The Ultimate Medical School Extracurricular Guide

FIND OUT WHAT’S IMPORTANT FOR MEDICAL SCHOOL APPLICATIONS, HOW TO STAND OUT TO ADMISSIONS COMMITTEES, AND WHAT YOU ACTUALLY NEED TO DO TO BE COMPETITIVE

While your GPA and MCAT demonstrate your academic aptitude to medical schools, our previous posts “The 6 Pillars of an Excellent Medical School Application” highlighted the fact that your extracurricular activities are what sets your application apart beyond the numbers.  Your involvement and pursuit of experiences outside the classroom let admissions committees see you who you are through a different lens.  Declaring your interest in research, helping others, or working with the underserved is much different than actually dedicating your valuable time to these pursuits.

Extracurricular activities refer to anything you are involved in outside of the classroom. They can include anything from research experiences to volunteering at a hospital to competitive blindfolded pottery making.  With an endless world of possibilities and only so much limited time, you may be asking yourself: which activities should actually participate in?  How do I know which are important?  What will make my application stand out?

Or, if you are already an all-star medical student with a publication in Nature and a few patents to your name, you may be wondering if you are pursuing the right mix of activities.Are you spreading yourself too thin?Are you missing any critical activities?All of these are crucial questions to ask as you create consider applying to medical schools regardless of what tier you hope to attend.In a cheesy (no pun-intended) sandwich metaphor, your GPA/MCAT can be viewed as the bread to your sandwich.Without it, you don’t really have a sandwich as they form the backbone of your application.However, your extracurricular activities are the ingredients.Too many ingredients and the taste of each may get lost.Too few, you may end up with a bland sandwich. And poor quality ingredients?You might even consider throwing the sandwich out. If you have the perfect mix of high-quality ingredients though, that can often make up for stale bread.  While most of life can be explained through sandwich metaphors, your involvement in extracurricular activities is foundational to your medical school application.

This guide will help you determine the perfect mix of extracurricular activities to standout and make sure you’re not missing anything critical.  Through an in-depth 6 post series, we will cover each of the major extracurricular categories, tell you why each is important, provide examples of each, and detail how much involvement you should have.  This first post will be your starting off point and will provide general advice that is tried-and-true for all of your extracurricular activities.

EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES AND EXPERIENCE CATEGORIES: WHAT YOU NEED TO PARTICIPATE IN TO GET INTO MEDICAL SCHOOL

  1. Clinical experiences/patient exposure
  2. Physician shadowing
  3. Community service
  4. Leadership
  5. Research

GENERAL ADVICE FOR HOW TO STANDOUT THROUGH YOUR EXTRACURRICULARS

We’ve all heard stories about that person who got into every medical school: they created a nonprofit that provided healthcare to international refugees, they published a paper in Science twice, they took extensive time off to work in heath policy to help reduce healthcare spending.  These students have great stories and they often end up at great schools.  What do they have in common?

They put in extensive time that resulted in these accomplishments.  Standing out with your extracurriculars is hard because it involves plenty of time and dedication.  While shallow involvement in multiple activities may give you “checkboxes,” it likely won’t give you the impactful experience that stimulates conversation or makes you stand out.  These activities may take years of hard work to cultivate, so you should plan on putting in the time.

A big piece of advice we give applicants is to focus on “quality” rather than “quantity”.  What are you truly passionate about?  Whatever the answer is, that’s likely what you should pursue.  It doesn’t have to be related to medicine! Many non-medical experiences can highlight qualities that will make you an excellent doctor.  Drive, innovative problem solving, commitment - medical school committees are looking for these qualities in their applicants, and they don’t have to come from volunteering in a hospital.

Plan on participating in your experiences longitudinally.  Pick one or two activities that mean a significant amount to you, get deeply involved, and take initiative.  The more passionate you are about your activities, the easier it will be for you to commit your precious time to them.  That passion will also translate into your application and help you standout on paper and during interviews through your experiences.

Now, check out each individual post for in-depth guidance on clinical experience, shadowing, research, leadership, and community service!