Extracurriculars for Medical School: What You Need in 2020

Updated: July 1, 2020

Extracurriculars for medical school help the admissions committee identify which individuals possess essential non-cognitive skills, emotional intelligence, and the dedication required to handle the rigors of medical school and become competent, passionate physicians. With fierce applicant competition, medical school extracurriculars can help set you apart from the rest of the applicant pool and prove that you excel beyond the classroom. In this blog, you'll learn how to select extracurriculars for medical school to ensure you are a unique, well-rounded applicant.

Here's what you're going to learn:

Extracurriculars for medical school: Clinical

Extracurriculars for medical school: Research

Extracurriculars for medical school: Community Service

Extracurriculars for medical school: Teaching

Extracurriculars for medical school: Hobbies

3 Tips for selecting the best extracurriculars for medical school

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Extracurriculars for medical school: Clinical

There are a variety of important extracurricular activities to partake in but clinical experience is one of the most important experiences to have when applying to medical school. You need to be able to answer the question “why do you want to be a doctor?” in your medical school applications and during your interviews, and clinical experience is a sure way to demonstrate your conviction towards medicine. It's very difficult to prove to the admissions committee that you're serious about pursuing medicine and that you've thought long and hard about it without being able to provide evidence to support your feelings. Working or volunteering in a clinical setting shows the admissions committee that you've taken the necessary steps to see what the profession will be like. Not only is this important for admission, but it is also important for you as a person. How else can you get a feel for what it will be like to be a physician without being a part of that environment?

Shadowing a doctor is one of the best ways to learn about the field, understand what the day to day is like for a physician, ask questions, and connect with patients, residents and other doctors. You'll have the opportunity to watch each moment of the day unfold and once you know how to ask to shadow a doctor, you'll be able to connect with different doctors in varied fields of medicine such as family medicine, pediatrics or neurosurgery, depending on your area of interest. Some students are unsure which areas of medicine they are interested in pursuing, so shadowing a doctor is a great opportunity to expose yourself to different fields to help you hone in on your interests. In addition to shadowing a doctor, other clinical experiences that can demonstrate your passion, commitment and knowledge of the profession are useful including working as a medical scribe, or other positions in a hospital or clinic setting.

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Extracurriculars for medical school: Research

Research experience is a wonderful extracurricular activity to add to your application because it shows the admissions committee that you are curious about the unknown, have an interest in learning new information and possess a desire for discovery. These are excellent attributes that will carry over in your medical school training. Research experience is particularly important if you want to pursue MD-PhD programs where you'll be training to become a physician-scientist, requiring a strong passion for both medicine and research. Working as a lab assistant is certainly a good way to gain exposure in the field of research, however, if you can participate in conducting research, that will make you an even stronger candidate. Prospective MD PhD vs MD students will need to demonstrate extensive research experience in their AMCAS application which will be highlighted in the required research experience essay. It's a good idea to gain hands-on experience testing hypotheses, analyzing results, preparing reports and contributing to publications as this will strengthen your application and help you determine which areas of research you may like to pursue. 

Extracurriculars for medical school: Community Service

Altruism is necessary as a doctor; working long hours, missing lunch breaks, and providing low cost or free treatments can be part of the job when serving and managing the health and well being of others. This behavior of putting others before yourself and feeling a calling to help people is why many decide to become doctors in the first place. Admissions committees are therefore looking for individuals who can demonstrate their passion for serving others through acts of selflessness in the form of community service. There are many different activities you can partake in to gain valuable experience both in your community or abroad, what's important is that you choose volunteering opportunities based on your interests. Examples of excellent community service include volunteering in hospitals, clinics, retirement and respite centers. If you're passionate about helping underserved or disadvantaged communities then you could volunteer in shelters, adoption centers or with vulnerable youth. If you enjoy engaging with children and are considering pediatrics, perhaps you could volunteer at a school or at a summer camp. There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to which volunteer experiences to choose. As long you're passionate and committed to the experience, it will benefit your personal and professional growth and maturity.

