Only about half (49.7%) of future PA students do community service work before PA school. However, there are distinct advantages of volunteering that should play a role in your choice.
As part of a strategic PA school plan, you can use community service to gain patient care experience, find a mentor, be competitive for your target PA programs, or earn scholarships.
If you've decided that volunteering will be part of your pre-PA plan, you need to approach it with intention.
In this post, you'll learn the four essential actions to take to get the most out of your volunteering experience. They are all quite simple, but executing them is key to your success.
1. Be consistent
When it comes to volunteering, regularity matters. A string of one-time volunteer gigs won't mean much to PA programs, and you are unlikely to gain much from a single experience.
However, working consistently with the same community will better connect you with the individuals you are serving. You will come to understand their struggles and be more capable of seeing the world from their perspectives.
Consistency shows that you are committed to a cause and have an interest in helping others, rather than simply trying to boost your application.
I recommend shooting for a weekly or bimonthly commitment. Your peers will note your engagement, and the community you are serving will benefit from your dedication.
2. Be engaged
Staying engaged in the activity before you is a simple concept, but it can be difficult to execute in practice.
If you are reading this post on your desktop or laptop, how many times have you checked your phone before getting to this paragraph? And you're barely half way through.
Don't worry; I'm not insulted. It's how we all function now. I'm guilty of the same.
However, you have to rise above this consciously. Your engagement and your focus matter. Your peers will notice as will those you are serving.
Leave your phone at home (gasp) if you can't trust yourself. Or just turn it off. All the way off. You look at your phone without realizing it, but, unlike you, others will notice.
Remember, you are volunteering to help with something outside of your immediate environment. Try to leave your bubble and be committed to the cause that brought you there.
3. Ask questions
I recently wrote about how asking questions in a PA school interview can boost your performance. This concept reaches far beyond a PA school interview.
Asking questions of others is the fastest way to endear yourself to them. Did you ever meet someone that you really liked, then realized you didn't know much about them? It's likely because they asked a bunch of questions about you, and you spent the majority of your conversation fielding them.
Being asked questions makes us feel interesting and liked. You can use this to your advantage by being the one who asks.
Asking those you are serving about themselves can make them feel heard and important, feelings they may be lacking.
Other volunteers probably have experience and insight that would be helpful to you. You can find out more about the mission of the organization, what needs it has, and what opportunities may exist for you by asking questions.
4. Ask for more responsibilities (over time)
Gaining more responsibilities in a volunteer role will hinge on your execution of the prior three actions — being consistent, being engaged, and asking questions.
If you hope to expand your role, your superiors need to know that they can count on you. Volunteering on a regular basis, being mindfully present when you are there, and asking questions to learn more about the organization will show them that you can handle more responsibility.
You do not need to climb the organizational ladder, but expanding out from your original role supports the both organization and the individuals you are serving.
Going the extra mile will also get you noticed, which may work to your benefit in the future when you need a reference for a PA school application.
You may choose to not volunteer before PA school, but if you do volunteer, you should do it right.
Go in considering what you can provide to an organization, rather than if your experience will "look good" to a PA program.
Just like when you are a PA, you may be personally benefiting from an activity, but that doesn't take away from the fact that you are there to serve others. Be committed to and engaged in the process of volunteering.
If you give more than you take, you will walk away with a truly memorable experience that helps you just as much as you help others.
Physician Assistant Education Association. 2017. By the Numbers: Student Report 1. Washington, DC: PAEA. doi: 10.17538/SR2017.0001