ethical value,” he said. Yao leaned his head on his hand as he stared down at a table in his dorm suite. “But there has to be a better way.”
Yao explained that he wished there was a way for medical schools to determine that certain students would make skilled and compassionate doctors, even if their college record didn’t necessary show it. Yao has a 3.2 G.P.A.
Yao said he did many hours of community service in high school, but he hasn’t done any since he has been in college. He attributes this to his time spent in the National Guard before he was honourably discharged last year, as well as being “lazy.”
Other students say they believe it is difficult to find volunteer positions where they could have an impact.
Cyril Ninan, a sophomore in the Honors College, said he quit volunteering in the paediatrics centre at Stony Brook Hospital after one year. Ninan said he was assigned to manage a playroom, but wound up mostly cleaning because children did not come in very often.
“My biggest fear is not making much of a difference,” he said.
Some students completely disagree with the volunteering requirement.
Pouria Farhoomandi, a sophomore psychology major, says that although he thinks pre-med students should have some medical experience, they should not necessarily have to do community service.
“Going through the torture of med school shows compassion,” he said with a laugh.
Becoming more serious, he said, “You can’t prove compassion.” He explained that some students might do volunteer work just so they can get into medical school and make money.
While Farhoomandi disagrees with some of his peers about most medical schools' volunteering requirements, he seemed to share with them something else: underlying anxiety.
“My friend just came back from advising,” he told me, standing up to leave our table across from the Melville Library concession stand. “She told me we’re never going to get into med school.” Again, Farhoomandi let out a laugh. This time, it was tinged with nervousness.