Extracurriculars for medical school: Teaching

There are a variety of non-cognitive skills the admissions committee will be looking for when considering you as an applicant and many of these can be demonstrated through teaching experience. If you've worked as a teaching assistant or tutor, you've likely developed strong communication skills, empathy for struggling students, and leadership skills to name a few. These same skills will carry over in your career as a physician. For example, you'll need to be able to effectively communicate with your patients in order to educate them on improving and managing their health. You'll have to explain treatment plans and diagnoses and be able to respectfully discuss opinions and beliefs that are not in line with your own. Compassion and empathy are also essential qualities to possess as they will be important skills to utilize during your day to day interactions with patients.

Extracurriculars for medical school: Hobbies

Personal extracurricular activities outside of your pre-med activities are useful in showing the admissions committee who you are as a person, what your interests are, what motivates you, and how the lessons you learned from these experiences can apply in medical school. In the AMCAS work and activities section, many choose to include hobbies to help the admissions committee learn more about them. Review our blog for some excellent AMCAS hobbies examples. In some successful medical school personal statement examples, students tie their hobbies in with their pursuit of medicine by demonstrating desirable soft skills they gained from participating in a hobby such as leadership, team-work, communication, and compassion. This can become a strong theme throughout an essay. It's not important which hobby you choose to participate in, everyone has different passions and interests so it's important to follow your own path. Take part in hobbies that you're passionate about and ones that will develop and strengthen your non-cognitive skillset.

3 Tips for selecting the best extracurriculars for medical school

1. Avoid the jack of all trades strategy

Sometimes students think that they should sign up for as many extracurriculars as possible to include in their application. They bounce between teaching, swimming, chess club, debate team, volunteering with kids, shadowing a doctor, and keep moving around trying to collect as many experiences as they can. Medical school extracurriculars are not like Pokemon, which means no, you don't need to collect them all. The admissions committee is looking for dedication to your extracurriculars, so you should be investing a lot of time into each experience. If you've traveled abroad to volunteer with a nomadic community for one week, it's probably not a significant enough experience to include in your application. While it may have been a great experience for you, it doesn't showcase your dedication and time commitment if you only participated for one week. It's therefore important to be choosy about which experiences you include. If they weren't meaningful, beneficial in your growth, and important in your pursuit of medicine, it's best not to include it. Participating in a variety of different extracurriculars is wonderful, but if it seems like you're just trying to tick off boxes and stack up your application, it's actually going to backfire. The admissions committee is well aware of those that just do things to say that they've done them, as oppose to those who do them because they are passionate about them and dedicate both time and effort into them. A handful of two-year stints in an activity will always be better than eight different two-month stints.

2. Follow your passions.

Be sure to participate in extracurriculars that align with your interests, goals, and values. If you're interested in pediatrics, then it's a great idea to gain some experience specific to that field. For example, you could work or volunteer at schools, summer camps, daycares, children's hospitals, and adoption centers. If you're interested in emergency medicine, it's smart to gain some relevant experience such as working as an emergency medical technician and shadowing a doctor in the ER. Just be sure that you're not just picking random experiences that you think the admissions committee wants to see. Each person is different and their experiences will reflect that, there isn't a universal set of best experiences to include. What's important is picking the experiences that are best suited for you.

3. Demonstrate your ability to reflect on your experiences.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the most important things about extracurriculars for medical school isn't just what you've done, it's your ability to reflect on the experiences you've had. It's not enough to create a list of the different extracurriculars that you participated in. When you're working on your medical school applications, it's important that you always address the unanswered questions: What did you learn or gain from your experience? Why is it significant? How will this help you and your peers during medical school training? How will this carry over in your career as a physician? Beware, some of the most common medical school interview questions will require you to elaborate on your extracurriculars, so contemplate your experiences and be ready to answer concisely and clearly.

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