A variety of colourful doors representing the choices of extracurriculars for medical school

What Are The Best Extracurriculars for Medical School?

April 5, 2021

Introduction

Extracurriculars activities provide medical schools with a window into what makes you, you. Beyond your grades and test scores lie your personality, character, motivations, and interests. It's an opportunity for admissions committees to get to know who you are, not just as an applicant, but as a person. Knowing which extracurriculars for medical school are worth pursuing can be difficult, let alone knowing which activities to include in your application materials. In this blog, we'll highlight important extracurriculars to take part in and answer some of your most frequently asked questions.

Clinical

Clinical experience is one of the most important experiences you'll need to gain before applying to medical school. It's your way of showing admissions committee members that you have already begun to develop the skills necessary to become a competent doctor. It's also the only type of experience that allows you to really test-drive a career in medicine. A big part of your medical school application is answering the  one key question: why do you want to be a doctor? If you don't have any clinical experience, it's going to be very hard to convince admissions committee members that you actually know the answer to this question. By putting yourself into the medical environment, you'll have a chance to solidify the reasons around why you want to pursue medicine, and you'll be able to show that you are genuinely ready to commit to such a time-intensive career path.

There are many types of experiences that would fall under clinical experience, though they are typically broken down into paid or volunteer experiences. Paid experiences are great as they generally get you up close and personal where you'll be directly interacting with patients, or at least participating in their overall care. Working as a medical scribe, certified nursing assistant, medical assistant, or an emergency medical technician are excellent examples of paid experiences. Volunteer experiences are also valuable as you have the opportunity to view the physician profession slightly differently. One of the most common – and most beneficial – types of volunteer clinical experience is shadowing.

As the AAMC puts it “Shadowing a doctor is a great way to find out if a career in medicine might be right for you. It will give you a better understanding of what a doctor’s typical day is like, and give you good experience to talk about in your applications and interviews for medical school.”

Instead of rolling up your sleeves and jumping into patient care, shadowing allows you to take more of a passive role. You'll essentially become a silent observer, following around a physician with your clipboard and taking in the entire experience. You'll have the privilege of watching how a physician interacts with a patient and will learn what questions they ask, which exams they perform, and which tests they order to help them diagnose and treat illnesses and diseases. During shadowing, you'll want to keep your eyes and ears open and try to soak in everything you can from the day's experience. It'll likely be fast-paced and quite a long day, as you'll be following the physician's schedule to a T. What better way to understand what the day-to-day is like for a physician than placing yourself their shoes? It's important to note that while shadowing a doctor isn't technically a requirement for medical school, it isn't really optional. Most accepted students have a substantial amount of shadowing experience, which admission committee members hold in high regard.

Research

Research experience is viewed favorably at most medical schools. At medical schools that are highly researched-focussed, such as Stanford and Yale, its practically a requirement. In fact, almost every single student accepted at research-focused institutions has research experience. Research is so highly valued because it helps students sharpen a variety of skills desired by medical schools. As a doctor, things will almost certainly not go to plan. An essential skill that students must have is the ability to problem-solve. With research, things also don't usually go to plan. Experiments fail, results can be unexpected, and different tactics need to be followed. Overall, a big part of research is problem-solving and strengthening critical thinking – skills that will carry over into medical school and beyond.

Research also shows admission committee members that you have a certain curiosity and a desire to pursue or understand the unknown. Medical schools are not concerned with the field of research that you choose to pursue. As long as you can show that your research was meaningful, and you gained significant knowledge from that research, it can benefit your application. Research experiences can be paid or unpaid; if you're still in university, the best way to find these experiences is to connect with your professors. Find out if they are working on any research projects and are looking for an assistant. Hospitals, clinics, and other universities may also have job postings for research assistants or lab technicians, so don't be afraid to look beyond campus to secure a position of interest.

Student experiences at Stanford Medical School:


Teaching

Teaching is another valuable extracurricular for your medical school application. One of the many qualities admissions committees are looking for in applicants is strong communication skills. The ability to communicate clearly and effectively is mandatory for all physicians. Doctors must break down complex medical issues and explain them to their patients in a way that is simple and easy to understand. In addition, doctors rely on an extensive network of health professionals – from nurses to assistants, to students, to fellow doctors. They must form strong relationships with these individuals, and communication is the glue that keeps everyone connected. Throughout a doctor's career, they will act as a teacher at many different points. Many doctors will participate in teaching or tutoring during their medical training, they'll teach residents when their fully licensed, and of course, doctors teach their patients about caring for their health, managing illnesses, and treating diseases.

