The typical pre-med day involves studying, getting good grades, making connections with professors, and doing amazing extracurricular activities that will somehow separate you from all the other medical school applicants. This naturally leads to the question, which extracurricular activities will increase my chances to get into medical school? You might hear from another pre-med that you have to do research or volunteer in a hospital in order to be accepted into medical school. Friends and family may suggest that you do some overseas volunteer/aid work in a third-world country to stand out and have something to talk about in the interview.
What is the best extracurricular activity to do to increase your chances for medical school?
The truth is, there is no “one” activity that will increase your chances the most.Every person is different. We play musical instruments and exercise because we enjoy these activities, not because we get more “points” added to our application for doing them. But based on my experience as an admissions committee member, medical schools look for several things in your CV / sketch / activities list.
They can be broken down into
- Clinical Activities
- Research Activities
- Personal Activities
There is obviously a method to their madness. Theses three broad categories in some way can assess whether applicants are suitable for medicine.
First Hand Exposure – Having some clinical exposure before medical school makes a lot of sense. Even if you’re not a pre-med gunner, observing the roles of doctors and health care workers in a clinical environment can be eye opening. You can see if this is something you want to do in the future. You will see the glamorous side of medicine and how satisfying saving lives and helping other people can be. You will also see the bad-side, the blood, the sick, the tears and the fears.
See the Good and the Bad – Many of my friend changed their career plans after some clinical exposure. Even though their grades were good, they realized medicine wasn’t what they thought it was. Some observed that the job came with a lot of stress realized they didn’t want to undertake that. Others fainted at the sight of blood. Still others realized they wanted a stable day job where they could get off work at reasonable hours and pick up their kids from school.
The Real Deal – Furthermore, clinical experience demonstrates to medical schools that you have considered the path of medicine seriously. Your grandeur of medicine isn’t just from Grey’s Anatomy, ER and House but that you actually took the time to watch medicine practiced in real life. It shows that you have “tested” the waters and that you might actually be able to swim in it.
Types of Clinical Exposure – Which brings me to the question, what type of clinical exposures are there? For starters, the easiest place would be a hospital. All hospitals have volunteers, ranging from maintaining hospital beds, running the gift shop, all the way to interacting with patients. You might be asked to find patient families or transport patients in wheelchairs. Not all clinical experiences are limited to big hospitals. It can be as simple as working in a clinic or a pharmacy. The point is to get some exposure to health care and how it works.
Shadowing a Doctor – Another big “pre-med” clinical activity is observerships. Shadowing is – like the name implies – following the doctor around as he does his practice. And just like a shadow you are to follow him closely, never leading the way, and never ever to be in their way. If the doctor is nice and not too busy, they usually take an interest in you, asking you about yourself and why you’re considering medicine. Most will give out their collected wisdom including the pros and cons of their jobs. As for the type of doctor you can shadow, that’s completely up to you. A good place to start is your very own family physician or doctor, who will most likely be more than willing to take you up on your offer. You can also ask family friends who are in the medical field. If you volunteer at a hospital for a longer period of time, you may get to know the doctors there and may have another possibility to shadow. Cold calling doctors in a phonebook though may be a bit more difficult, is not unheard of. A note about observing surgeries is that it’s usually not permitted, mainly because for safety and decreasing the chances for infection. I once shadowed an anesthesiologist and I got to stay in the OR until the patient was knocked out and left shortly before surgery began. Some teaching hospitals may have observation windows that allow students to see surgeries performed.
Shadowing is not an activity where you contributed something useful like in volunteering. Instead, it’s a opportunity for you to understand the medical profession and the intricacies of how real medicine is practiced. In fact, shadowing doesn’t end after getting into medical school. Most medical students will shadow to better understand the different specialities in order to help them on their choice of residency programs.
Clinical volunteering shows admission committees that you have an interest in medicine and that you have given it some serious considerations. Also, if you did help out in a clinical setting, they will be looking for areas where you showed attributes of being a good doctor such as good communication skills, caring, compassion, advocacy, empathetic, ethical and kind.
