Anyone wanting to go to medical school these days knows you need more than just grades. Getting a 4.0 is not a guarantee for getting into medical school, and there is an increasing emphasis on non-academic work and community service these days. This blog post will answer some common questions asked regarding extracurricular activities and provide you with all the information you need to not only be a competitive applicant, but a more well-rounded member of your community.
Why are extracurricular activities so important?
For anyone wondering, an extracurricular activity is any activity that is not part of the standard academic curriculum. This includes, paid and unpaid work of all capacities as well as taking part in a sport, a hobby, clubs etc. Anything that demonstrates you are more than just a student that studies and instead paints you as a person capable of taking on responsibility and having interests outside of an academic sphere can be seen as an extracurricular. Extracurriculars play a very significant role in medical school admissions and the role it plays is on an upward trajectory amongst many schools. This is why it is imperative that you participate in these activities if you want to be competitive in the application process.
Outside of acceptance into medical school, extracurriculars mold you as an individual and provide you with new perspectives. What you learn in the classroom alone is often insufficient. You will not develop as an individual to the same extent as you would challenging yourself with unique opportunities and experiences. For instance, try to build a business from scratch. In the process, you will learn countless lessons that will stick with you for life which you would otherwise forget had you read them in a book. Through unique experiences outside the classroom, we are able to build on our non-academic skills, learn more about the world and how it operates, and learn a greater deal about ourselves in the process. We challenge ourselves, realize our limitations and how to deal with adversity in many forms. Extracurriculars support our growth.
Community service in particular, as a subset of extracurricular activities, make us more socially conscious and empathic. Never having worked with marginalized populations that lack a fixed address, you may not fully comprehend the unique barriers and issues they face. This was the case for me. An experience I had that changed my perspective was volunteering at a local shelter and speaking with many individuals of various backgrounds. Through this experience I have a much richer knowledgebase and better understand the current issues they face, where these issues begin, and how various solutions can provide widespread positive effects. My experience was limited, and I am far from an expert on this complicated issue. What I can say, however, is that I am no longer ignorant on it and I can better understand and empathize with the problems they face.
In this day and age there is a seemingly growing empathy gap and through community service we can at least provide individuals exposure to a multitude of diverse populations. If they do end up serving our diverse community in the future as physicians, they can at least have some knowledge and background on the issues they face so as to provide better care.
So, while extracurriculars are very important for medical school admissions as they should be, they are also important to help you develop as an individual. Rather than seeming as a barrier to get into medical school, look at them as a challenge to grow as a person. There are ways to be more “efficient” on extracurriculars so as to gain the most from them and I will speak more on some of those strategies. I hope, however, that as you read this blog post you always remember that while these tasks may seem like a chore, you are learning and you are growing in a multitude of ways and you should instead try to gain the most from them.
What activities should I perform?
This is the most difficult question to answer and is impossible to answer properly without actually knowing who you are as a person. An extracurricular activity will only truly benefit you if you are willing to participate in it with an open mind, learn from it and enjoy it. There also are no set activities you are required to perform or that will guarantee your acceptance into medical school. When deciding on extracurriculars however, I would recommend the following.
First, look at your resume. Identify the activities you have performed in the past and think about the roles you played in each of them. What were your responsibilities, what qualities of yours did the task employ, and most of all, what did you learn from it? Do you have some unique anecdotes or memorable conversations or events from it? Did the task challenge you in anyway? Did you have to overcome adversity? For any type of community work you also need to think about the impact you had and the populations you served. Reflect on these points because the goal would be to have answered these and more in a diverse number of ways through your activities. While you do not want to see activities as “boxes” to check-off, and I do not want to promote it as such, it can be helpful to look at your activities and make sure you do at least demonstrate some of the qualities schools are looking for. What qualities are schools looking for? When in doubt, refer to the CanMEDS. CanMEDS is a framework that “identifies and describes the abilities physicians require to effectively meet the health care needs of the people they serve” and are the primary qualities that medical schools are looking for their students to have. Make sure your extracurriculars hit most of those qualities, with the exception of being a medical expert; that is a quality you develop in as you practice and not a requirement going into medical school.
If you realize that you would like to take on some new activities here are some things to keep in mind. First, ensure that it is something you would like to commit to. No one is forcing you to perform these activities, so to gain the most out of them you really need to motivate yourself, therefore you need to enjoy it. If you have no idea what you will enjoy, then try something new out. Throw yourself outside your comfort zone to try a new activity, you might end up finding a newfound passion. To help with ideas for activities that you would enjoy, find an activity that has some connection to you. Are you active in the practice of a certain religious faith? Why not volunteer for your local place of worship and in some of their community work. Are you from a certain marginalized population group? Why not get involved in your local or University led cultural group? These are some ideas but take some time and think of what has a connection to you as it will pay dividends in a multitude of ways including enjoyment, growth and being able to demonstrate some relevance to your roots or circumstances. Next, think about what your roles and responsibilities would be. The greater the responsibilities, the more you are able to gain from it and the better it comes across as, but as a consequence, it demands more time. There is a balancing act since you do not want to bite off more than you can chew, but you also do not want to take on activities with limited responsibilities since the sacrifice is growth and development. Note that if you are starting a new hobby such as playing a sport or learning an instrument, the responsibilities aspect does not apply. Finally, find a category of activity that you have yet to perform. Never played a sport before? Join a sports team. Never taken on a leadership role? Organize an event or start a club. The key is to find something you genuinely enjoy, something that that has some connection to you and an activity that will provide you enough responsibility that it challenges you.
