So was it worth it? Was spending all those hours refilling pipet tip after pipet tip really helpful in getting me into medical school?
I thought about those questions as I recalled squirting a blue substance into a tray and mixing various concentrations of acids at the undergraduate laboratory where I worked during college. If I’m honest, I had no intrinsic passion for lab work. I was there because I had heard that research experience improved my medical school application. In other words, I did the lab work to check a box off a list. Anyone who would have spoken to me about my lab work would have noticed immediately that I had no interest in it. Therefore, any physician on an admissions committee would have realized the same.
In hindsight, my lab experience may have hurt my application more than helped it. I say this because many admissions interviewers asked about my research and I am sure they could tell that my interest in it was mediocre at best. It may have made me appear insincere.
I now realize that the extracurricular activities that helped me most were the ones that I was genuinely passionate about. These were ones that I was naturally drawn to and in which I consciously chose to increase my skill. If someone asked me what I did during summer break, my eyes would light up with stories of trekking through the mountains of Mexico and Guatemala bringing basic medical care to people in remote villages. I could talk endlessly about making tortillas by hand, teammates getting stung by scorpions, and building relationships while doing laundry in a river. After repeatedly traveling to Mexico and Central America for so many years, I was now fluent in Spanish. So in my interviews, my desire to help underserved people overshadowed my lab experience because of the genuine passion.
If you are reading this article, you probably want me to give you a checklist of fool-proof extracurricular activities that will guarantee your acceptance into medical school. I am sorry to disappoint you. However, if you answer the following questions, you will be able to develop your own list of potential extracurricular activities that will make your application the strongest representation of yourself:
- What are you passionate about? Do you find yourself naturally reading about the migration patterns of butterflies? Are you looking for a cure for a terminal illness that a loved one is fighting? Look for opportunities to develop your knowledge and experience in areas that naturally excite you.
- What are you good at? If you have a skill or ability, can you become the best at it? Whatever your skills and interests are, do your best to develop your abilities and shine. Examples:
- Your brother is deaf, so you learned American Sign Language. You might decide to become an official translator and find a job advocating for the deaf community.
- You are an amazing athlete, so you become the state champion in your sport. Or you organize a program to help budding athletes in a low income area.
- Everyone says you are a great listener, so you join a suicide prevention hotline and become the head volunteer.
- Have you made an educated decision in applying for medical school? If all of your extracurricular activities revolve around your knitting group, have you gained any experience related to the medical field that makes you certain that you want to pursue this career? Becoming a doctor is a long and difficult process, and medical schools want to see that you know a little bit about what it takes. Do you need to shadow a doctor? Volunteer at a hospice? Become an EMT? (If medical extracurricular activities do not excite you, you might be wise to reconsider applying to medical school.)
Your extracurricular activities give you a chance to present yourself beyond the numbers of your MCAT score and GPA. So do what you love and be the best you can be at it. Only then will you be able to showcase the skills and experiences that make you uniquely you and how that will make you successful in medical school.
By Susan Choo