Besides strengthening your communication skills, working as a mentor or teaching assistant positions you as a leader. Your students will look up to you and trust you to guide them through course materials, and in the process, you'll be forming a strong bond with them. You'll likely learn patience, compassion, and empathy – all qualities medical schools desire in their future physicians.

Community Service

To become a doctor, you must master the ability to put other's needs before your own. As a prospective doctor, you're application has to show your desire to help others and your willingness to do so. Doctors work long hours, on weekends, and on-call, ensuring they are available to help their patients as much as possible. This often involves working through breaks, over lunch, and canceling personal commitments. Being a doctor can be exhausting, but it's gratifying to those that genuinely want to help people. For most, it's the driving force that makes them want to pursue this career in the first place and stick with it over the years. All medical school applicants want to be doctors and want to help people, which is why they're applying in the first place. However, without community service experience, it's going to be near-impossible to convince admissions committee members that you are devoted to helping people. Everyone can express this interest in their application, but not everyone will be able to support it through experiences.

Noreen Kerrigan, associate dean for student admissions at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine states “We want to make sure we're not accepting brains on stilts, we want people with hearts.”

When choosing volunteer experiences to participate in, it's crucial to focus on your interests and goals. For example, if one of your core beliefs is that everyone should have access to medical care regardless of location, volunteering in a rural-community setting would be suitable. If you feel strongly about breaking down barriers that prevent equal access to care, such as language, you could volunteer at a community college teaching English to new immigrants. It's important to note that your community service activities don't have to be restricted to the medical field. What's most important is that you show true dedication to your community service and that you participate in experiences you find meaningful.

Hobbies

There are many misconceptions about hobbies and whether or not they are valuable to include in your medical school application. Hobbies are absolutely important because they give medical schools a more in-depth look into who you are as a person and where your passions and motivations lie. Participation in hobbies can develop and strengthen various desirable qualities, such as determination, motivation, communication, and leadership. In addition, many students find that involvement in hobbies helps them manage their stress levels. If you pursue an activity that can help you handle medical school's inevitable stress, this will be viewed favorably in the admissions committees' eyes. The important thing to remember when it comes to hobbies is that you should only participate in activities that are significant to you, and those that you actually enjoy. For example, if you've been figure skating since you were six and it's something that you continue to value and devote a lot of time to, this can be excellent to include in your application.

In the AMCAS work and activities section of your application, you can include up to 15 experiences that you deem to be significant. One of the categories you can choose to create an entry for is hobbies. This could be a great spot to add in a hobby that is very close to your heart, as long as you can explain what you gain from participating in that hobby and how it benefits you. Some students also incorporate a meaningful hobby into their personal statement. This incorporation can be an excellent way to individualize your application among the hundreds or thousands of other applications.

How to Choose the Right Extracurriculars for Medical School

Knowing which extracurriculars to participate in can be difficult for many students. Follow these tips to help ensure you're choosing extracurriculars that will be the most beneficial to you and your application.

Be Yourself

Hopefully, you have a solid assurance of who you are as a person at this stage in your life, and you understand the value of being true to yourself. Every single person is unique, and medical schools are not interested in getting to know a fake version of you; they want to learn about the real you. What do you enjoy? What drives you? Why do you do the things you do? These are the questions they'll want answered when reviewing your application and interviewing you. The reason being is that people are more likely to pursue, and stick with, what they are truly interested in. So when you're thinking about which activities to participate in, choose activities that you enjoy. If you're no Mary Poppins and have no intention of pursuing pediatrics, don't feel that you have to volunteer in a daycare center because it might look good on your application. Now, this isn't to say that you can't try new activities. After all, you might not know if you're interested in working as a medical scribe or an emergency medical technician. If you find that an activity isn't for you, don't be discouraged. Look for other positions to help you gain for example, the much-needed clinical experience; just be sure that you don't include that month-long stint as a scribe in your application.

Less Can Be More

Some students make the mistake of collecting as many activities as possible because they think it will impress admissions committees. This couldn't be further from the truth. Adcoms are very aware of the fact that some students are only participating in extracurriculars in an attempt to boost their application. Despite what students may think, it's pretty easy to spot activities that were just completed for the sake of it, rather than those that were completed genuinely. The main giveaways? The type of activity and the time committed. For example, including an experience where you traveled abroad and helped install a well in a poor community for two weeks will only result in a red flag in your application. Not only is this type of activity cliche, but the short time period makes any explanations regarding how much you learned and how beneficial it was unrealistic as you were only there for two weeks. Instead, focus on including high-quality activities where you demonstrated a significant time commitment. It's much more valuable to have two 2-year long research experiences instead of five 3-week research experiences. When it comes to extracurriculars for medical school, quality always trumps quantity.

