Your AMCAS application is a lot like a plate at a barbecue. A lot of attention is given to the “meat” of your application – but it’s what you write about in the activities section that adds flavor and variety to the “meat” of your profile.
You have a limit of 15 activities that you can include in the activities section of the AMCAS application. It will hurt your application if you have less than 15 activities. The types of activities that you include, the length of time you participated, and how you describe them all have an impact on how the adcom views your dedication to this career path.
What kinds of activities should you include?
- Community service
- Hands-on clinical experience
- Honors and awards
- Paid employment
The types of activities most relevant to medicine are the four at the top of the list above. If possible, be strategic in making sure that you cover multiple areas. Since shadowing is considered the most passive form of clinical experience, hands-on clinical experience (like serving as a hospital volunteer, an interpreter, a medical scribe, an EMT, or a medical assistant) is more highly valued.
What’s the ideal breakdown for your AMCAS work and activities?
The strongest applicants have (a) three or more leadership roles, (b) three or more community service activities, (c) three or more clinical experiences, (d) one honors and awards section (in which you detail them all), (e) one shadowing section (describe all shadowing under one heading), (f) one or more research projects, (g) one or more internships, (h) one or more paid employment (you can list all under one to save space), and (i) one hobby (preferably one in which you have reached some degree of mastery and/or teach to others).
As long as you cover the four key areas highlighted above (leadership, community service, hands-on clinical experience, and honors and awards) and you have 15 or more (you can include multiple activities within one activity description) experiences, any combination of the activity types mentioned above can be successful.
What should you NOT include in this section?
- Hair or blood donations
- Babysitting for family
- Research or projects for which you received course credit
- Paid employment that could be considered unethical or morally questionable
- Shadowing a parent or family member who is a medical professional
- Religious attendance
How long-term should activities be?
The length of time that you participate in activities will be scrutinized. Exclusively short-term activities – for example no more than six months in every activity — can be considered a red flag. Lots of short-term activities may indicate that the applicant is difficult to work with or lacks commitment. I recommend including long-term (one year or longer) activities, whenever possible. Most successful applicants have a combination of long- and short-term experiences.
What makes a strong activity description?
For each activity description, you need to explain what the company or organization was and what your responsibilities included. The best descriptions indicate what you have learned and include strong conclusions that demonstrate a high level of reflection in terms of what the experience meant to you and how you helped others through it. For instance, “Friends for Life is a national mentoring organization for disadvantaged youth; our campus branch tutored 4th and 5th graders in the Boston area.” If your experience is in a lab, explain the research goal in layman’s terms.
Be sure to focus on your responsibilities. This is the heart of your experience, so be specific about what you did – and the impact you had. This might be your role as a team member in a lab: “I used PCRs, Western blots, SDS-gels, plasmid DNA, and total RNA purification methods in experiments to express and purify genes for use in hemorrhagic shock experiments; my analysis was used in experiments intended to improve organ preservation.” Or it might be your leadership of a student group: “I recruited a 12-member working group that investigated safety concerns; our report to college officials resulted in increased patrols and dorm escorts that reduced on-campus crime by 20%.” Whatever it is, go beyond the superficial job description and use this space to identify your strengths and accomplishments.
Lastly, don’t ask the admissions committee to connect the dots for you. Whether improving your retention through teaching MCAT courses, communicating with a diverse group of people as a food bank volunteer, or learning the art of compromise as you negotiated with university administrators, your last sentence should make the connection between that experience and your medical studies and/or career.
How to choose your 3 most meaningful experiences
Your three meaningful activities should expand on these points above, but they also need to tell us why each one matters to you. This is a chance to reveal your goals, values, and personal qualities in a way that the shorter descriptions of your responsibilities don’t allow. Through these three activities, we’ll see how you put your beliefs into action, so don’t be afraid to get personal here. It’s great to hear that you made a strong impact on a person or a community, but be sure to tell us why making that kind of impact is important to you. And of course, emphasize again how this is going to make you a better physician.
Clocking in at 700 characters each, with an additional 1325 characters for your three meaningful ones, it may be a challenge to make your 15 activities seem as hearty as the main course. But with some skillful organization and creativity, these tasty sides will add a lot to your meal.
Taking the time to write meaningful descriptions will definitely enhance your chances of acceptance.
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