Are volunteering requirements for post-graduate programs really fair?
From medical and law schools to highly coveted graduate programs, volunteer experience is a must – but at what cost?
Picture this: You are a highly driven and passionate student, aspiring to become a surgeon. Balancing work and full-time studies to support yourself and your family, you have very little time outside of your commitments. However, your unwavering dedication to school and work has earned you glowing references, excellent grades, and a diverse skill set. You are on the cusp of making your dreams come true, but there’s one problem – you don’t have the hundreds of hours of volunteer experience recommended to apply to MD programs in the country.
For many undergraduate students, this dilemma is a reality – one that comes at the cost of their futures.
A variety of professional schools and graduate programs either require or give significant weight to volunteer experience during undergraduate years. For instance, medical and law schools ask applicants to submit a thorough portfolio of their experiences, called an autobiographical sketch. And post-graduate programs require students to submit their CVs as a key component of the application.
In theory, gaining volunteer experience is great.
For students, volunteering is an opportunity to build valuable skills, foster new relationships and learn more about their field of interest. On the other hand, for universities, a student’s volunteer work demonstrates their holistic qualities, allowing admissions teams to select candidates they believe will represent the institution’s visions and values.
However, gaining volunteer experience is not feasible for everyone. Students coming from low-income or socioeconomically disadvantaged households often juggle multiple courses and jobs just to make ends meet.
Is it truly fair to expect students to devote hours to unpaid work when they are worried about paying the month’s rent or providing for their families? Should they be more concerned about putting food on the table or committing to a leadership role to serve their community?
The short answer is no.
As much as volunteering demonstrates an applicant’s skills and qualities, it is a privilege – one that hinders students from achieving their full potential and traps them in a vicious cycle of income inequality.
Volunteering requirements inadvertently pose barriers for talented individuals who lack the time or resources to commit to unpaid work, skewing the pool of applicants and matriculants to post-graduate programs.
In the context of low-income or disadvantaged students, paid experience should be equally valued and recognized by admission committees. Whether a student volunteered countless hours at a world-renowned research facility or worked long shifts at a fast-food restaurant shouldn’t matter. If admissions committees are truly looking for candidates with holistic qualities instead of stellar achievements, what should matter is the depth of learning students experience in their roles.
Higher education, and more importantly, the opportunity to pursue one’s dream career shouldn’t be a privilege solely afforded by rich kids.
As institutions begin to adopt and prioritize equity-based practices, it is imperative that universities work to remove obstacles for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds and find more inclusive ways to measure an applicant’s qualities or merit.