Application Essentials IV: Medical Extracurricular Activities

September 22, 2016
Emily Hause

Wondering about extracurricular activities for AMCAS?

Medical schools want to be sure that you’ve experience medicine firsthand.

A previous version of this article was originally published by Alex MacNow.

In this fourth installment of our a seven-part Application Essentials series, we address frequently asked questions about medical extracurricular activities.

The life of an aspiring physician is busy, juggling challenging pre-med courses, preparing for the MCAT, and staying on top of all your extracurricular activities. There are two major types of extracurricular activities—non-medical and medical—that you’ll want to include in your AMCAS application. Today, we turn our focus to the second category: commonly asked questions about medically-oriented pre-med experiences.

Why are medically-oriented extracurricular activities important?

Beyond 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 career field—and still want to become a medical professional. 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 glamorous 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?

Medical 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, dealing with insurance and paperwork. This is not meant to sour you or dissuade you from becoming a physician. It’s just that schools would like you to make an educated decision when pursuing a medical career. They want to be assured that you’ve truly seen medicine as a practice—not just the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

What are some common medical extracurriculars?

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, these are some of the most common medically-oriented extracurricular activities pre-medical students pursue:

  • Shadowing – Shadowing a physician means following him or her around during 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 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 pre-med students to help out on the floors by talking with patients, assisting in patient transfers, or performing medication distribution. You may feel like sitting at a desk directing patient’s families isn’t contributing much to your medical experience, but it often can be a valuable first step in gaining medical exposure. Check on hospitals’ 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 especially 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. We’ll discuss this further in the next installation of our Application Essentials series, but an important takeaway is to only do an extracurricular if you actually enjoy it. Forcing yourself to do a research project you just don’t like solely to pad your résumé will be obvious to medical school admissions committees, and you won’t be able to speak passionately about it during an interview.  

Importantly, medical schools do not sit there with a checklist in hand, 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 by sticking with them; don’t try to be a “jack of all trades” and not really dedicate yourself to any particular activity.


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Emily Hause Emily has been a teacher for Kaplan for over eight years; she's taught MCAT, ACT, SAT, SAT2 and tutored pretty much every subject under the sun in both the classroom and live online (aka Classroom Anywhere) settings. She's also worked for Kaplan in content development and teacher mentorship roles. Emily is currently a fourth-year medical student at the University of Colorado and is hoping to go into Pediatrics. She's involved in many campus opportunities such as being a Prospective Student Representative, admissions committee member, CU-UNITE member, and co-president of the Education and Teaching Interest Group. Prior to medical school, Emily got a BA in Biochemistry and Spanish from Lawrence University and a Masters in Public Health- Epidemiology from the University of Minnesota. In her free time, Emily enjoys dancing, baking, playing tennis and exploring her new Colorado home.

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