AMCAS Work and Activities Composition: What to do with the extra characters
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) runs the American Medical College Application Service, or AMCAS, a centralized application service that allows aspiring first-year medical students to create one application that can be sent to most US medical schools, with the exception of Texas (advanced students or transferring students should contact their desired schools directly to learn the necessary method of application). There are eight sections to this application:
- Sections 1-3: Your Background Information
- Section 4: Course Work
- Section 5: Work and Activities
- Section 6: Letters of Evaluation
- Section 7: Medical Schools
- Section 8: Essays
- Section 9: Standardized Tests
This guide will explore Section Five: Work and Activities, demonstrating how to compose the most effective entries in the space allotted for these experiences. It is crucial that you learn how to make your AMCAS Work and Activities section stand out by determining which activities increase your chances of acceptance to medical school, learning how to compose the AMCAS "Most Meaningful Experiences", and how to maximize the impact of your standard Work and Activities entries.
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Section Five: Work and Activities
Before we begin, note that it is advisable to begin work on this as soon as possible. You need to become aware with the medical school application timeline, to ensure you have all the time you need to polish your application. Now then, with that said...
For this section of the AMCAS application, you will be able to select 15 experiences covering research, volunteer experiences, employment, awards, honors, publications, and extracurricular activities, and you can enter up to four occurrences for each type of experience. So, for example, if you have had five volunteer experiences, you can only include four of these, so be sure to prioritize effectively. You want to think strategically about which of your experiences you want to include, demonstrating a diverse range of experiences and highlighting a variety of key qualities sought in aspiring med students. These qualities can be identified by looking at the AAMC Core Competencies, which are spread across three areas: Pre-Professional Competencies (service orientation, social skills, cultural competence, teamwork, oral communication, ethical responsibility to self and others, reliability and dependability, resilience and adaptability, and capacity for improvement), Thinking and Reasoning Competencies (critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, scientific inquiry, and written communication), and Science Competencies (living systems, human behavior). Each of your entries must be something you’ve done since starting your undergraduate degree. Once entered into the application, your experiences will appear in chronological order, but the schools themselves can choose other sorting methods to best facilitate their own review processes.
Note that you do not need to enter exactly 15 experiences – quality matters more than quantity, and even the AAMC website specifies that medical schools are much more interested in significant experiences than they are in seeing every single activity or experience a student has had.
For each standard Work and Activities entry, you will have 700 characters (including spaces) to describe the experience beyond just type, title, duration, total hours, organization name, city, and contact information for verifiers. “Most Meaningful Experiences” are allotted an additional 1325 characters (including spaces).
Standard Work and Activities Entries
Once you’ve decided what to include in your AMCAS Work and Activities entries, you have 700 characters (including spaces) – or about four to five sentences – to discuss each experience. As with the “Most Meaningful Experiences”, you need to take time to carefully craft your entries, so that you’re maximizing the impact of each entry, and doing so while conforming to a very limited character count. 700 characters may sound like a lot, but it is actually quite difficult to summarize many important experiences in this amount of space.
Here’s a video on how to make your Work and Activities section stand out:
To structure each standard Work and Activities entry, we recommend using approximately one-third of the allotted characters to describe the setting and activity, ensuring that the most important accomplishment or result is highlighted. The remaining space in the entry should be used to demonstrate how the experience impacted you and helped you develop the qualities sought in future medical professionals. Here’s an example:
Paragraph or Part 1: Describe the setting and the activity in approximately one sentence, then describe the crowning accomplishment or most tangible result.
As a competitive soccer player in my youth, I embraced intramural soccer at ABC University, competing in the highest tier all year. In 2015, thanks to an excellent team showing, we won the league championship and I was named top Defender.
Paragraph or Part 2: Discuss the personal transformation that will make you a better physician candidate.
At the start of our 1st season, we were all strangers. However, because everyone showed up to play hard every game, we became each others’ greatest fans and advocates, even off the pitch. Moreover, soccer is my greatest tool for relaxation and building camaraderie. It is a perfect compliment to the discipline and commitment I bring to my academics, and having the time to de-stress allows me the calm concentration I need to perform effectively in my courses.
When the headings are removed, the above entry is exactly 700 characters long, including spaces:
As a competitive soccer player in my youth, I embraced intramural soccer at ABC University, competing in the highest tier all year. In 2015, thanks to an excellent team showing, we won the league championship and I was named top Defender. At the start of our 1st season, we were all strangers. However, because everyone showed up to play hard every game, we became each others’ greatest fans and advocates, even off the pitch. Moreover, soccer is my greatest tool for relaxation and building camaraderie. It is a perfect compliment to the discipline and commitment I bring to my academics, and having the time to de-stress allows me the calm concentration I need to perform effectively in my courses.
Getting the entry to that exact length, however, took quite a bit of writing, re-writing, editing, re-phrasing for concision, etc., even as someone who writes professionally. Each word was carefully chosen to maximize impact in minimal space, ensuring the activity itself was described effectively and that the impact of the experience and its connection to education and future work was highlighted. As well, without saying so explicitly, this entry draws on or implies several of the core competencies and key qualities noted above: teamwork (playing together effectively), communication (which is necessary for that effective teamwork), reliability and dependability (everyone – presumably including the author – coming together to practice consistently and regularly, working as a unit), capacity for improvement (winning the championship and being earning the designation of “top Defender” requires progress and improvement), resilience (again, to be named a top player necessitates overcoming obstacles and bouncing back from failures), and adaptability (intentionally participating in an activity that alleviates stress so that proper focus can be given to school work – or, in other words, adapting to the stress of school by relieving that stress through rewarding physical exertion).
