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Discussing Service Orientation in an Impactful Way

All health care professionals are driven in part by their desire to help and serve others. The American Academy of Medical Colleges identifies a service orientation as a core competency for entering medical students. But how do you discuss that you have a service orientation within your health professional school application? This article will detail how to illustrate your service in a way that will demonstrate your passion for reaching out and contributing to society.

What is Service?

Service is a broad topic, and there are many types of service. Some are large-scale, some small-scale. However, all service has the capacity to teach valuable life lessons and better the lives of those involved. It could be as simple as spending time with a lonely immobilized grandparent, or a personal commitment to smile five times daily at a random stranger. Regardless, performing service can be vulnerable, uncomfortable, and, above all, is never convenient. But in the end, the only thing required to serve others is a little bravery, time, commitment, and action.

Reflecting on your Service

The first step in analyzing what part service has played for you, as a future health professional, is reflecting on and noticing personal change that has come as a direct result of your service. Any action you have completed to benefit an individual, a family, home, or community can count as a form of service. Making these moments a habit is key. When viewing applications, employers and admission boards have a trained eye for things that set candidates apart. So, what are the things that set you apart? Conveniently, many of them reside in the category of service orientation.

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Let’s begin by breaking down this term. Synonyms for service: good turn, assist, aid, helping hand, favor. Synonyms for orientation: attitude, belief, inclination, motivation, direction, aim, intention. As you reflect on this language, and the following questions, you will be able to identify areas of your life where you have performed service.

Think about when you have…

  • Cultivated an attitude of doing a good turn
  • Believed in assisting someone with greater needs than yourself
  • Been inclined to offer aid and follow through with your offer
  • Been motivated to do a favor for someone
  • Intended to give a helping hand
  • Aimed to offer aid

After brainstorming several experiences, answer the following reflective questions:

  • How did my act of service change me?
  • What did it influence me to do in the future?
  • What did I learn from performing this act of service?
  • What did others gain as a result of my service?
  • What did I gain as a result?
  • What lesson(s) did I walk away with?
  • What did I learn from those I volunteered with/served?
  • Why is this particular service important/memorable for me?

Record any specific details or accounts related to your experience while serving.

Pinpointing the Details of Extended Service

Having prepared responses for several of these questions will provide a basis for you to generate written and verbal descriptions of your service. The best responses that demonstrate service orientation will include special attention to detail. While preparing your responses, aim to incorporate the practice of making the big things small. For example, if your act of service was “big,” (consecutive time of volunteer work, extensive unpaid time devoted to a specific cause or well-known organization, belonging to a prestigious non-profit organization, leadership role in a service project, etc.) find ways to notice the intricate details of what you learned while in your position of service. What are some small, but crucial, details that you experienced that changed your perception of things, how you view other people, and that are transferable to the professional world?

For example, I once spent 18 months volunteering for a religious organization. After preparing a brief description of the service I performed, I emphasized what that specific service taught me. The following list includes skills that I developed from the time I spent serving in my position.

  • Acquired foreign language skills: able to speak, read, and write a second language
  • Made plans and reported daily, weekly, and monthly goals to track personal and team progress
  • Educated members of the community with various mental, temporal, and physical needs
  • Tailored lessons for various learning levels, ages, personalities, and circumstances
  • Mentored, trained, and guided 20+ other volunteers
  • Developed interpersonal relationships quickly with a diverse spectrum of cultures and nationalities

Each of these details, though small, and perhaps unnoticeable compared to such a large-scale service project, function to enhance my caliber as a future professional, employee, or student.

Relating a Single Experience to Larger Ideas

On the other end of the spectrum, doing the opposite for small acts of service, or making the small things big, will further enhance the impacts of your service experience. If the act of service you are describing is on a smaller scale (visiting the elderly, volunteering at schools, athletic events, the Special Olympics, tutoring, helping a foreign peer practice English speaking skills, etc.), be sure to build up your experience by elaborating on the benefit of learning from the people you interacted with as part of your service.

The following example is from a pre-medical student’s volunteer experience at a school for children with autism. Below is a description of the student’s experience while mentoring an autistic child at the school for a few weeks.

Names have been changed to protect privacy. 

While volunteering at the Autism academy I helped Nate, a student there, with his reading homework. Helping him to answer comprehension questions gave me the chance to practice explaining content in simple terms. Nate often became confused because of complex sentence structures, or unfamiliar words. This required me to be teachable and humble as I learned to sense Nate’s frustration coming on. I used humor to alleviate Nate’s frustration and refocus his attention. I then explained things according to his academic needs and level, so that he would be able to continue practicing his reading, and eventually answer the questions independently.

What did the student gain from interacting with Nate?

  • To break down complex content and explain it simply.
    This is a skill that will help him as a future physician while explaining complicated procedures and reasoning to patients.
  • To read people’s frustration and discern what methods and reactions will work best to calm their nerves.
    This is a skill that plays into the student’s future bedside manners for his patients and employees.
  • To use humor, as appropriate, to lighten a difficult subject or circumstance.
  • To use humor as a method of being patient with himself as he makes mistakes as a future medical student.
    He may become frustrated at times as he learns how to manage relationships with difficult peers, co-workers, patients, and others.
  • To be humble.
    Everyone has difficulty learning some subjects. It is important that the student is able to not take himself too seriously and to be patient with himself as he works to acquire new knowledge, and then go on to mentor others who struggle to learn specific concepts in the future.

The list demonstrates one way this student might think about the skills he acquired through his service experience. When explained using a skill-based mentality, this service opportunity is able to show the vast impact of the seemingly simple experience of tutoring Nate, the autistic student. Each of these skills are crucial to becoming a successful professional. Each of them has the potential to create a sturdy platform on which this student can build up his knowledge, acquired skills, and credibility as a medical school candidate.

How Service Has Changed You

After you have reflected and carefully considered specific large and small-scale gains that have come from your own service, be sure to include how the time you have spent serving others has changed you personally. You might consider what you are motivated to do in the future as a result of what you learned, or realized, during your service.

Serving Your Community

If you have yet to build up your reservoir of service experience, justserve.org is one resource that has many ideas of service that you can do within your own community, both simple and multifaceted. In the case that Just Serve may not be available in your area yet, scroll to the bottom of the page and search another location, or, use the “click here” button for other ways you can serve in your community.

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