Now that you have finished many of the core rotations in your medical school, you may be wondering how to choose medical school electives that will help you prepare for residency and your future career. Electives can be really useful in solidifying your decision to pursue your chosen specialty, or help you find passion in a specialty that you have never considered pursuing before. They are a great way to explore your career options, expand your network, and gain new clinical skills! In this article, we will help you select suitable electives and provide expert tips for how to prepare for residency applications.

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Article Contents
10 min read

What are medical school electives? Benefits of medical school electives What to look for when selecting your electives Expert Tips for Choosing Your Medical School Electives FAQs

What are medical school electives?

Electives are the part of your medical degree that allow you to explore various disciplines within medicine based on the options you select for you rotation and help you choose your medical specialty. You may have already considered a variety of specialties based on your shadowing experiences, but electives are the perfect opportunity to get a practical feel for different areas of medicine and gain practical skills. Keep in mind, electives differ greatly from shadowing as you are able to get involved and do the work rather than just simply observe and learn.

Depending on the school you attend, you may have anywhere from 10 weeks to almost twice that time for your electives which will usually be in the final year of your medical degree. Take your medical school electives as an opportunity to explore or deepen your knowledge of topics and areas of interest that you are already interested in, as well as the topics you might not have the chance to study once you start your residency.

You can select electives in different medical specialties such as, anatomy, anesthesiology, emergency medicine, family medicine, genetics, international, pediatrics, and many more. You can find full lists of options in your school's electives catalog. There is usually an elective offered for every field of medicine you can pursue as a career, and options to take electives at other locations if your school doesn’t offer the specific specialty you want to pursue. In fact, it is very common for medical school students to spend their electives weeks away from their own school. This not only exposes you to new knowledge and perspectives, but also helps you build a network which you can later use for residency reference letters. 

If you already know which specialty or residency programs you want to apply to, it is important to research which electives they may require and to add these into your schedule. This way you will complete the prerequisites for your residency application. Although not every residency requires this, it is worth checking your chosen programs and specialties for any such requirements.

If you haven’t decided where you’d like to go with your career yet, it isn’t something to stress about, as electives can give you the chance to do so. In this case, select medical school electives in areas that interest you and where you have had extra circular experience. When you start your electives, ask lots of questions and really try to get a feel for the discipline to see if this is something you want to do in the future.

Still trying to figure out the medical specialty you want to pursue? This infographic might help!

Benefits of medical school electives

Electives can help you gain clinical experience, in-depth skills, and knowledge that text books and lectures can’t provide. It is a great way to gain practical experience in the specialty you want to pursue or your areas of interest within medical science. Think of them as an excellent opportunity to round out your overall skills set upon graduation.

Medical school electives are also a great opportunity to get to know your attendings, such as resident doctors, nurses, and other staff. These will be the people responsible for your residency application’s Medical Student Performance Evaluation (MSPE), so make sure to show up on time, stay behind to discuss your progress, and improve based on their feedback. The attendings can provide comments or letters of recommendations for your performance when you apply for residency and can also be a valuable source of advice and expertise. These mentors will help you develop better skills as you can learn from the experience of your seniors and apply techniques that have been proven to work. While on rotation within your chosen specialty, you will also begin to understand if you truly enjoy the patient interactions and the practical work involved. This is important information you want to have to set yourself up for success in your future career.

Another benefit of doing electives, especially if you do them in a different location from your medical school is just experiencing different approaches to medicine. This experience exposes you to a variety of medical approaches and knowledge bases. It a great way to develop your perspectives on the practice of medicine.

Although it is beneficial to take electives relating to the career path you want to pursue, it can be equally beneficial to take electives to discover a new area of medicine. Make sure to take electives in at least two specialties because it will be important to snow this practical experience on your residency application. Think of it like building your toolkit and loading yourself up with what you feel will help you in the long term. Experiencing a variety of specialties will give you a better knowledge base within the medical sciences and help you explore areas you were perhaps more reluctant to learn about before. Consider your rotations as a chance to try out different career paths and apply yourself, so you can gain the full benefits of the experience.

