As a high schooler and pre-med, I found myself trying to figure out what medical schools wanted from me. I tried different activities thinking that completing a checkbox of activities could help me succeed and stand out, until I learned a framework for designing a medical school application that got me into multiple accelerated medical programs and Ivy League schools.
In this post I’m going to save you an insane amount of time and talk about how YOU can get into these schools as well by showing you how to structure your extracurricular activities to appeal to college.
First, I want to give some context. The most often question I get from people applying to medical school is that they have time to join extracurriculars but they don’t want to waste their time doing something that they won’t be involved in the future. It’s busy enough trying to manage grades, adding something on top of it is very hard. But, medical school’s aren’t looking for just a list of activities.
They’re looking for well-rounded student bodies, and you can do this by spending time in what you are truly interested in. For example, if you’re interested in embroidery, start sewing a lot and build it into your extracurricular activities. You can join an embroidery club, show your art pieces to the gallery, sell them on Etsy. You don’t need to tie it to medicine just yet, but just become good at the activity that you want.
The next step would be to participate in a medicine-related activity involving patient care such as being in the emergency department, a nursing home, or somewhere else. You may see nursing home residents sewing in their spare time, and you can sell your embroidery art pieces as fundraisers for the nursing home and buy supplies for the nursing home. Or, you can do embroidery with the residents at the nursing home. Both of these activities show a hard work ethic on your part, show a concerted effort to help your community, involve direct patient care, and best of all—you actually like doing it.
Instead of joining pre-medical organizations, and going through the rigamarole of checking off boxes for medical schools, you’re actually showing that you care by helping the community and going deep into what you like. You can then brand yourself as the “Embroidery person” for medical school admissions officers to notice and remember. This framework is super important and I want to put the next few extracurricular activities that I mention in that context.
Categorization of Activities
Broadly, there are three categories to think about extracurricular activities. First, there are clinical activities which involve some combination of community service, shadowing, or direct involvement in patient care. Second, there are research activities which can be basic or clinical research. Finally, the most important to your health and well-being are personal extracurricular activities. I would argue that it is these which provide the most insight into how you can “stand out” to admissions committees. Standing out is not about skill stacking, or talking about what you actually performed during the activity, but rather telling a story about how that extracurricular impacted you or how you impacted it. Medical school admissions committees definitely know what shadowing or being an EMT entails. They want to see how it strengthened your desire to become a physician. Again, these are suggested activities, but if you tie some of them together, they can be very rewarding and definitely help you secure an interview and acceptance for medical school.
Community and Volunteer service is very important to becoming a physician. Involvement in a service activity without a guarantee of reward or compensation shows dedication to the wellness of society, and it doesn’t have to be medical. A competitive applicant for medical school usually has 150 hours of community service, and like I mentioned in the example, if you tie it into something you like, then it can be doubly rewarding. In my application, I had been volunteering at a local soup kitchen since I was in middle school because I knew the owner, and one year a kid came up to me and asked me whether he could have a present for Christmas. That’s what inspired me to start a toy drive for the community and give back. This continuity from middle school to high school really helped me when it came time to submit applications to medical school, and doing something which meant a lot to me was easy when I was interested in it.
Physician shadowing is another part of the application which many people are eager to fulfill, but this is more about understanding the day-to-day activities of the physician. To “stand out,” you need to talk about the parts which interested or intrigued you. I shadowed in a physical medicine and rehabilitation clinic in the hospital which I volunteered at, and I was particularly intrigued by the construction of the custom prostheses which were made by the rehabilitation physicians. This was one part of my application where I wish I extended it and shadowed other physicians, but I wasn’t able to do that. I would say that you probably should shadow more than one physician, and try to get a letter of recommendation from one of them. You should ideally spend at least 50 hours shadowing because it may help you extend some of your hobbies and get advice about becoming a physician from someone who is doing it.
Finally, direct patient exposure and hands-on involvement is the third extracurricular which is important to medical schools. For example, I volunteered at the same hospital in which I shadowed in the educational department and I was able to give seminars for healthcare professionals and patients about their diagnoses and talk to them about worries that they had about their life post-discharge. This is where you have the most creativity to combine passions or create your own extracurricular. Do you really like pediatrics? Then you can set up a coloring book session for pediatric patients. Do you really like comedy? Then you can perform for the geriatric patients in a nursing home. For me, it was about applying what I learned to talking with cancer patients. This tied into my research on glioblastoma multiform.
