5 Tips to Make Your Experiences Stand Out

 

AMCAS "Most Meaningful Experiences"

In completing the AMCAS Work and Activities section of the AMCAS application (required for all medical school applications in the US, except Texas), you are asked to provide up to 15 “significant” experiences from your employment, research, volunteer, and extracurricular activities, which will be reviewed in considering your application. We discuss the fundamentals of the AMCAS Work and Activities elsewhere, so here, we’re going to pay special attention to what the AMCAS application refers to as “most meaningful experiences”. While all of the entries here are significant in the overall evaluation of your application, the most important aspect of the Work and Activities section are these “most meaningful experiences”.

Up to three of your AMCAS entries can be isolated as “most meaningful experiences” – experiences that had a particular impact on your growth, development, professionalization, or that were particularly transformative or impactful. While each entry is given 700 characters (including spaces), these “most meaningful experiences” are allotted an additional 1325 characters (again, including spaces). This is not intended to be used as a space to simply describe more details of the position or activity; rather, this is meant to be a more reflective, contemplative narrative that highlights the ways in which these experiences enriched your life, the lives of others, and your overall perspective toward your journey to becoming a doctor. This isn’t the place for an expanded CV; it’s a place to demonstrate the key qualities you’ve developed and the ways in which these have contributed to your suitability for the profession.

If you’re just getting started on your AMCAS entries, check out our Definitive Guide to the AMCAS Work and Activities Section

What is a “most meaningful” experience?

When considering which experiences to isolate as “most meaningful”, you first need to reflect on each of your experiences individually. In particular, you should consider these experiences in light of the AAMC Core Competencies and the general qualities and non-cognitive skills sought in aspiring medical professionals. Such qualities applicants include: social responsibility, cultural sensitivity, leadership, management, compassion, altruism, initiative, cooperation, collaboration, professionalism, empathy, communication skills, and so on. You should also think through the common question, "Why do you want to be a doctor?" and think through how the above qualities connect to your own goals as a future professional. You can begin narrowing down your list of experiences based on this, to come up with a “short list” of potential “most meaningful” experiences.

As well, there is a subjective element in these choices – which experiences were “most meaningful” to you? While you want to think strategically, so that you’re clearly articulating experiences that reflect the kinds of qualities medical programs are seeking, you also need to be authentic. The reviewers will be able to tell if you are inflating a particular entry simply because it “looks good”. Think honestly about where you’ve gone, what you’ve done, and what you’ve learned – looking back on those experiences, which of them actually left you feeling transformed (either immediately, or in retrospect)? Which experiences genuinely made you feel like you were making a difference or contributing in a meaningful way? Which experiences radically shifted your perspectives or priorities? Which experiences have truly made you who you are today? If you’re speaking from that place of authenticity and effectively conveying these ideas, it will be very clear why those are the experiences you’ve chosen to isolate as “most meaningful”. The biggest, most flashy, or most impressive-sounding roles may not be the “most meaningful”. Maybe you were president of a large club on campus, or a member of the Model UN. That’s great! However, it’s entirely possible that a position handing out meals at a free kitchen, or volunteering to run weekly activities at a retirement community, had a much more deep and meaningful impact on who you are as an aspiring med school student and as a person.

AMCAS “Most Meaningful Experiences” Tip #1: Stand out from the crowd

The experiences that you list can be of all sorts – healthcare related positions, scholarship activities, experiences abroad or overseas, volunteer efforts, leadership opportunities, extracurricular or artistic pursuits, etc. – and the experiences designated “most meaningful” can also be in any category. It’s not necessarily best, for example, to devote all three “most meaningful” experiences to paid employment in a healthcare setting, simply for the sake of demonstrating that you’ve worked in a medical environment in multiple contexts, because you think that will stand out to the admissions committee. While at least one or two of these experiences can be related to the field of medicine, it’s important to note that they do not all need to be healthcare-related; if possible, you want to show depth and breadth, to highlight your well-roundedness as a candidate, and to articulate the meaning behind your experiences in a concise and compelling manner.

