Application Essentials IV: Medical Extracurriculars and Experience

December 21, 2012
Alex Macnow

Pre-Med ExtracurricularsThe life of a pre-med student is busy, between the challenging pre-med courses you’re taking, preparing for the MCAT, and keeping up with your extracurriculars. Today, we turn our focus to that last category: what medically-oriented extracurriculars should you be doing before medical school?

Why are medical extracurriculars important?

In addition to the obvious (that this is what you’re going to be doing for the rest of your life), the significance of medical extracurriculars is the demonstration that you have explored medicine as a field — and you still love it!  Many students come into undergrad with an idealized version of the medical field; they “want to help people.”  But medical schools want to be assured that you really know what medicine is all about.  Sure, you’ve seen the glorious side of medicine:  the success of a cure, the intimate rapport with a patient, the translation of basic science knowledge into therapeutics.  But what about the rest?  Schools want to know that you’ve seen some of the frustrations of medicine:  research that doesn’t quite pan out as expected, challenging or noncompliant patients, and dealing with insurance and paperwork.  This is not meant to sour you!  But medical schools want to be assured that you truly have seen “medicine,” not just the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy or House.

What are some of the common medical extracurriculars?

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, these are some of the most common medically-oriented activities premedical students do:

  • Shadowing – To shadow a physician means to follow him or her around during their daily duties:  sitting in during patient appointments, speaking with families, processing and interpreting lab tests, and generally seeing what the life of a physician is like.  To find shadowing opportunities, consider approaching family friends (or friends’ families!) who are physicians, asking science professors if they have colleagues who are practicing physicians, or checking if there are any lists at your school’s pre-professional advising office.
  • Hospital Volunteerism – Many major hospitals (and some private clinics) have opportunities for premed students to help out on the floors by talking with patients, assisting in patient transfers, and medication distribution.  Historically, this was called “candy striping,” since the uniforms kind of resembled a candy cane.  Check on hospital’s websites and don’t delay in applying — often, this is such a popular activity that you’ll have to wait a little while for the next available volunteer training cycle.
  • Research – Since medicine is always looking for the next big cure, the safest new medications, and the answers to understanding the impact of illness on individuals and communities, research is a major part of the medical field.  Research is required if you’re planning on applying to MD/PhD programs.  Again, local hospitals, your school’s pre-professional advising office, and science professors should be your go-to for checking out research opportunities.
  • Community and International Outreach – These outreach programs include local community initiatives (such as Covenant House, a nonprofit charity for homeless and marginalized youth; the Ronald McDonald House Charities; and volunteering at nursing homes) as well as other national or international opportunities (the Peace Corps, alternative spring break trips, or programs through the World Health Organization).

So should I do all of the above activities?  The short answer is — not necessarily.  Your extracurriculars are all about quality, not just quantity.  I’ll be discussing this quite a bit next week in Application Essentials V:  Non-Medical Extracurriculars and Experience, but an important takeaway is:  only do an extracurricular if you enjoy it!  Forcing yourself to do a research project you just don’t like solely to pad your résumé will be obvious to admissions committees, and you won’t be able to speak passionately about it during an interview.  Also, medical schools do not sit there with a checklist in hand, just noting if you’ve “completed” the above four bullet points.  Rather, it’s all about how you frame the activities you’ve done.  So, to sum up, do a few activities that demonstrate (prove!) your interest in medicine and stick with them; don’t try to be a “jack of all trades” and not really give dedication to any particular activity.

Happy holidays from all of us at Kaplan!

This article is Part IV in a seven-part series on Holistic Admissions.  For more information, check out:

Alex Macnow

Alex Macnow I graduated from Boston University with a BA in Musicology and am currently a fourth year in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. I took Kaplan to prep for my MCAT. After such a great experience with my course, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to teach and tutor hundreds of pre-health students for the MCAT, DAT, OAT and PCAT in both our Boston – Haymarket and Philadelphia Kaplan Centers. I am one of the Content Managers for Kaplan's new MCAT 2015 course. When I’m not preparing for residency or teaching MCAT, I enjoy playing classical piano, exploring new cuisines and traveling on road trips.

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