How to Discuss Volunteer Experiences Without Sounding Problematic

Last Updated on June 24, 2022 by Laura Turner

Welcome back to Equity Matters, the monthly column exploring a range of topics related to health equity, public health, global health, and social justice.

This article will provide guidelines for professional school aspirants who are attempting to discuss volunteer experiences in their application materials. It will include tips on how to avoid common traps such as using empty buzzwords, disparaging the community you served, and portraying yourself as a savior.

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Choose your words wisely

An innocent but common mistake that professional school applicants make is filling their essays with buzzwords that don’t really mean anything to them. One of the first words that comes to mind is “underserved”. While of course many of the people you serve while volunteering would meet that definition, the word is really too vague to offer much context by itself. Using a more specific descriptor like “residents of a medically underserved area” or “students at a school that lacked health education” demonstrates more thoughtfulness and investment than the generic “underserved” label.

Also, considering avoiding labels like “the mentally ill” or “drug addicts” when describing the individuals who benefitted from your volunteering. It can be more humanizing to phrase it like “people living with a mental illness” or “patients struggling with addiction” alternatively. Of course, many professionals are not this careful with their language. Those reading your application may not notice the nuances of this language, but using more compassionate language is always a good idea.

Never disparage or disrespect the people you have served

Beyond the labels you choose to apply to them, it is important to be generally thoughtful about how you describe the people you served. In the context of competitive admissions, it can be tempting to paint those you served as helpless in order to make your actions sound more impactful. While this temptation is a common one, it is something to really resist. For starters, it is usually obvious when someone is trying to inflate things for dramatic effect or to sound more significant. More importantly though, it reveals that your thought process around service work might not be the best.

Service, ideally, should always be thought of as a two-way street. It is more compelling to focus on the strengths of the people you worked for and the things that you learned from them. That can show readers that you are able to see people as full human beings, even when you’re helping them or when they’re really different from you. The way you describe those that you help via volunteering or service work offers a window into how you would think about your patients. Everyone has strengths. Everyone has something to teach you. If you are struggling to see that in the community that you served, then I would challenge you to reflect on your experiences with more humility and empathy.

Emphasize partnership, not heroism

Speaking of humility, this article would be incomplete if it did not discuss the problems with portraying yourself as a “savior” in your application. Applicants should understand that no professional school expects them to have actually saved the world. That, from my understanding, is not why professional schools like to see service on an application. It is more about demonstrating your altruism, selflessness, and commitment when there is not an obvious reward. As long as that comes through, it’s perfectly fine if you didn’t singlehandedly turn a community or organization around. In fact, claims that you accomplished anything “singlehandedly” or without an adequate mention of your partners may be looked upon questionably. Medicine and other health professions are all about teamwork and partnership with your patients in order to improve their health. Demonstrate that you value those things when discussing your community service.

The real key to not sounding problematic when describing your community service experience is to not have a problematic mindset while actually volunteering. If you’re still actively volunteering, try going into the experience thinking of the beneficiaries as full people with inherent strengths if you do not already. Put in an honest effort to avoid viewing the people you support as helpless or in need of saving. Incorporating these nuggets into your mindset while you’re serving can firstly make you a better volunteer. As a bonus, when it does becomes time to write about your experiences, you’ll already be primed to avoid many of the pitfalls discussed here.