What Are The Best Extracurriculars For Medical School?

September 19, 2023
13 min read


Reviewed by:

Akhil Katakam

Third-Year Medical Student, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University

Reviewed: 9/19/23

Wondering how to choose the best extracurriculars for medical school? Read on to learn more about activity types and how to choose the ones that will make your application shine! 

Extracurriculars provide medical schools 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 you better. 

Knowing which extracurriculars for medical school are worth pursuing can be difficult, let alone knowing which activities to include in your application. We'll highlight important extracurriculars for medical school to take part in and how to choose which are right for you.

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Clinical students examining an x ray

Gaining clinical experience is crucial before applying to medical school. Your experiences show admissions committee members you’ve developed the skills necessary to become a competent doctor. It's also the only type of experience that allows you to really test-drive a medical career.

Picture explaining the importance of clinical experience for med school

A big part of your medical school application is answering one key question: why do you want to be a doctor? If you lack clinical experience, it can be challenging to convince schools that you’ve tested your motivations. Clinical experience shows you’re ready to commit to a time-intensive career path. 

Many types of experiences fall under clinical experience, though they’re typically broken down into paid or volunteer experiences. Paid experiences let you work closely with patients or at least participate in their care. Examples of paid clinical experience include working as a: 

  • Medical scribe 
  • Certified nursing assistant 
  • Medical assistant 
  • EMT 

Volunteer experiences are also valuable and allow you greater insight into a physician’s daily life. One of the most common 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 a physician and taking in the entire experience. You'll have the privilege of watching how a physician interacts with patients, 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. What better way to understand what a physician’s day-to-day is like than placing yourself in their shoes? While shadowing isn't technically a med school requirement, most students have a substantial amount of shadowing experience.


Someone looking through a microscope

Research experience is viewed favorably at most medical schools, especially ones well-known for research, such as Harvard and Stanford. Research is highly valued because it helps students sharpen various skills desired by medical schools. 

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’re curious and ready to make meaningful discoveries. 

Medical schools aren’t concerned with your research field. According to the AAMC,

“Research experience (in whatever discipline) is helpful for developing some of the AAMC Core Competencies, such as critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, scientific reasoning, as well as teamwork and oral communication skills.”
Image outlining the importance of research experience for medical school

As long as you show your research was meaningful, 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’re working on any 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.


A teacher teaching a class

Teaching/tutoring positions are valuable extracurricular activities for medical school. One of the many qualities admissions committees seek in applicants is strong communication skills. The ability to communicate clearly and effectively is essential to become a physician. Doctors must break down complex medical issues and explain them to their patients in a simple way. 

In addition, doctors rely on an extensive network of health professionals, such as nurses, assistants, students, and fellow doctors. They must form strong relationships with these individuals to keep everyone connected.

Image outlining the importance of teaching experience for medical school

Throughout a doctor's career, they’ll act as teachers at many different points. Many doctors will participate in teaching or tutoring during their medical training, teach residents when they're fully licensed, and teach 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 look up to you and trust you to compassionately guide them through course materials. You'll likely learn patience, compassion, and empathy – all qualities medical schools desire in aspiring physicians. 

Community Service 

A person volunteering

As a prospective doctor, your application has to show your desire and willingness to help others. Doctors can work long hours, on weekends, and on-call, ensuring they’re 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 who genuinely want to help people. For most, it's the driving force that makes them want to pursue this career in the first place. Community service shows you’re dedicated to helping others. 

Noreen Kerrigan, Associate Dean for Student Admissions at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, states,

“We’re not looking just for ‘brains on stilts.’ We were one of the first schools to go with competency-based admissions back in 2014. We talked about the importance of demonstrating a history of clinical experience and maturity and communication skills and cultural competency.”
Image outlining the importance of volunteer experiences for medical school

When choosing volunteer experiences, it's crucial to focus on your interests and goals. For example, if one of your core motivators is serving rural populations, volunteering in a rural community setting would be suitable. 

If you feel strongly about breaking down barriers that prevent equal access to care, you could volunteer at a community college teaching English to new immigrants. Your extracurriculars for medical school don't need to be restricted to the medical field. What's most important is showing dedication to your community and participating in meaningful experiences.


Someone playing the ukulele

There are many misconceptions about hobbies and whether or not they’re valuable to include in your medical school application. Hobbies give med schools a more in-depth look into who you are and where your passions and motivations lie. Hobbies can develop and strengthen various qualities, such as determination, motivation, communication, and leadership. 

In addition, many students find that involvement in hobbies helps them manage their stress – medical schools seek students who are self-aware and can manage their lives to avoid burnout.

Image outlining the importance of hobbies for med school applications

You should only participate in activities that are significant to you and those you actually enjoy. For example, if you've been figure skating since you were six and continue to value and devote a lot of time to it, 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 you deem significant. One of the categories you can choose is hobbies. This could be a great spot to add a hobby close to your heart, as long as you can explain what you gain doing it. 

Some students also incorporate a meaningful hobby into their personal statement. This incorporation can be an excellent way to individualize your application.

Tips to Choose the Right Extracurriculars for Medical School

Knowing which extracurriculars to participate in can be difficult for many students. Follow these tips to ensure you're choosing good extracurriculars for medical school that are most beneficial to you and your application.

Be Yourself

Everyone 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 to be answered when reviewing your application and interviewing you. 

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 you enjoy. 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 EMT. 

