By Cassie Kosarek, MD Candidate, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College
You may have heard that there’s a “perfect formula” of undergraduate extracurricular activities sought by medical schools. Research experience? Check. Hospital volunteering? Check. A summer internship in a lab or clinical setting? Check.
While these endeavors might demonstrate your interest in and commitment to clinical medicine, the idea of selecting your extracurricular activities solely based upon this perfect formula ignores one key trait that medical school admissions committees are looking for in their applicants: authenticity. As you navigate your pre-medical years, you may be wondering how to cultivate a resume that evidences your investment in medicine but also leaves plenty of room for pursuing your other interests. The key to selecting your extracurriculars is to not treat these two intentions as mutually exclusive—medicine can overlap with your other interests (and vice versa). Check out these suggestions for choosing your undergraduate extracurriculars in a way that will please both you and admissions committees.
1. Choose your clinical experiences with your strengths and interests in mind
Some pre-medical students have arbitrary absolutes in mind when they seek out clinical experiences during their undergraduate years. Myths like, “You must volunteer in the emergency department to get into medical school,” or, “You have to volunteer in a clinic for several years for it to count” abound on premedical internet forums. While getting varied and longitudinal exposure to clinical medicine as a premedical student is important, recognize that adhering to these rules does not define the perfect applicant. Instead, seek clinical experiences that feel complimentary to your personality and interests. Are you a great guitarist? The hospice center down the street might love to let you play each week. Do you have a specific interest in a subspecialty like rheumatology? Ask if you can help out around a rheumatology clinic, directing patients to their exam rooms or helping to organize supplies. Your goal in seeking out clinical experiences should not be to have a life-changing moment that will be perfect for your personal statement. Instead, these experiences should feel like an extension of your natural inclinations.
2. Remember that research opportunities are broader than you think
When premedical students think about research, they often think about hard science—a wet lab in a hospital, ELISA assays with patient samples for a large clinical investigation, and a summer of purple nitrile gloves. Honing your lab techniques and contributing to the growing body of translational research is great, but if it does not interest you, whiling away hours in the lab will not show medical schools who they are evaluating as an applicant. Learn to think of research as a chance to challenge yourself with an extended academic project in which you have a genuine investment. That English professor who is doing a deep-dive into the works of Virginia Woolf might appreciate a research assistant willing to comb through critical commentaries of the author’s work, much like a physician writing a review article would comb through papers related to his or her chosen topic. The psychology department might be looking for assistants to find candidates for cognitive studies, much like running a clinical trial would involve identifying eligible participants. Research skills that will serve you well as a medical student and beyond are not confined to the traditional lab setting.
3. Acknowledge that demonstrating altruism does not have to be the goal for every extracurricular activity
One of the most rote—yet honest—responses to “Why medicine?” is, “Because I want to help people!” Pursuing clinical medicine necessitates an altruistic drive, as finding meaning in your work will help carry you through 80-hour weeks. But the idea that every single one of your extracurriculars must demonstrate your willingness to help others is unlikely to give you a leg up in admissions. At a time when burnout in medicine is increasingly recognized as a problem, a growing number of medical schools are interested in applicants who provide evidence that they will balance the demands of medicine with their own needs. Do not be afraid to put that intramural basketball team on your medical school application. Your weekly participation in the chess club is arguably as important as your Meals on Wheels volunteering. Carving out time for activities aimed solely at protecting your own wellness shows your emotional readiness to engage in the rigors of a medical education.
4. Forget your resume
Finally, and maybe most importantly, forget about your resume. Applying to medical school might seem like it has to be an all-consuming years-long task, but this kind of tunnel vision will not serve you well as an applicant or a medical student. Your four years of undergraduate education will not prepare you for medical school if everything you do is geared toward making your AMCAS application shine. It is essential to find your identity outside of the confines of medicine and academia. Why? Being a well-rounded person with a diverse range of interests and personal experiences is ultimately one of the traits that will help you best navigate patient care and the pressures of a career as a physician.
About the Author
Cassie Kosarek is a professional tutor with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement. She earned her Bachelor of Arts from Bryn Mawr College and is a member of the Class of 2020 at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.