Remember, most applicants will have strong academic accomplishments, experience in a healthcare setting, volunteer experience, etc. – it is well-known that these things are all necessary for a competitive application. So, you need to think about what is going to make you stand out in a vast sea of similarly or equally qualified applicants. What is key is that you develop a compelling narrative that demonstrates what you’ve learned, how you’ve grown, and what impact you made in each experience, and that you do so in a way that highlights the qualities sought in future medical professionals.

AMCAS “Most Meaningful Experiences” Tip #2: It’s a story, not a list

One great way to demonstrate the meaningfulness of your experience is to create a vignette - a brief illustration or description that captures a particularly poignant, representative moment or experience. First, let’s look at a sample entry of 700 characters (with spaces), which we’ll explore as a “most meaningful experience” later:

Title: Volunteer Resident Attendant, XYZ Retirement Community

Description: XYZ Retirement Community aims to provide varying levels of care for residents in their retirement. With Assisted Living, Independent Living, and Intensive Care units, they offer a dynamic model that cares for residents throughout their senior years. For 3 years, I acted as a Resident Attendant, helping residents to daily meals, providing transport to events within the facility, running small errands, and providing companionship to residents. In this position, I was able to provide support to nurses’ aides during busy times of the day and encourage residents to stay active and social by attending communal meals, games of Bingo, afternoon movies, and other recreational activities. (687 characters, with spaces)

This is a pretty standard AMCAS Work and Activities entry. Now, let’s look at how we can expand this as a “most meaningful experience”. 

One of the biggest mistakes students make in composing their “most meaningful” entries is to approach the discussion of qualities in a very literal way. For example, many first drafts will be full of statements like this:

“In my Volunteer Resident Attendant position at XYZ Retirement Community, I learned to be compassionate, mature, and professional. My communication skills were also highly valued by my peers and superiors. This experience truly transformed me in ways I couldn’t have previously imagined.”

While it is clear that this individual developed (or, at least, believes they developed) compassion, maturity, professionalism, and communication skills in this transformative position, such a passage doesn’t actually demonstrate such qualities at all, let alone in a way that will make an impression on the reader. In essence, it is merely saying, “Trust me, I have these qualities”, and that is, quite simply, not good enough.

A much more effective (and more engaging!) tactic is to craft a story about your experience. Most people love a good narrative and working this into your “most meaningful” experiences is possible, even with the small amount of space you’re given. This is one reason that you must start early and get expert feedback – saying so much in such little space takes a lot of time (as Mark Twain once said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”), and it requires a professional eye to ensure your meaning is effectively articulated. Using brief stories of real-life experiences through descriptive prose that shows the readers how you developed the qualities you’re highlighting will both ensure that you are maximizing the potential of these entries and providing a pleasant reading experience for the application reviewers. Remember, they will review hundreds, if not thousands, of these; a genuinely engaging, well-written, and thoughtful reflection on meaningful experiences will help them appreciate your application on multiple levels.

>>Free Sample Winning Medical School Personal Statements Including One That Got SIX Acceptances<<

AMCAS “Most Meaningful Experiences” Tip #3: Show, don’t tell

Just as you must avoid simply listing qualities, you must also avoid assuming that the person reviewing your entries will automatically understand the significance of an experience, interaction, or event – let alone understand this significance in the same way as you. To demonstrate your strengths through your narrative, you’ll want to employ the “show, don’t tell” strategy. That is to say, don’t just “tell” the reviewer that you developed a particular quality, skill, or characteristic; rather, “show” them how that development took place. Let’s look again at the passage above:

“In my Volunteer Resident Attendant position at XYZ Retirement Community, I learned to be compassionate, mature, and professional. My communication skills were also highly valued by my peers and superiors. This experience truly transformed me in ways I couldn’t have previously imagined.”

