You’ve probably read about the odds of being admitted to medical school. In the unlikely event that you haven’t and are currently in a good mood, don’t.
Here’s the short version: requirements start with an excellent GPA and MCAT score. Most applicants have both. The definition of “excellent” varies from school to school, but no school defines “excellent” as “meh.”
You probably also know that an excellent GPA and MCAT score aren’t enough. To gain an interview, applicants must somehow distinguish themselves from the rest of the talented multitude. There are three ways to do this: the personal statement, recommendation letters, and extracurriculars. Each is a significant part of one’s application. In the rest of this post, we’ll focus on the third item in this trio.
Misconceptions about extracurricular work are as stubborn as mugwort. Here they are, in ascending order of stubbornness:
- Healthcare work always trumps other kinds.
- The more leadership titles you can collect, the better.
- The more extracurriculars you can collect, the better.
Before we discuss each of these, let’s review what “extracurricular” means and the five species of work that admissions committees care most about.
“Extracurricular” means any activity that’s not required for a course. It might be necessary for you to take a job or to take care of someone. Admissions readers respect applicants who honor prudential necessity and familial obligation. Beyond these two exigencies, your time outside of class is yours, and how you use it matters.
Medical schools use your record of what you do outside of class as an index of who you are when no one’s telling you who you should be or what you should do.
Though the AMCAS application includes 19 categories of extracurricular involvement, medical schools prioritize five areas: service, shadowing, leadership, research, and direct experience with patients. This last area isn’t one of the 19 categories, but admissions readers will look for it in the service or employment sections.
Cydney Foote has published a detailed article on strategy that covers what activities to list, what to omit, how to classify them, how to choose your most meaningful experiences, and how to describe them. My aim here is to discuss the most common misconceptions about extracurriculars. Decades of learning and teaching have taught me that examining how and why things go wrong is a useful complement to examining how they go right. Consider this a “do NOT do” checklist.
Don’t assume that health- and healthcare-related activities are all that matters.
It makes intuitive sense that premed students should stuff their schedules with healthcare-related things. And yes, it IS important that admissions readers see evidence that you’ve investigated healthcare from several angles. So, at the risk of stating the obvious, shadow physicians in multiple specialties. Find opportunities to work directly with patients. If possible, look into research opportunities that connect with healthcare. Do your level best to confirm that this difficult road is the road for you.
But admissions readers are looking for three-dimensional applicants, and three-dimensional applicants do not have one-dimensional interests. If you have serious involvements outside of healthcare – if you’re an athlete, musician, entrepreneur, or activist, for example, or if you’re invested in anything that someone other than you might describe as interesting, and you’ve devoted serious time to it – don’t give that investment short shrift.
Your activities outside of healthcare will help the admissions readers develop a sense of who you are. They will help make you real to people who don’t know you. This is a primary goal of your application.
Don’t assume that exhibiting leadership is the same thing as having a leadership title.
Some students collect leadership titles like Swifties collect her vinyl albums, and like Midnights, some titles ARE valuable. A leadership title can say something about what your peers think of you. If the role confers power and you use it well, the position can speak to your initiative, creativity, and investment in a cause. Medical schools care about these things.
But roles are meaningless without action. Leadership is something you do, not a title you hold. Medical schools also care about resume padding, and a pile of titles that outweighs or obscures tangible results won’t help you.
There are only so many leadership positions available, but opportunities to contribute to whatever causes speak to you are practically numberless.
Don’t assume that the more extracurriculars you can rack up, the better.
Like most college students, you might have discovered that there are many more worthwhile and interesting activities than it’s possible to squeeze into four years. The temptation is to treat the profusion of extracurricular possibilities like an all-you-can-eat buffet.
For most, foraging indiscriminately among activities turns out to be a bad approach to maximizing either happiness or fulfillment. It also turns out to be exactly the wrong approach if you’re thinking about how to distinguish yourself from other medical school applicants.
Admissions readers are looking more for depth than breadth of involvement, and depth requires time. Time allows you to learn, to cultivate relationships, and to increase personal efficacy in whatever pursuit you’ve chosen. A sustained investment in a group, cause, or activity speaks to your capacity for commitment, persistence, and emotional maturity. Choose carefully, then do your best to honor your choice.
After they’ve looked at your grades and your MCAT score, medical schools will know you by what you say about yourself, what others say about you, and how you spend your time outside class. Your extracurricular ramble should help readers get a handle on who you are.
If you need help showcasing extracurricular activities in your medical school personal statement, activities, secondaries, and interviews, consider working with one of our expert medical school admissions consultants. We’d be delighted to help you.
Madison Searle managed admissions for three undergraduate honors programs at the College of Natural Sciences at UT Austin and read more than 5,000 applications, while also advising students applying to graduate and professional programs. He has taught writing seminars in two programs at the College of Natural Sciences – Health Science Scholars and Polymathic Scholars – and worked with students on their applications to medical school and other health professional schools.