Another aspect of extracurricular activities is leadership. Leadership can be shown in many ways, but some common aspects include having responsibility for others, with a purpose to guide or direct others. Like I said, you can do what makes you happy. If you’re interested in running, then try to bring that running club closer to medicine by raising money via a walk-a-thon, or having patients learn about good walking form. You could even go as far as walking with patients outside of a hospital to get to know them and talk about it in your personal statement. It can also be traditional, such as being president of a club or on a leading aspect of it. This is what I did with Model UN in my high school years to apply to medical school. We took our team to multiple national conferences, which hadn’t been done at our high school, and were able to secure a team award for our school.
Finally, involvement in research, which can either be in a wet-lab pipetting things or a dry lab doing database research, can be very rewarding. It is definitely not required based on my spiel about standing out and doing things that interest you, however, one way that you could tie it to something that interests you is tying in your interests into medicine. If you’re interested in ping pong, you can do research about biomechanics or strains in ping pong players. My recommendation is that if you join a laboratory, however, stick with them for at least one year. This demonstrates your commitment to one laboratory and your mentor will be more likely to provide you with more responsibility if you show commitment.
A note about listing them in your application
Even after you have completed the hard work of doing all of these steps, there is still a proper way to report them when applying to medical schools. When they ask you about a description for the activity, don’t list out what you did and what you were involved in. In Model UN for example, you can do it in two ways. One way would be
“I was involved in Model UN, which is a club that gives students experiences in international relations. I was responsible for making sure that we had club outreach to the student body, applying to national conferences, keeping people inspired, and teaching the important principles of Model UN to people in the club. I was also involved in making sure that students were able to succeed in conferences which tested them on their ability to handle multiple different topics in international relations, such as disarmament, human rights, and biomedical ethics. I was able to develop superior communication skills and negotiation skills in this setting and was able to stand out amongst my peers by winning multiple awards, such as Outstanding Delegate at ILMUNC (Ivy League Model UN Conference).”
This type of description sucks because it doesn’t tell me anything about you, and most admissions officers already know about the big clubs like Model UN, HOSA, Quiz Bowl, et cetera. Don’t list out the basic job descriptions in the extracurricular section, but rather how that activity impacted YOU or how YOU impacted the people in that activity. This avoids the checkbox mentality and makes you seem more human.
A better description would be:
“My experience in Model UN began in middle school, when I had the initiative, along with a few of my middle school friends, to attend high school conferences. We were motivated and determined to show that we knew just as much as high schoolers when it came to complex world issues. In order to keep up, I read the WSJ, the Atlantic, and the NY Times to perform at the highest level. I continued to high school, where I was elected as vice president of the Model UN club and was able to take my school to its’ first-ever run of multiple national conferences, winning multiple individual and team awards.
A particularly rewarding conference was when my team member “Abby” and I were able to define regulations around an emerging technology, CRISPR-Cas-9, during a committee designed to curb bio-terrorism. We were able to convince our teammates in our bloc to join our resolution idea and eventually became first sponsors of our resolution, and won an award in that committee.”
You are able to tell stories about your ingenuity and connecting it back to what you’re interested in, even if it may not be medically related. One example for a description about a community service activity could be:
“I have been volunteering at Generic Soup Kitchen since middle school. As a Boy Scout, I was approached by “Gendry,” a child who didn’t have a toy and was wondering where our Christmas Tree was during one of our open weekends in December. Inspired by his comment, I decided to start a toy drive for the soup kitchen so that they could have an option for children during the winter months; I also added on a food drive in subsequent years to help with the food reserves as people throw out a lot of food during the Thanksgiving to Christmas months. Community efforts are a big part of who I am, and I credit that to my experiences with Generic Soup Kitchen. My experiences at Generic Soup Kitchen has taught me that extending a helping hand during one’s time of need is important, and inspiration can be found anywhere. I saw “Gendry” one other time in the soup kitchen, and was able to give him a toy when I saw him—showing him that Santa always followed through for him.”
For patient facing activities, you can tell stories about patients or people that you met. You can talk about a challenge which you overcame. If you were a teacher, tell a story about a challenging student which you have. Tell stories about how the activities impacted you. You don’t need to have a pitch, just show them what you like about the activity and how YOU impacted the activity. Furthermore, you can describe shadowing about what interests you in medicine, and talk about your experiences or impact that shadowing has had on you.
Well that’s it for extracurriculars. If you want to learn how to do well on the MCAT or other pre-medical videos, check out my MCAT Prep playlist which goes over the sections of the MCAT and how you could improve your score in them.