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Work Experience and Volunteering- what should I hope to gain?

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

By Zara Bashir

Work experience and volunteering are desired, if not essential, when applying to medicine. Below are a few common questions and answers medicine applicants may have in relation to this.

Why do I need to do work experience/volunteering when applying to medicine?

1. Direct contact with healthcare professionals, such as doctors, will give you a realistic insight into what their roles and responsibilities are, and may help you to decide whether this career role is right for you.

2. It will give you motivation – seeing doctors in action may inspire you or make you work harder to achieve your goals.

3. Work experience and volunteering will help you to develop several skills and qualities such as:

  • Communication – a skill which interviewers will look for!

  • Teamwork – for example, observing how a multi-disciplinary team work together for the patient. A multi-disciplinary team is one that includes people from different disciplines, for example, doctors, nurses, healthcare assistants, radiologists, administrative workers, and managers.

  • Responsibility

  • Respect and dignity

  • Empathy

The list is endless!

Where can I do work experience/volunteering?

Experience in a healthcare setting, such as a GP practice, hospital, care home, pharmacy, or hospice will allow you to see healthcare professionals, including doctors, in action – however this type of experience may be difficult to find. Nevertheless, this should not stop you from applying to medicine. The skills required as a medicine applicant can also be developed in other settings – such as food banks, charity shops, befriending roles and taking part in fundraising events.

How much work experience/volunteering do I need to do?

Some degree programmes may ask for an allocated number of hours of work experience or volunteering; therefore, it is important to read their entry requirements carefully. Others may just ask for experience in a health or care setting. For volunteer work especially – working over a long period of time shows commitment to helping others. A good way to do this would be to volunteer for an hour or two every weekend or every fortnight: this also indirectly demonstrates your organisation skills.

When to start?

The earlier you start work experience/volunteering the better, as you do not want to be rushing to find it near the application process, which may prove to be difficult and stressful. A good time to do it, without it being a distraction from studying, would be in the school holidays or weekends.

How can I talk about my work experience in my personal statement/interview?

It is very important that in your personal statement you always reflect on the work experience you have done. An easy way to break this down is to name all the skills, which you have developed during your experiences and give a specific example which demonstrates this. This information can be put into a table, as shown below. Be sure to not include any information which could identify a patient’s identity.

From any work experience/volunteering that you do, it would be helpful to ask for a letter from the organisation stating how many hours you have done and/or the dates which you started and finished, as a few degree programmes may ask for this.

As a graduate applying to medicine, prior to and throughout my first degree, I took it upon myself to gain as much experience as possible to build a standout application.

During sixth form, I attended a medical summer school which was ran by medical students themselves. Although direct work experience in the healthcare field is valuable, I would recommend anyone applying to or considering medicine as a career to attend one of these as it gives you an insight into what studying medicine is like; in terms of how lectures are structured, the learning styles you will encounter and the importance of balancing a high workload. For example, as an A-Level student, I realised that the learning styles used in medical school, such as problem-based learning were completely different from those in the school classroom. Therefore, in my interviews I was able to demonstrate that I knew what it was like to study medicine and how I would be suited to it. Although interviewers are looking for individuals who will make good doctors – they are also looking for those who have the knowledge and attributes to be a good medical student – i.e. someone who is aware of what they will be studying and whether they will cope with the pressures of medical school.

Later that year I was very fortunate to shadow a Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon. At this point, I had no experience whatsoever in the healthcare field, so this was my chance to find out more. During this exciting week I observed clinics, watched hip and knee replacement surgeries, and learned more about the medical training pathway, from speaking to foundation year doctors, registrars, and consultants. I will always remember and take away from this opportunity the humbleness of the consultant; in particular, how he treated every member of staff with respect and how he worked with his team to treat his patients. Looking back, this was a significant moment in my pathway to medicine, as it showed me that a good doctor has attributes that span way past scientific knowledge – and is one who cares for their patients and works together in a team for them – the kind of doctor I want to be.

Working with others and being able to communicate in a friendly, yet professional manner may sound easy, and to some may come naturally. But a couple of years ago, I was lacking in these attributes and was often quite shy. However, through experiences such as working in retail and at a local food bank, I was able to develop my confidence. When going into a medical school interview, knowing all the NHS principles and qualities of a doctor is great – but if you cannot articulate your point well to the interviewer – you will lose marks. Therefore, by volunteering or working in environments where you are constantly communicating with members of the public, it can really help to practice this. And after all, a career in medicine will involve you speaking to those who you do not know. Common medical school interviews questions will require you to explain how you dealt with a difficult situation, for example, dealing with an angry customer and I can assure you, working in retail will provide you with numerous examples! Also, in scenario type questions where you are required to act – having hands on experience is very helpful and will show the interviewer you know how to deal with these types of situations.

In the last two years of my degree, I decided to apply for a job in the NHS as I wanted a more challenging role where I could also learn more about the healthcare field. I now work as an administrator/receptionist at a general practice surgery. Prior to starting this job role, I greatly underestimated the workload and tasks of the administrative staff. However, this became apparent in my current role. I now triage patients, deal with their prescriptions, signpost them to the appropriate care and much more – which is great preparation for a medical school applicant. It has also emphasised to me the importance of other job roles within the NHS and how they all complement each other. Throughout my job I have able to talk to patients and practice implementing the NHS principles, for example treating patients with respect and dignity when dealing with sensitive matters.

Interviewers will be looking for applicants to talk about their experiences and more importantly, discuss what they have learned and what skills they have developed from them. I would strongly recommend taking a look at the NHS principles and GMC’s good qualities of a doctor, using them as guidelines as to which attributes you should possess to a be a strong applicant; if you don’t feel as confident in one area, then seek out experience to help fill the gaps. By doing this and reflecting on your experiences in your personal statement and interview, you will prove to the medical schools that you have the skills to be a good medical student and future doctor!

Best of luck with your application to medicine!

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