Extracurriculars tell medical admissions committees who you are. They diversify your application and enable you to present as a well-rounded candidate. More than that, they can shape your values and lead to significant personal growth and fulfillment over time. In general, medical schools care most about activities that have led to personal growth, often that you’ve decided to commit to for a long period of time. Remember quality over quantity. It doesn’t matter that you are part of every premed club on campus if you haven’t done anything in them. That’s not to say you shouldn’t join some of these as they can be an excellent source of camaraderie and discovering new extracurricular opportunities. Rather, this is just to say that you should be weary of overextending yourself and instead focus on finding organizations that you can do something meaningful in.
To simplify, I’m going to break it down into 3 categories: clinical, research, and community service.
These show that you understand what it means to be a physician and are familiar with the field. Shadowing a doctor is your best bet towards gaining this familiarity and seeing if the job is the right fit. These opportunities can be hard to come by – I recommend jumping on any opportunity you find so long as it does not interfere with academic performance. You can explore personal connections, your school may offer a program, or there are also many that can be found online. A quick google search can yield many results for programs, particularly in the summer, that provide in-depth clinical observations. Many of these may also be geared towards low-income, under-represented communities and can offer to cover costs. I highly recommend beginning to look into these early in your college career, although some are also applicable for high-schoolers.
Medical volunteering is another great way to gain insight into the field. Volunteering in the emergency department is a common selection and a good foot in the door, however, in my experience it is usually not impactful enough to continue long-term. Instead, maybe search for something a little more unique. Nonprofit clinics sometimes offer more responsibilities and thus a better experience. Sometimes patient care volunteers, especially in hospices, allow you to become an integral part of the medical team as you can have the opportunity to engage with patients who may be suffering from social isolation – visiting them can have a huge impact on their quality of life. Point is, despite having no technical skills there are still a multitude of ways to engage in meaningful medical volunteering that goes beyond changing bed sheets for 4 hours straight. Remember that it is not the position’s title or the number of hours you spend that matters, but rather what you learn from the experience that has a true chance to shine on your application.
Although less than half of medical matriculants have it, medical paid employment can be an outstanding way of gaining experience and exposure to the field. Some of the jobs that come to mind are EMTs, scribes, ED techs, medical assistants, patient care techs… I won’t go into these in detail right now but know that it is very feasible to work these part time while still in college. However, they do take a significant amount of time and for that reason it is usually better to wait until the latter end of college. These are also great ways to spend a gap year and build up money.
Working as a research assistant has practically become required for entrance into medical school. It demonstrates ability to work well in a team-based setting towards long-term goals. It can be difficult to break in – for many it may be best to begin applying 2nd and beginning of 3rd year as you will have an understanding of basic lab skills from bio and chem lab classes. These skills are marketable and coupled with a strong academic record will make you a solid candidate.
I recommend targeting around 3 professors whose work you are genuinely interested in – send out well worded introduction emails and follow up by visiting office hours with a resume (even if they don’t reply to your email). Make sure to have a basic grasp on their field of study by reviewing relevant literature before meeting them.
Another avenue to look out for is summer research programs. Many medical schools have both clinical observation as well as research internships for undergraduates, and these can all be discovered online. Again, if you are from an underserved background many of these programs will cover the cost of attending and more. Look into these early in your college career, as completing one will give you a huge edge in breaking into labs at your university.
The best type of community service you can engage with should be personal. Focus on things you care about. It can be medically related but by no means has to be – healing and strengthening a community requires an interdisciplinary approach. Educational outreach, distributing supplies to the homeless, environmental protection…etc all come to mind. Find programs with goals you want to stick with for an extended period of time. As with any extracurricular, aim to increase your responsibilities beyond the usual and change things for the better. This will lead to personal growth and the gains from your experience will be reflected in your medical school application.
In order to completely cover your bases, you need to have meaningful experiences in all 3 of these categories. As a general rule, it is important to solidify your academics before committing to time-intensive extracurriculars. Be wary of committing to too many activities, especially at the start of college which can be much better used to solidify studying habits. GPA and MCAT will always be most important. I personally did not start on extracurriculars until spring quarter of first year, and by no means do I feel behind in my medical pursuits because of it. There is no rush to jump into things – the medical path is a marathon not a sprint.
If I had to summarize extracurriculars in a sentence, it would be this. Do stuff you like that lead you to the conclusion of why you want to be a doctor. Although you may engage in similar extracurriculars as other applicants, what you take away from those experiences should be uniquely your own.
– Byron R.
Like these posts? Give us a sub so I can update you when I’m done procrastinating on these articles.