It’s hard to be a pre-med. There are high expectations for the types of experiences you need, the classes you have to take, and the quality of person you become through it all. But for how hard it is to be a pre-med, it’s pretty easy to come off as “typical”.
Here are 8 key activities, experiences, and essay topics that can make you read as a “typical pre-med”, unless you take the following advice:
1. Work as a Medical Scribe (to build a relationship):
While working as a medical scribe can expose you to a lot within the field of medicine, it doesn’t necessarily stand out. And sometimes, it barely even counts as clinical experience. Many times as a scribe, you bounce from department to department and doctor to doctor. It’s hard to develop a meaningful relationship with a single, dedicated mentor in most cases. Just as importantly, it’s difficult to develop meaningful relationships with patients because it is within the nature of scribing to be one degree removed. If you do choose to work as a scribe, try to find an opportunity where you will work closely with one doctor and be able to build that meaningful mentorship.
2. Volunteer as an EMT (and reflect on it):
Let’s face it: there is probably no better way to get exposure to real patients than by being an EMT. You’ll learn quickly if this field is for you in this high intensity role. With this activity on your medical school resume, you will show medical schools that you have experience working with patients, that you are truly invested in medicine and helping others, and maybe even that you can handle life-and-death situations.
That being said, being an EMT alone does not make you stand out from hundreds of other premed students who are also EMTs. On your application, you should focus on how this experience fits in with the rest of your story. Was there a particular patient whose suffering or illness shaped what kind of medicine you want to pursue? Was there a particular moment that solidified your reasons for wanting to become a doctor? Was there a high-stakes emergency that showed you you have what it takes to handle the pressure of being a doctor? When highlighting your experience as an EMT, be sure to be specific, listing concrete details that have shaped your perspective on medicine and your future.
3. Volunteer with the Red Cross (with a purpose):
Medical school admissions officers look at much more than just your resume; they look at who you are as a person and what kind of doctor you might go on to be. (If you or anyone in your family has had health issues, then you’ve likely experienced both “good” and “bad” doctors).
When evaluating candidates, admissions officers look for a number of traits, including altruism, compassion, and empathy. In short, they look for people who care about others. To demonstrate that you do, in fact, care about other human beings, you should get involved in your community and with volunteer organizations. However, you should (1) be selective about which organizations you join and (2) focus on impact over involvement.
Don’t just join the Red Cross because you’ve heard about the Red Cross. Don’t just go help natural disaster victims because you think it’s going to look good on your resume or that it’s going to help you get into medical school. Do it because you care—both about people who are suffering and communities that need help. And when it comes time, write about it like you care.
4. Shadow (and do it consistently):
Shadowing is a great way to understand a doctor’s point of view. It’s one of the best ways to truly understand, from the day-to-day, whether you want to be a doctor. Including shadowing on your resume shows the medical school admissions office that you have seriously thought about becoming a doctor, but it can also have its pitfalls.
Almost every student has some sort of shadowing experience. But by itself, it is unlikely to make you stand out from the thousands of other students that shadow. Shadowing various different doctors, with different specialties for an inconsistent amount of time looks unimpressive to admissions officers.
Rather, shadowing a doctor in your specialty of interest or shadowing for an extended period of time will allow you to garner more from your experience… and possibly a strong letter of rec.
5. Join Pre-Med Student Groups (as more than a resume boost):
AMSA, AMWA, AED, Pre-Med Society, Pre-Health Professions, MAPS: the list goes on and on. Being involved in various pre-med related clubs is a great way to expand your social and academic groups, but it won’t, alone, help you stand out. Joining these student groups shows admissions officers your interest in medicine-related activity, but on a surface level, not much more than that.
Admissions officers are looking for students who are leaders on their campus. Instead of just joining, try to run for a leadership position in your favorite student group. Even better, found a chapter of a pre-existing group, or create a new student group of your own.
6. Travel on International Service Trips (for more than 2 weeks):
Global Brigades and similar service trips can be meaningful opportunities for hands-on medical work. But in truth, many of these abroad trips have finite potential for impact.
Admissions committee members appreciate sustained involvement—activities that you have devoted effort to for years. A single, short, spring-break trip to administer vaccines can seem unimpressive and disconnected to your story. Also consider the context in which your application will be read: alongside applicants who have worked on international health initiatives for years, your two-week trip to build houses in Haiti will ring hollow. Immersive trips that last longer than three weeks are ideal. The goal is to spend enough time there that you are making an impact rather than simply making an observation.
7. Write About a Sick Relative (if it’s mostly about yourself):
For many pre-meds, the dream of becoming a doctor can be traced back to a moment when they witnessed medicine having a profound impact on someone they love. We do not want to diminish the significance of these experiences, but there are a few things to keep in mind.
At the end of the day, admissions committees are not looking to admit your grandma or brother or dad. They want to hear about you. You need to avoid sounding as though you’re claiming the illness of your relative as your own tribulation. If the illness was someone else’s, then it is her story—not yours. Be conscious of bringing the story back to you, your perspective, and how it motivates you to become a doctor.
8. Write About a Sports Injury (if you frame it in a larger context):
A lot of students play sports in college. And a lot of those athletes suffer from serious injuries. But that doesn’t mean it’s always a good personal statement topic. While overcoming a sports injury is, in fact, a medical experience, it’s not always the best example to point towards as the centerpiece of your application. For starters, it’s pretty typical, and admissions officers have read this essay a million times. It’s easy to fall into cliches as you write these types of stories.
Instead, you can focus on other elements of your experience: your dedication to teammates, how you used your time on the bench to expand your volunteer work or clinical exposure, your leadership development you gained as a caption. Or, (and maybe even better yet), choose a different topic. You’re a dynamic person, and sports are just one element of your life. Think about what experiences, anecdotes, and stories are the best representations of your journey towards medicine.
About the Author
Joel Butterly is the Co-Founder and CEO of InGenius Prep, an admissions consulting company that helps students with their applications to medical school.