Applying to medical school: The fuss about extracurricular activities

Applying to medical school: The fuss about extracurricular activitiesApplying to medical school: The fuss about extracurricular activities

An excerpt from The Heartbeat of Success: A Med Student’s Guide to Med School Admissions.

What’s all the fuss about extracurricular activities? Isn’t doing well in your coursework and on the MCAT enough to get into medical school? Nope. Extracurricular activities and employment are opportunities to explore your interests, become involved in your community, develop a project or earn money to support yourself. Saying you love to help people during a medical school interview is not enough — actions speak louder than words.

In addition to having a job, I participated in a lot of extracurricular activities during college. I loved every single one of them. Despite having a GPA high enough to be part of the premedical honor society on campus, I chose to devote my time to the premedical club that focused mostly on health equity and professional development: the Minority Association of Premedical Students (MAPS), the undergraduate arm of the Student National Medical Association. I was so passionate about the organization’s work and it showed; as a result I was chosen to be secretary and then president of the local chapter.

During my sophomore year of college, I was awarded the Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship. The JK Watson Fellowship is a two year fellowship that provides professional development opportunities for promising undergraduates; the program’s main component is three paid summer internships. Around the same time, I was accepted to a very popular premedical summer enrichment program. I felt torn; should I choose the fellowship or the traditional premedical experience? I ultimately chose the JK Watson Fellowship because I felt more excited about the opportunities it offered.

Once again, pursuing my passion led to positive results. As a Watson Fellow I was able to teach children at the Bronx Zoo, publish a magazine article about HIV/AIDS at Gay Men’s Health Crisis and travel to South America to work with at-risk youth through a small charity organization in Santiago, Chile. I chose to do what I loved and medical schools clearly saw my passion shine through my application.

What are extracurricular activities?

Let’s first define extracurricular activities. Extracurricular activities are activities you engage in outside of class and apart from studying. This includes but is not limited to shadowing a physician, volunteering your time for a certain cause, being part of a student group, holding a job or pursuing a hobby.

Not all of your extracurricular activities need to be related to medicine. There are many things you can pursue that will still speak to the fact that you would make a great physician. For example, you can be a leader with your religious organization, teaching religious instruction to children every Saturday. At first, this may seem unrelated to medicine. However, a closer look tells the admissions committee two things. First, it tells the committee a bit about who you are and how you enjoy spending your free time. Second, you are demonstrating that you are a leader who likes working with other people and teaching. These are all qualities of a great physician.

The only rule for choosing extracurricular activities is the same as the rule for choosing a major: make sure you choose activities you love. If you enjoy what you’re doing, you’re more likely to remain committed to the activity, excel and take on leadership roles. This is what medical schools want to see. They don’t want to see an applicant who says they simply attend premedical student group meetings once a month and shadow a physician every now and then.

When choosing extracurricular activities, choose only a few and remain committed to them throughout your undergraduate career. In doing so, you are allowing yourself to get to know your peers, prepare to take on a leadership role and eventually get a letter of recommendation from whomever supervises the group.

A leadership position doesn’t just mean that you became the president of a group. Leadership could also mean that you were in charge of a planning or fundraising committee or created a new service project and led the initiative. Leadership can also mean that you did not hold a formal position at all, but improved the way in which your group delivers supplies or services to the community.

Remember, when you are first adjusting to college, it is okay to bounce around different organizations and student groups until you find the ones you enjoy most. You should commit to your extracurricular activities by the end of your first year of college and stick with them.

Aside from choosing a few activities you love, and remaining committed to them over an extended period of time, there is one more guiding principle to choosing extracurricular activities: choose varied experiences. I advise students to find one clinical activity, one activity that serves your college community and one activity that either serves you as an individual or your community at large. By following this practical formula, you are ensuring that medical school admissions committees see different sides of your personality.

It is important to find a clinical experience because without one, medical school admissions committees may think that you have an unrealistic idea of what it means to be a doctor. Look for a formal program for premedical students that incorporates shadowing, or find a physician or hospital who will take you on as a volunteer and stick with it. It’s better to shadow at one location or with one doctor once a week for two years, than to shadow random physicians for an hour here and there, for four years. In addition to learning what it is like to be a physician and an opportunity to interact with patients, you may be able to ask the physician you shadow for a recommendation letter.

An easy way to have fun, demonstrate leadership and serve your community is to become active with a student group on campus. This will ensure that you develop relationships with your peers and possibly even a faculty member as most student groups have faculty advisors. You can join a premedical club, cultural society, religious group, or honor society — whatever you want!

Alexa Mieses is a medical student and author of The Heartbeat of Success: A Med Student’s Guide to Med School Admissions.

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  • azmd

    Actually, as someone who interviews candidates for our residency training program I must say that one of the main things I find a little (or a lot) off-putting is the carefully constructed resume of extracurricular activities that seems to be de rigueur for our candidates these days. I have a lot of “grown-up” extracurricular activities myself so I am quite aware of how easy it is to pad one’s resume full of various things that really don’t have to amount to any substantive engagement at all.

    My personal preference is to see some indication that the candidate is mature, a good worker, and has a genuine interest in being of service to people, rather than aptitude at gaming the system. Still puzzling over how one sorts that out in the midst of the veritable blizzard of frenetic activities that the typical candidate presents with these days…

    • Alexa Mieses

      In a world in which there are unlimited possibilities it’s nice to be able to provide students with personal experiences and practical advice. Although undoubtedly, the most important thing is that each student finds what they enjoy most and then they will naturally shine. Everyone should create their own path.

  • PoliticallyIncorrectMD

    Using one’s life experience to demonstrate their dedication to practicing medicine is a great idea. Choosing extracurricular activities to impress admissions committees is hypocrisy – hardly a virtue for a future physician. Luckily, It is doomed to failure as most of the committee members can see right through that.

  • Dave

    The ECs that impress me the most are those that tell a consistent story. The only problem with too many different activities is that it does start to look fake. The same things happens with residency applicants, both with ECs and with their research. A random mission trip is nothing special, but a mission trip plus research on international health plus leadership positions in groups that are dedicated to improving health in the developing world begins to tell a story. Someone who has their name on a wide variety of papers isn’t nearly as compelling to me as someone whose work has followed a logical sequence of investigation. One looks like CV fluffing while the other looks like genuine intellectual curiosity. More than anything else, I’m impressed by someone who started something from nothing. Whether they founded a fraternity or sorority on their campus or came up with an idea for a research project, found a mentor, and carried out the entire project up to presentation/publication, little impresses me more than someone who can create something new.

  • JM

    I found this post very useful and insightful! I am the first person in my family to pursue medicine, and I do not have guidance at my undergraduate institution. I appreciate the author’s unique perspective, and useful tips!!!

  • hh60

    When I interview resident applicants, I always ask them to tell me about the most important activity. No one has mentioned athletics as an extracurricular activity, but that is one of my favorite markers. Because there are studies that show college athletes are more successful on teams during clinical clerkships. I imagine this may be true of other team activities (music, for example). I, too, and leery of those with too many (and not in depth) and those whose activities seem specifically chosen to help their application.

  • Alexa Mieses

    The guiding principle is to always choose things you love first.