If you're interested what residencies are most and least competitive, check out this video:

What to look for when selecting your electives

There is usually a temptation to only select electives that relate to your chosen career path, but as mentioned earlier, this may not be the ideal strategy. When you apply to residency, you should apply to at least 2 specialties, which means that you should be able to demonstrate practical experience in the medical specialties you apply to. For example, if you want to apply to internal medicine and surgery, then try to take electives in these fields.

Keep in mind that many specialties will only benefit from having experience in a variety of medical disciplines. For example, if you want to pursue family medicine, it may be beneficial to take an elective in emergency medicine. This way, if you ever have patients whose condition worsens, your experience in an emergency elective will help you perform better under this type of pressure and to deal with such patients.

Depending on the time you have for electives, you can also apply for certain abroad options and gain experiences in different parts of the world. These give you a good opportunity to add skills you may not get from your current location. The travel side of things is also a fun way to spend your final year in medical school and make connections with experts from overseas.

There are also options for research electives that can be beneficial as they can give you a different career option within clinical research that you might potentially enjoy later in life. They also help you gain knowledge you won’t find in a clinical setting, as research setting is based around studying patients rather than focused on providing care.

Applying for and getting accepted into research projects or clinical rotations for electives depends on whether or not you meet the requirements, so this is something worth researching in advance rather than stressing out about at the time of application. Contact these programs directly if you are unclear on what you need to be eligible.

Expert Tips for Choosing Your Medical School Electives

While you are building your schedule for medical school electives it’s important to consider what skills your chosen rotations will give you. If for example, you select a rotation in emergency medical, this will give you the skills to treat trauma patients in a fast-paced environment. You will learn how to remain calm and level headed while you make important decisions with limited time. The specific skills you gain while on your rotation can make you stand out as a competitive residency applicant.

Another important thing to consider are the opportunities your desired electives can provide for you with the type of practices you will learn. What will be the benefits of learning in an urban setting for your future career, for example? It is always beneficial to try and gain experience in the setting you wish to build your career in.

When considering rotations outside of what your school offers, remember to look at the costs of travel and accommodation. If, for example, you select an abroad option, consider if you need to apply for a visa or other immigration documents to make the trip. Once you have a list of all of your costs for the electives you are considering, you will have a better idea of whether you can afford them. There are more than just the application fees for these types of electives, and you don’t want to be left in any more unnecessary debt. The best option is to select electives in the location you wish to practice in so if you want to build your career in your hometown, it is best to find an elective there.

Remember to also look at the attendings you will be working with for your electives and ask yourself what they can help you learn. It will be beneficial to surround yourself with people who can help you develop desired skills, so you gain more than just the hours your spent on a rotation.

Keep in Mind Your Residency Preparation

When choosing your electives, it is helpful to keep in mind which medical specialties you want to pursue and how many residency programs to apply to to have a great matching chance. With this on the back burner, you can identify which electives will help you match to your dream career. Electives are meant to help you gain skills and knowledge, make good connections, and truly understand if you will find fulfillment in pursuing your chosen specialty. The clarity of where you want to take your career will be the ultimate help in preparing your residency application components.

Want to learn more about how many residency programs to apply to? Take a look at this infographic:

Ultimately, your electives are an opportunity to demonstrate that you have clinical experience in your desired specialties, which is very important for residency programs. These electives will become the source of experiences you can discuss in your residency personal statement and interviews. Choosing electives in your chosen medical field is a way to show that you went out of your way to gain clinical experience in your chosen specialty, which demonstrates dedication, knowledge, and appropriate skills set.

Do not be afraid to explore

While taking electives in your chosen specialty is very important, it doesn’t mean you should only stick to what you want to specialize in. Try to take electives in two or three different disciplines that are related, for example different surgical specialties if you want to pursue a career as a heart surgeon.

If you are an international medical graduate (IMGs), it’s very important to take an elective in the country where you want to practice. Take an elective in USA or Canada if that is where you wish to build your career because it will demonstrate practical medical experience in the country where you are applying for residency. This experience will speak to your ability to practice in your chosen country which makes you a desirable candidate.

