Why You Should Shadow or Volunteer Before Nursing School

If you are considering majoring in nursing, whatever you do, don't apply blindly!  Even if you're absolutely certain that your dream is to be a nurse, and you've read plenty of nursing blogs, forum posts, and watched more Youtube videos than your Netflix collection, just hear us out!  This post will cover why it is essential to have either a shadowing experience or a volunteer opportunity pertaining to nursing before you turn in your nursing school application.

Are you thinking of applying to nursing school? Click through to read why you should definitely shadow a nurse or volunteer in a healthcare setting before you turn in your application!

Shadowing a Nurse

A shadowing experience is valuable because you get to follow a nurse around for a portion of his/her shift to see what it's like working on the front line of health care.  Once you've been accepted into nursing school, this is how your clinicals will be at first, and then as you progress through your program you can expect to do less observing and more skills/patient care.  If at all possible, try to begin your shadowing experience at the start of a shift rather than the middle.  You can get a better feel for the flow of the shift if you arrive at the beginning.

Make the most of your experience and be sure to ask a lot of questions.  Pay close attention to the dynamics of the unit (what kind of patients are sent to this unit, what is the nurse:patient ratio, what does the unit do well, what needs to be improved) as well as the responsibilities of the nurses.  Even if you end up shadowing on a unit that you can't see yourself working on, just use that time to absorb as much as you can.

So how do you get a shadowing experience?  If you've already identified which nursing school you are interested in attending (and if you haven't, we've got you covered in How to Choose a Nursing School), definitely ask if they set up shadowing experiences for nursing students.  If your dream school does not organize shadowing opportunities, you may be able to land one by contacting the volunteer coordinator of the hospital you wish to shadow at.

Why Volunteer?

Volunteering in the medical field before applying to nursing school is very smart because it allows you to see whether or not nursing is what you truly want to pursue and it graces you with a powerful resume booster that will speak to your character. Many nursing schools also require a certain amount of volunteer experience for admission, so be sure to carefully check the admission requirements when you've figured out where you want to obtain your degree.

And if you don't land a volunteer experience on a nursing unit, don't worry!  I was not as fortunate as Kendra, who logged her hours on the cardiac unit of a Children's hospital.  I volunteered at a pediatric physical therapy/occupational therapy outpatient center, and it was an immensely rewarding experience.  I had lots of patient interaction and I was also able to do some charting.  The key to selecting a great volunteer opportunity is to search for one that will provide you with patient interaction rather than strictly clerical duties.  It is important to have patient interaction because as a nurse, you are going to be caring for patients during the entirety of your shift, and you’ll want to find out early on whether or not this is truly appealing to you.

Finding Volunteer Opportunities

An easy way to find a volunteer opportunity would be to contact the volunteer coordinators of hospitals that are in your area.  They should be able to provide you will many opportunities to choose from.  You can assist with tasks on a nursing unit, greet patients and provide them with directions, be a patient sitter, or help out in a busy office (keep this as a last resort).  You could land an opportunity in an outpatient center if you tell the volunteer coordinators that you’d prefer to help out in any clinics managed by the hospital, or you can contact clinics that are privately owned.  

Don’t rule out searching on websites like Volunteer Match or Hands on Network!  These websites will typically have postings for home health and hospice opportunities, which provide a lot of patient interaction and truly are a rewarding way to spend your time.  And you may not have a home health or hospice clinical rotation in your nursing program, so if you are interested in that field you should definitely seek out the experience by volunteering!  Volunteer websites will also have many one-time opportunities such as helping out with health fairs, which are also a fantastic way to get lots of patient interaction and practice your communication skills.

Take Good Notes

While you're volunteering, it would be a good idea to keep a log not only of the hours you're spending at your site, but also keep track of any skills that you perform.  These can be added to your resume.  Also, take note of any experiences that are meaningful to you.  It would serve you well to go into detail about your experiences in your nursing school interview (if you have one), or application essay.  The program coordinators want to see that you've given your decision to be a nurse a lot of thought, and being as detailed as possible about the experiences you've had that have led you to pursue nursing will aid tremendously.

You won’t regret spending time either shadowing a nurse or volunteering in a clinical setting prior to beginning nursing school.  Both experiences will provide you will valuable insight into what nursing truly entails, and will only further confirm that you’ve chosen the perfect career!  Volunteering, especially, will also present you as a well-rounded applicant and provides you with a more valuable resume.  Do you plan to volunteer or shadow before you apply to nursing school?  Or have you already been logging hours at a facility?  Tell us in the comments below!