This should be your general structure for each standard entry in the AMCAS Work and Activities section. Take your time to write with intention and reflect on how these experiences matter for your future as a physician. Give yourself enough time to write a draft, walk away, review it and edit it, walk away again, view it through the lens of the core competencies and key qualities and edit again accordingly, and send it off for professional review to ensure that your ideas are articulated as you intended, that you’ve maximized the potential impact of each entry, and that your prose is perfectly polished and free of errors, typos, or grammatical inconsistencies.
Most Meaningful Experiences
You will also be able to identify three of your entries as “Most Meaningful Experiences”. In this crucial element of your application, you are given an additional 1325 characters (including spaces), or about half a page, to discuss the impact and transformative nature of three of your experiences or activities. Note that you are not required to identify exactly three such experiences, but if you have two or more entries, you will be prompted to identify at least one as “most meaningful”.
The entries you identify as “Most Meaningful Experiences”, and the way you address those experiences, are immensely important and are under considerable scrutiny by the application reviewers. I strongly encourage you to take time to review our specific post on the AMCAS “Most Meaningful Experiences”, in addition to what we discuss here, to see effective strategies for emphasizing the transformative nature of these experiences.
The AMCAS Instructional Manual’s guidance on “Most Meaningful Experiences” is as follows:
"When writing your response, you might want to consider the transformative nature of the experience, the impact you made while engaging in the activity, and the personal growth you experienced as a result of your participation."
When I read this guidance, I am 100% certain that its author is begging you to not simply recite your CV. They are requesting reflective contemplation on the experiences you’ve had in your life that have led to your decision to pursue medicine as your career. Do not simply name the positions you held or offer a mere list of qualities, tasks, or roles from that experience. You have more room, and that room should be devoted to forming a brief but compelling narrative that demonstrates key qualities that speak to the larger question, "Why do you want to be a doctor?". It’s worth noting that, in composing these experiences, you will still have the initial 700 characters to offer a description of the position itself, so the extra 1325 characters are used to reflect on the impact of those experiences.
Let’s look at a research position to explore an example of how to structure these particular entries. If your “Most Meaningful Experience” is a summer research position, then here is your structure:
Paragraph or Part 1: Describe the setting and the project. If it was competitive, describe the selection process very briefly.
During the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I was selected by Dr. X for a student position in his lab, based on my academic performance to that point. My specific project explored the effect of X-gene signaling on expression of Alzheimer protein markers using mice models.
Paragraph or Part 2: Describe your specific role and highlight any leadership or team-building.
My roles included X, Y, and Z, and I was very involved with the lab’s X-team activities. I looked up to the senior students and graduate students, and I am so grateful for their mentorship. I was also included in many clinical shadowing activities.
Paragraph or Part 3: Explain the tangible results - i.e. a publication, a poster presentation, an award - of the research.
My findings were presented at X conference. We found that the interaction of X gene in the neurocellular environment increased the volume of Alzheimer-associated protein markers. These contribute to advancing the understanding of dementia.
Paragraph or Part 4: The personal transformation towards making you a better physician candidate.
While I was aware of the massive burden dementia and neurodegenerative diseases place on health systems, I was worried that my work in the lab would be impersonal and disconnected from the lived experience of patients. My supervisor was really invested in useful clinical application of his work, and he demonstrated the union of clinical acumen and investigative excellence. This mentorship was pivotal and it drove me to pursue scientific opportunities with clear clinical applications throughout my undergraduate career.
There you have it in four easy steps. When the headings are removed, this entry would be 1296 characters, with spaces. This is exactly the same scaffolding you can use for jobs, sports, volunteering, hobbies and extracurriculars, and any other type of work experience.
For any clinical experience, if possible, you can include a small vignette that portrays your interaction with a patient. Of course, please remove all identifying details and be careful with this. Well thought out and strategically employed vignettes help to paint a vivid picture of you as a provider of care. These pictures leave impressions and this is what you need, so just ensure that the impression you leave is one of a mature professional who embodies the key qualities and core competencies desires in aspiring future physicians. An example of such a vignette can be found in our companion post on the AMCAS “Most Meaningful Experiences”.
Also, bear in mind that the text container AMCAS uses allows no formatting at all, so you can’t get fancy and use bullet points to say more. Use only full sentences with full ideas, and ensure you have someone to review what you’ve written, so that you know you’re presenting well-written, fluid prose, that makes your growth and development evident.
Even though each AMCAS entry is considerably less substantial than a component like your personal essay (in terms of length), that doesn’t necessarily mean that these are easier to compose, nor that they are of less importance than the personal statement. There are no insignificant aspects of the application process. You must bring your best, most refined effort to each and every component of your application. Sometimes, working with less space is actually more difficult, because you want to say as much as you can within a very limited character count. So, don’t delay or put off this portion of your application, assuming that it’s something that can be thrown together at the last minute – it’s not.
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