The second category admission committees look at is research. Medicine is an applied science and many new breakthroughs come through basic research and clinical trials. Research is a big component of medicine. It dictates what diagnoses and research is the most accurate. Since medical knowledge is exploding at an astonishing rate, having a working understanding of research is essentialto all physicians.
Research is not absolutely required – I would like to point out that research is not a MUST needed to get into medical school. I have classmates who have worked in a lab. The majority of my medical class did not have any publications. Research is not required to get into medical school and that makes sense because not all doctors will be researchers. Not having research will NOT hurt your medical school application. Instead, your application must showcase either your other abilities and what you can bring to the medical class.
Now on the other side, there many students in my class that have done research. Some have their masters, a few PhD’s in biochemistry. Out of those who have done research, many are published first authors. And while not having research will not hurt your application, having done research is a big plus to your application.
So Should I Do Research? So that brings me to the question, should I do research if my only reason is it will make me a more competitive applicant? I believe the answer is a clear NO. You should not do research if you know you hate it. However, if you have a slight interest in research, you should give it a try but have a realistic expectation that you are unlikely to get publications out quickly unless you’re serious about it. You should only do research if you think you will enjoy it!
For the people who decide not to do any research, they may feel that they are at a disadvantage, but that’s not true. You’re only at a disadvantage if you don’t do anything with all that “non-research time”. Many applicants who pursue a research position put in a lot of time during the school year and their summers. They would have put in hundreds of hours into their project, learning experimental techniques and writing up their findings. For their hard work and demonstrated intellect, these applicants should have an advantage. If you are a non-research applicant, you are only disadvantaged if you don’t use your time wisely. With all that time during the school year and especially the summer, you could use it to volunteer and pursue other endeavors. You could use that time to teach lower-income kids or organize community-based events.
Now if you do decide on doing some research before medical school, you will have to proactively seek opportunities. No research job will fall into your lap, you will have to email profs, meet with them and demonstrate to them why you will be a good student. [Coming soon: A guide to getting a research job]
Overall, research is an integral part of medicine and medical schools want students who have that intellect and curiosity to discover new things. Academic medicine also has the aim of transforming bench side findings to real bedside cures. You will demonstrate to medical schools that can contribute to the knowledge of medicine in the future by having some research.
3) Personal Activities
The last category of activities admission committees look at is everything else that doesn’t quite fit in clinical and research activities. This includes sports, musical instruments, artwork, school clubs and groups, religious and cultural affiliations, employment, hobbies, past-time activities… you get the point. To the admissions committees, all these activities show that you are a “well-rounded” applicant and your have a good character.
Well-roundedness – Now I see a lot of threads on the internet that butchered the “well-rounded” applicant theme. A lot of people think they have to be involved with 10 different clubs and have diversified interests to be considered well-rounded. They need to play 3 musical instruments, 4 different sports, and converse in 5 different languages to be considered well-rounded. They need to keep adding activities to their list to be more competitive. This is not true!
Non-academic Interests – First and foremost, the point of having any extracurricular activity is to show that your life more than your schooling. You need to have a life outside the classroom. You are more than a GPA and MCAT score, you are a human with thoughts and feelings. Medical schools don’t want a class of bookworms who are holed up in the library all day. Yes, they want smart and hard working people, but they won’t want one-dimensional people. They want people who will bring diversity to their class and make it exciting. Students that professors can talk with and find interesting.
For example, something as simple as playing in the school’s sport intramurals or speaking a second language at home is something worth putting down. Put down things you enjoy doing. One thing that keeps getting pounded into our heads by professors and physicians at our medical school is that you need to find time for yourself. Medicine is such a demanding career that it becomes too easy for your job to consume you entirely. Find activities you enjoy and that you can do to relieve stress. Medical schools want people who can work hard yet not be burnt out at the end of all the training. Having some personal interests down is essential to showing to medical schools that you are more than a one-dimensional robot.