Highlight What You Learned

Whether you're discussing your extracurriculars in your personal statement, in the Work and Activities section, or during your interview, you must take the time to reflect on your experiences and discuss why they were significant, and most importantly, what you learned from them. Students often make the mistake of spending too much time explaining an experience and not enough time demonstrating the lessons they learned. For example, if you shadowed a doctor for a semester, it's not as important to discuss what your day to day was like. It's most important to tell the admissions committee what you gained from participating in that experience. The ability to reflect on every experience, whether negative or positive, demonstrates that you have the level of maturity necessary to understand your experiences, learn from them, and carry that knowledge forward – to the point where it can benefit the incoming class.

FAQs

1. Do I need both clinical and non-clinical volunteer experience?

While obtaining both types of experience isn't required, it's strongly recommended. It's important to be able to show that you've put in a serious effort to help solidify your decision to pursue medicine. Nothing can demonstrate this better than your clinical experience. This is where you'll learn what a typical day in the life of a doctor is like, interact with and care for patients, and understand your responsibilities as a physician. Non-clinical volunteer experience is equally important as it shows admissions committees that you are not only self-serving. Demonstrating how you helped elevate your community, that you put others first, and that you value helping others succeed will speak louder than the simple words “I want to help people.”

2. How can I gain leadership experience?

You can find leadership opportunities within every activity you decide to pursue. Whether you're the captain of your basketball team or led a community outreach program, the opportunities are endless. Even if your role isn't in a typical leadership role, there are always ways to demonstrate your leadership abilities. For example, if you're volunteering at a homeless shelter, perhaps you could instigate starting a monthly community clothing drive. If you're working as a lab assistant in a research facility, you could offer to present research findings at a local science conference. Don't be afraid to use your voice and skillset to achieve new heights within your extracurriculars.

3. How many extracurricular hours do I need to be competitive?

Some schools that set minimum required hours for activities such as shadowing, but in general, most schools do not have set hours that you need to achieve. If you are applying somewhere that does have set requirements, aim to come in with more hours than the minimum. With each experience, it isn't as much about the hours logged as it is about what you learned or gained from that experience. With that said, aim to devote 100+ hours each to shadowing, hands-on clinical experience, and community service.

4. Should my clinical experiences be focussed only on one faucet of medicine?

Overall, it's best if your experiences touch on a few different areas of medicine. Even if you're pretty sure you want to pursue family medicine, the reality is, plans change. It's very common for medical students to change their area of study and develop different interests as they progress through medical school. The more you learn, the more you might find yourself pulling in a different direction than you first planned. This is completely normal, and because of this, it's best to try and gain a variety of experiences instead of only focussing on one medical specialty.

5. I have a lot of hobbies, which should I include in my application?

Think about which hobbies are the most meaningful to you. If you could only continue with one or two hobbies, what would you pick? Once you've decided, dive deeper and look at why you couldn't live without that particular hobby. Does it help you manage your stress? Does it teach you patience? Do you value the camaraderie it provides? Relate the skills you gain or the lessons you learn while participating in this hobby to the benefits it will provide you during medical school and as a future doctor.

6. What is the biggest mistake students make when it comes to extracurriculars for medical school?

The biggest mistake students make is spreading themselves too thin. They join every single pre-med club available, participate in a handful of sports, jump from one research project to the next, and travel around the world providing medical care to rural communities. This tactic often results in students committing minimal amounts of time to each activity and gaining red flags instead of praise on their applications. Instead, be choosy with your extracurriculars and ensure you are committing to each activity for a solid amount of time. Those who commit years to few endeavors will catch the eye of admissions committees over those with a plethora of short-lived activities.

Conclusion

No matter what extracurriculars you decide to participate in, there are a few unspoken rules to keep in mind. Always follow your passions and interests; you'll be more likely to enjoy and stay with activities you actually want to do. Next, you'll need to reflect on what you learned or gained from each experience. Finally, ensure you can demonstrate a significant time commitment to each activity. Keep in mind that the most successful candidates are those who pursue fewer extracurriculars for longer periods of time instead of many extracurriculars for shorter stints. The idea is not to run the 100m sprint; think of each activity as if it's a marathon. Dive deep and pull value and meaning from each experience so you can discuss how each activity has been beneficial on your journey to medicine.

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