Organize your schedule ahead of time

The electives you select will all have different lengths and application deadlines, which means you have some planning to do once you decide which ones you want to pursue. Write down the details, such as requirements and deadlines, of your chosen electives and organize them into priority based on your chosen specialty and interest. Once you have this list, you can decide how they fit together within the time you have for your electives and begin applying for them based on their deadlines and your priority list. Some require you to apply up to 16 weeks in advance, so getting started early will be beneficial and take some stress off as you begin your fourth year. You want to ensure you fill your schedule up with the electives that will truly assist you in creating a career path you can look back and be proud of.

Takeaways from electives

Electives are taken not only because you want to demonstrate a variety of experiences in your residency CV, but also because you want to learn new skills and knowledge. It’s important to broaden your knowledge and show that you actually learned something that you can use in your future career as a doctor. Choose electives you really want to learn from, not electives that are just cool, prestigious, or convenient.

Need some help writing your residency CV? This video has super helpful tips:

While you are encouraged to explore different specialties in your electives, try to be strategic when you devise your plan of how to choose medical school electives. To do this, ensure you take a few electives that directly relate to the specialty you wish to apply to, as well as some in areas that aren’t directly related to your future career. This way, not only will you expand your knowledge, but also demonstrate your versatility.

Make sure to have fun as you get a little taste of the different rotations and make connections with doctors and nurses along the way.


1. What electives can you take in medical school?

Your school electives catalogue will have a full list of what electives are available to you at your alma mater. There are usually options in a variety of specialties. There are also options for electives in other medical school and institutions, as well as international electives and research opportunities. You can search through online portals of different countries to find the right international fit for you. Generally, it is best to take electives in the country where you wish to practice. Counties like USA and Canada have specific requirements for doctors, and it is not recommended to take electives abroad as your experience aborad will not always qualify.

2. Can electives be done after graduation?

Electives need to be completed during medical school, typically in your final year. They cannot be taken after graduation as they are a part of your medical degree. Your school will allocate time for you to complete them, and it helps to prepare for them well in advance so you get the electives you want.

3. What are the required rotations in medical school?

The required rotation in medical school will be in these disciplines:

Family Medicine that focuses on providing patient care for all ages including pediatrics.

Internal Medicine which focuses on preventing, diagnosing, and treating internal diseases

Surgery that focuses on operations that treat diseases, minor injuries, or server trauma

Obstetrics and Gynecology which includes prenatal, postpartum care, labor, deliver, and women's health and wellness

Psychiatry which is diagnosing, treating, and preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorder

4. Do electives matter in medical school?

Medical school rotation help you gain real world experience in various specialties and career paths. They are split into core and electives. Both do matter equally, as they give you the experience in the various disciplines of medicine that can help you understand how the selected disciplines work. Both give you the opportunity to understand how to interact with patients, as well as what your day-to-day practice may look like. Electives help you build your medical science knowledge, so by the time you graduate, you have everything you need to make you a valuable candidate in your residency applications.

5. How many electives can you take in med school?

This depends on the amount of time allocated for electives by your specific medical school, but usually it’s upwards of 10 weeks. Many electives are somewhere around two to four weeks long, so you can select from a few options to fill in the time allocated to you by your school. Planning your schedule in advance can help you make the most of this time and experience.

6. How do I choose a medical elective?

Start with where you wish to take your career and build out your electives from that specialty. Once you have that clarified, consider which of the other specialties will help you better match your chosen residency program. For example, if you want to pursue a career in Psychiatry then it will be beneficial to have electives in this area, as well as, some in emergency medicine or another related discipline. Always have electives in a few different specialties for the best chance on your residency applications.

7. How can I get the electives I want?

Unfortunately, there is no way to guarantee you will get the electives that you want to take, but you can greatly increase your chance of getting your desired elective by applying early. Keep track of where you wish to go and when the deadlines are, ensure you apply well in advance to secure your desired spots. Make sure to meet the application requirements, avoid any errors, put your best foot forward, and have it reviewed by a professional medical school advisor before submitting.

8. How do electives help my residency application?

The electives you take can give you the added experience for your applications. The connections you make can help with your application as well, by providing you with connections who can give comments and letters of recommendations for your applications.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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