If you find that an activity isn't for you, don't be discouraged. Look for other positions to help you gain experience; just ensure you don't include that month-long stint as a scribe in your application. 

Quality Over Quantity

Some students make the mistake of participating in as many extracurricular activities for medical school as possible because they think it will impress admissions committees. This couldn't be further from the truth. Admissions committees are aware some students only participate in some extracurriculars in an attempt to boost their application. 

It's pretty easy to spot activities that were just completed for the sake of it rather than those completed out of genuine interest. The main giveaways? The type of activity and the time committed – activities that don’t align with your application narrative that you only participated in for a short time. 

Focus on including high-quality activities where you demonstrate a significant time commitment. It's much more valuable to have two two-year-long research experiences instead of five three-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 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 daily life was like. It's most important to share what you gained from the experience. 

The ability to reflect on every experience, whether negative or positive, demonstrates you have the level of maturity necessary to understand your experiences, learn from them, and carry that knowledge forward.

Strategies on How to Choose the Right Extracurriculars for a Medical School 

A person conducting a science experiment

To ensure you choose the best extracurriculars to get into med school, follow these strategies:

Consider Your Time Restraints

As stated earlier, you’ll want to go for quality over quantity. This approach not only enables you to invest more time and make a substantial impact but also guards against burnout. Take a close look at your schedule to determine the realistic amount of time you can commit to extracurricular activities. 

Don’t compromise your grades for extracurriculars! If you’re still in school, it may not be the best time to begin a full-time internship. Instead, consider volunteering on the weekends or shadowing on days you only have one class! 

Consider Your Goals

Don’t just pursue extracurriculars that you think will look good on your application. Instead, consider your personal goals and career path. 

What populations would you like to work with? What research topics interest you? Where do you want to work—locally or abroad? Your extracurriculars should not only help you expand your skills but should be relevant to your career and make you a stronger med school candidate! You should feel connected to your extracurriculars, so spend time choosing them. 

Consider Your Impact

Admissions committees seek applicants who stand out as more than just participants in clubs or organizations. To truly impress, demonstrate your indispensable role within a team that depended on your contributions. Opt for extracurricular activities that provide meaningful learning opportunities and allow you to make a significant impact on others.

While you should follow your passions and join simple interest clubs, you should also join extracurriculars that benefit your community or beyond. 

Key Points for International Students 

An airplane

If you’re an international student hoping to gain admission to a med school in America, the process for choosing the right extracurriculars may be a little different:

Branch Out

While you should still pursue extracurricular experiences in your home country, it would be beneficial to seek opportunities in America. For instance, you may be able to virtually shadow a physician in America, volunteer in America for a few weeks/months, or work on American research projects virtually. 

Understand the Challenges

There are only a few medical schools that accept international students. In 2019, just 17% of all international applicants were accepted into US med schools. Therefore, if you've committed to this path, it's imperative to make your application exceptionally competitive.

In addition to maintaining excellent grades and test scores, you should anticipate that the expectations for your extracurricular involvement may be higher compared to domestic applicants.

To bolster your candidacy, we recommend accumulating extensive clinical, research, and community service experience. Focus on these three activities above the rest. 

Med School Extracurricular FAQs 

Still have questions about choosing med school extracurriculars? Then check out these FAQs! 

1. Do I Need Clinical and Non-Clinical Volunteer Experience?

While obtaining both types of experience isn't required, it's strongly recommended. It's important to show you've put in a serious effort to help solidify your decision to pursue medicine while demonstrating you’re a well-rounded applicant dedicated to making a difference in your community and the world. 

2. How Do I Gain Leadership Experience for Medical School?

You can find leadership opportunities within almost every activity you decide to pursue. Whether you're the captain of your basketball team or leading 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. 

3. How Many Extracurricular Hours Do I Need to Be Competitive?

Some schools set minimum required hours for activities such as shadowing, but in general, most schools don’t. If you’re applying somewhere that does set requirements, aim to have more hours than the minimum. While there’s no magic number, aim to devote at least 100 to 150 hours to your extracurriculars.

4. Which Hobbies Should I Include In My Application? 

Think about which hobbies are the most meaningful to you. If you could only choose 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? 

Some examples of great hobbies to include are cooking, playing an instrument, or playing sports. 

5. How Many Extracurriculars Do I Need for Med School? 

While you can add up to 15 activities in your AMCAS application, you don’t need to use all the space provided. 

According to the AAMC, you should only enter “significant experiences; medical schools are interested in quality rather than quantity.” Use your best judgment about meaningful activities – if you have eight and are grasping at straws to find more, it’s best to stick with what you have. 

6. How Important Are Extracurriculars for Med School? 

Medical schools tend to review applications holistically – your MCAT scores and GPA alone don’t make or break your application. Besides recommendation letters and essays, your extracurricular activity list is one of the best ways to differentiate your profile and demonstrate your soft skills, like empathy, communication, perseverance, and integrity. 

Final Thoughts 

Always follow your passions and interests; you'll be more likely to enjoy and stick with activities you actually want to do. Remember to reflect on what you learned or gained from each experience. Finally, ensure you can demonstrate a significant time commitment to each activity. 

Remember, the most successful candidates pursue fewer extracurriculars for longer periods instead of many for shorter stints. Dive deep and pull value and meaning from each experience so you can discuss how each activity has benefited your journey to medicine. Good luck!

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