How to Know If You Should Volunteer Before PA School


According to the most recent PAEA PA student survey, only about half of those who get into PA school have community service experience. Volunteering is rarely required as a PA school prerequisite. 


Given that it may not be "necessary," you may ask yourself if you should volunteer before PA school. Altruism aside, community service may be beneficial to your pre-PA plan in a few ways. 


In this post, we'll explore reasons you may consider volunteering as a strategic part of your PA school prep.



1. You need medical experience

Volunteering in a hospital, clinic, or through a mission trip may allow you to gain patient care experience. This is the most common reason a pre-PA student would explore a community service role. 


But there's something else to consider with medically based volunteering — access. 


Volunteering can put you in contact with providers, including PAs. If you are struggling to find shadowing opportunities, volunteering may provide you access to connect with PAs.  


The likelihood of finding a PA to shadow increases when you can meet them in person and show that, by volunteering, you are committed to your future goals. 


Medically based volunteering can serve several purposes in your overall PA school plan. It can help you gain health care or patient care experience or, more indirectly, provide you with new shadowing and mentoring opportunities. 


It may even give you the chance to cultivate a relationship or two that can lead to solid letters of recommendation at application time. 



2. You want more varied life experience

About a third of students accepted to PA schools have a period of three or more years between their undergrad program and PA school. And this number is growing. 


Applicants who have at least several years between undergrad and PA school have a distinct advantage at application time, in writing their personal statements, and during the PA school interview. 


As a general principle, your life experiences will be both more plentiful and more varied the longer you've been functioning in the non-academic world. With additional time spent working, you learn to better communicate with others in a professional environment. You will likely have more exposure to a variety of people and communities outside of your own. 


If you are planning to apply to PA school while you are an undergraduate or if you feel like your world is a bit narrow, community service may be a huge opportunity. It can help to close the gap between you and those who have more life experience. 


Volunteering can expose you to new people and environments. It helps you to see the world from the perspective of others. It can allow you to tap into empathy and learn to relate better to people who are different than you, skills which you would use as a PA.


Volunteering, particularly of the non-medical variety, can help you to expand your interests and diversify your skills. The experience can enrich your personal story and your life, making you a more compelling PA school applicant. 



3. Your target programs are mission-driven

The mission of more than a few PA programs is to train PAs to work in medically underserved regions. PA schools may have a community service requirement for students as part of their curriculum. Some programs even have clinics that serve uninsured populations or incorporate mission trips into their clinical year.  


If community service is at the core of one of your target PA programs, you should most definitely have volunteering experience. 


You'll also want to look beyond medically based volunteering. Medically based volunteering, while noble, mostly benefits you as part of your pre-PA prep. Explore other community service opportunities that interest you beyond the health and medical realms. 


The entire community service world is open here. If you're obsessed with dogs (I get it), check out your local shelters. Become more involved with your town by helping with a community garden or volunteering your time at a library. 


Think about issues that are tangential to medicine. While they may not directly relate to medicine, there may be issues that can come up for our patients that, as providers, we need to understand.


Programs that support survivors of domestic abuse or human trafficking can help to educate you on how to recognize and assist victims. Volunteering at a food bank can help you understand the difficulties families and children can have with accessing healthy food.


Whatever you choose to do, keep the big picture in mind. Picking the most accessible or simplest option may not serve your future self. Remember the Far-sighted Foundation. Choose opportunities that you know will help you to grow both as a person and as a future PA. 



4. You plan to apply for scholarships

If you are planning to apply for scholarships to PA school, volunteer service will help you to be more competitive.


Many future PA students have similar stats: degree, major, GPA, and patient contact experience. Community service can help you to emerge as a front-runner among scholarship applicants.


When trying to become more competitive for scholarships, focus on service that demonstrates that you are working to better your community. Varied activities can be beneficial but beware of spreading yourself thin. 


One-time volunteering does not have much of an impact, even if you have a string of different activities. Seek out roles where you can return on a weekly basis, or at least a couple of times a month. Your commitment to a cause is best shown by regularly volunteering your time and effort, which will help to put your scholarship application at the top of the pile. 


You do not have to volunteer as part of your PA school prep. However, you should if it makes sense to your overall plan. 


Volunteering can help you to gain medical experience, connect you with a mentor, expand your life experience, and make you more competitive for PA programs or scholarships. 


If you want community service to be a part of your pre-PA plan, take the time to plan how, when, and where you will volunteer. You can use volunteering to your strategic advantage while, at the same time, improving your community and expanding your world.