We can get rid of the list-like elements and compose something much more compelling by combining the use of narrative with a “show, don’t tell” approach. Consider the following:

“I still recall the cool morning of April 10. I arrived for my shift at XYZ Retirement Community 30 minutes early, so I could visit Agnes, as I had every Friday for 2 years. Despite our age difference, we forged a deep friendship, which we nurtured with morning tea each week. She was a great storyteller and her age gave her wisdom and perspective; she always emphasized the importance of kindness, reminding me of the struggles all people face. Looking forward to another chat, I tapped on her door that April morning. As I entered, I saw Agnes still in bed and clearly unwell. I wanted to fall apart, but I knew I needed to pull through for her. I quickly called the nurses and aides and carefully detailed what I’d seen; with this information, they quickly assessed her and arranged her transport to the hospital. We never got to have our final tea that day, but there was love in her eyes as she was whisked away. I realized, in that moment, both the strength and fragility of those who will rely on my care. I also learned that, in moments when I may want to panic or get swept up in emotion, I can stay even-headed and help other experts perform effectively. In the end, Agnes taught me so much about the world and my responsibilities to others, and I hope to share her kindness in my role as a future physician.” (1324 characters, with spaces)

Note that the standard description of the position at XYZ Retirement Community has been provided in the initial 700 characters, so the extra 1325 characters provides space to really bring the evaluator into the applicant’s experience, to help them see how such key characteristics developed. In this extended example, compassion, maturity, professionalism, and skillful communication are all highlighted effectively, and provided via a contextual narrative that is genuinely engaging to read. The entry takes one meaningful set of interactions and allows this to speak for a wealth of important qualities sought in medical school applicants. It is clear to the reader that this was a truly transformative experience, without directly reading the words, “This experience truly transformed me in ways I couldn’t have previously imagined.” Through a story of a meaningful friendship cut unexpectedly short, this narrative shows the applicant’s transformation, rather than just telling the reader that there was a transformation.

AMCAS “Most Meaningful Experiences” Tip #4: Don’t delay - complete a draft and then walk away

Crafting a compelling narrative takes time, there’s no easy way around that. The extended description provided above took a couple hours, walking away at the end of one day and returning to it again the next -- and I do this for a living! In that time, it went through several edits and re-writes, with the language, tone, pace, and even terminology carefully considered for maximum impact. You absolutely must get started on this aspect of the application early, so that you have time to write and then reconsider, and then walk away for a bit, and then edit, and then reconsider again, and then walk away and return, review, and edit again, and so on. Even if you are already a skilled writer, there is simply no substitute for time.

Aside from the fact that engaging writing takes time, you also need to give yourself the ability to proofread with fresh eyes. Even after you think you’ve completed the entry, you need to walk away (for at least an hour) and return to read the entry again. One great way to ensure your writing flows effectively is to read it aloud. It may feel awkward, but it’s one of the best writing tips I’ve ever received. If you have difficulty following the pace of a sentence that seemed clear in your head, if you stumble over a word or phrase, it’s likely that it will be awkward for the reader, as well. It’s very difficult to identify such things when we’re reading our own words silently, to ourselves, in our head. Reading aloud, however, acts as a spotlight to little inconsistencies, incorrect verb tense, missing commas, etc.

AMCAS “Most Meaningful Experiences” Tip #5: Get expert feedback

Aside from this, the other best writing tip is to get expert feedback, and to do so early, so that you have time to make any necessary corrections. Again, when reading your own words, it’s easy to skip over little grammatical inconsistencies, but an expert will spot them immediately and give you feedback on how to correct them.

Beyond grammatical review, however, an expert will be able to tell you whether your entry makes the impact you hope it does, before it enters the hands of the application reviewers. When we’re writing about our own experiences, we know the impact those experiences had on us, and we can often assume that such an impact will be clear to the reader, simply because it’s clear to us. That, however, is the exact opposite of what usually happens. Transporting readers into your own head-space, helping them see the transformative nature of experiences through your own eyes, is an immensely difficult task, and one that is difficult for even the most experienced writers (this, by the way, is why all writers have editors – even the most well-known, decorated, award-winning authors rely on others to review their work, in order to ensure everything is conveyed effectively and with the maximum intended impact!).

This is why we offer application review packages that include review of the AMCAS Work and Activities entries, the med school personal statement, and strategy sessions with our admissions experts to ensure your examples and experiences are as impactful as possible before you dedicate hours to composing them and editing them, with us providing feedback and reflection along the way! 

How would you like us to help you make your application stand out?

>>Visit our medical school consulting prep page to learn more and schedule your free initial consultation today!<<

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

Image credit: GotCredit, via the Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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