One thing I do have to reiterate is that there is no “medical school extracurriculars” you need to perform. You do not need to go to some impoverished country and build a school. You do not need to find a cure for cancer and publish 100 papers in Nature. While there are always some students that have some outstanding accomplishments, do not think that you need all these to be a physician. Most people in medical school are just bright people and not “unreachable” or “unobtainable” as many premeds find. If you are a good person and you are driven, you are good enough for medical school and can make it. I also understand that there are individuals that are in tough financial situations where volunteering is not an option. Do not put yourself under crazy financial stress for these opportunities because paid work is also looked at positively, and you can even justify this in your essays for certain schools and if you make it to the interview stage. Unfortunately, however, you are at a disadvantage compared to people who have the luxury of not needing to work. This is because a baseline of volunteer type work is typically looked upon positively, therefore you need to work extra hard. Is it fair? Not really, and this is one of the major barriers preventing people of a low SES from getting into medical school, and something I hope resolves in the future. For now, think simple local work you can do first, work hard and it will pay off. If you end up getting in you can advocate for changes to make the process more equitable going forward, something admission’s committees at many schools are trying to do, however, it is not an easy change to implement properly.
One thing I should address is international experiences. I will not dwell on this topic as it is a complicated issue, but before you spend a large sum of money to go to an impoverished country to build a well or school etc., think about the impact your work will have. Where you go plays less of a role as your impact. Performing these international experiences are not a requirement and will not necessarily improve your chances, especially if they serve no real connection to who you are as a person. If you are, however, a native of a certain country and end up performing an international trip that serves a specific purpose and leaves a lasting positive impact on the community or teaches you something directly that is personal, it can be very beneficial. My typical response, however, to individuals who ask about international experiences is “what have you done locally” first. While going international and leaving an impact is very beneficial, you can typically do more locally with less and leave a more lasting impact and it does not take much to find underserved populations and problems in your own community. I am not saying international experiences are detrimental and I am not saying they serve no purpose, I am however, saying they are not necessary, and you can leave an equal, if not greater, impact on people’s lives right here at home.
When should I perform extracurriculars?
For extracurricular activities, the first question is when you should start. Typically, the earlier you start the better, but it is never too late. The beauty of extracurriculars as opposed to grades is that it is continuously amendable and ever growing. You can always take on new extracurricular activities and add to existing activities so never feel like it is too late to start. That said, the sooner you begin the better. Starting earlier, you provide yourself more time and exposure in the activity to actually learn from it, have an impact, build connections, and move up in the position. The earlier you start, the more of a “high-quality” activity it will also appear to reviewers, since they also know the benefit of long hours and commitment in a few activities as opposed to just having 10 hours in hundreds of activities. The earlier you start, the sooner you may be competitive to get into medical school. Another big advantage of starting earlier is that you have much more free time and flexibility in your schedule earlier in your career. It is also much easier to take on these activities in high school when your grades have less of an impact and the pace is typically slower. It also serves a benefit of providing you with more experiences which you can highlight on your resume to get yourself more competitive, enjoyable or high-impact positions later in your career. They can even help you get a paid position given the experience you build. What is starting early? Extra-curriculars never have a “start” date, but on OMSAS they typically say to include activities that you took part in since you were 16.
How do I balance school and extracurriculars?
The hardest part of extracurriculars is balancing them with other responsibilities like school. Should you take on extracurricular activities during the semester or should you focus on getting the best grades possible? This is very individualized as the demand that school requires from each person is variable. For some they are able to juggle the demands of school and multiple activities and still manage to get very good grades, while others must commit all their time to school just to get a competitive GPA. For anyone just starting University, I typically would advise you to get accustomed to the pace first and ensure you are getting the grades you want. If you are able to pull off the grades without feeling overwhelmed, slowly start adding on activities. Start low and add slow. Do not suddenly take on 10 activities that each require a few hours a week as you may drown, but if you are able to accommodate a few activities with your schooling then it can be quite beneficial. Your grades, however, should always be the priority. As I mentioned earlier, you can always add-on and grow activities, but your GPA is forever.
When I started school, I was living at home. I had the benefit of already being fairly comfortable with the environment and it felt similar to high school. I had previously taken AP classes so much of 1st year 1st semester was a review for me, but I still took on a little much which I recognized come exam season. I ended up lightening my load a bit for second semester and by 2nd year I realized how much I could handle and how much time school demanded of me.
If you read this post and are still unsure about what you should take on or perform, and do not know what you will enjoy, I suggest asking friends what they are doing and what they enjoy. You can also go online and look up any non-profit or community group that you have a connection to or like the work they do and seek out opportunities there. Each university also typically has a “clubs fair” of the sorts so feel free to look at some campus-related activities that you can get involved in and that you think would interest you. Remember there are no silver bullet activities, but instead to be most successful and competitive, find activities which you can relate to, benefit you in some way and you can grow from, and leave a positive impact on others. In the age of social media, Google and countless organizations desperate for volunteers there is no excuse. Finally, if all else fails and you cannot find anything that you think fits the niche you wish to tackle, start something yourself.