More than a Laundry List – Also, the well rounded applicant isn’t a laundry list of activities. A lot of first year pre-meds during clubs week get carried away and join way too many clubs, many of which have no interest to them. They only participate in clubs because they think it will look good on their applications. They usually join a bunch of cultural clubs, a lot of volunteer groups and several dozen interests group. They are “resume-padders” and admission committees can sniff these people out a mile away. Also, don’t waste your money on a premed club membership fee. Don’t be a resume-padder. Focus your activities to YOUR interests and things that represent who you are.
It’s good to be involved with a lot of different activities but it’s not good to spread yourself thin. If you find your grades are slipping and school is getting out of control because of these “clubs” and volunteering activities, you have to do some self evaluation. If you feel overwhelmed by the amount of work needed to be done, don’t be afraid to drop extracurricular activities. Remember, you are volunteering your own FREE time to do these activities. If you find something not useful to you, don’t do it. I once applied to a “research” position with a professor that ended up being a data-entry job. I would read patient data and scan them into a computer. Even though you had to apply to the job and be interviewed, after the first session, I said no thanks and decided I could spend my time much better. Use your time wisely and don’t be afraid to say no. Because no amount of extracurricular activities will make up for a poor GPA and low MCAT score on your application. So school first, then extracurriculars, but don’t be just all about school.
How to Choose an Extracurricular Acitivity – When choosing extracurricular activities, the most important part is to choose activities you are interested in and that represent you. If you enjoy teaching, a tutoring job or working with ESL students would both be meaningful and representative of you. You also won’t find doing your job tedious if you enjoy it. No longer will it feel like you are being dragged to another 2-hour session, but instead you will look forward to each session. If you’re interested in a lot of different things, you will have to prioritize. Which activities do you enjoy more. Would you rather be on a varsity team or be in a culture club. A good way to assess how much one person can take on is to add the activities on slowly. Instead of joining twenty clubs at the beginning of the year, pick a few that you know you would enjoy. It could be the badminton club or a movies appreciation club, whatever it is, pick a few and stick with it. Try to get to know the people there and contribute. And afterwards, if you think you can manage, add more clubs and activities. Don’t worry about joining late, all groups are always looking for new people, no matter what time of the year.
I have found myself that I can manage about 5-6 different activities on top of my school work. That includes a part-time job, some volunteering with new students (note: volunteering doesn’t have to be only at a hospital), a sports oriented club (for the exercise), a student help group (where I had a leadership position) and a personal self interest club. During relaxed parts of the year, I would do more. At exam time, I would cut back. Having a group of friends outside the classroom also helped relax after a tough week of school.
The second reason why schools look at extracurricular activities is so they can get to know you. They want to see what type of person you are and what interests you have. Schools want to see leadership, organization, good communication skills, conflict-resolution abilities, dedication, and passion. Whether it is student government, club executive positions or work responsibilities, schools want to see these good attributes. They want students who will be positive influences in both the classroom and the community outside.
For instance, with any highly specialized skill schools can learn a lot about you. If you are a competitive varsity athlete or a accomplished pianist, medical schools can see that you are dedicated to an activity and that you aim for excellence. They see that you are hard working and you practiced consistently to achieve your goals. Schools can see your character through the things you do. Similarly, if you have been a community-organizer or a fundraiser for health issues, medical schools can see that you’re concerned about the people around you and that you want to make a difference.
I have written about what schools look for when they look at your autobiographical sketch or your list of activities. They are looking for characteristic traits that will make you suitable for a life of medicine. They want people who can work hard and play hard when the time is right. They want people who will be positive impacts on their communities and have the self-discipline to accomplish their goals.
To answer the first question of what extracurricular activities should I do: The answer is different for everyone, we’re all different and we have our own interests and hobbies. Choose a few things that you are interested in and do your best in them. Don’t force yourself to do stuff because you think it will help you get into medical school, do what you are passionate about. If you want to increase your chances of getting into medical school, in whatever you do, do your best and show that you have the characteristics and traits of what it takes to be a good doctor.