Applying to Medical School: Extracurricular Activities
Join Dr. Renee Marinelli as she takes you through what medical school admissions committees look for when evaluating an applicant’s extracurricular activities. During this webinar, you will learn:
- What extracurriculars you should be participating in.
- How to use your clinical activities to stand out.
- How many hours of shadowing/research you need.
- What makes a great medical school applicant.
Dr. Marinelli has practiced family medicine, served on the University of California Admissions Committee, and has helped hundreds of students get into medical school. She spearheads a team of physician advisors who guide MedSchoolCoach students.
Dr. Lipsit served on the Virginia Commonwealth University admissions committee and was also Chief Resident at The George Washington University Medical Center.
Hey everyone, thanks so much for joining me. My name is Dr. Marinelli, I’m the director of advising with MedSchoolCoach. And today we’re going to talk about applying to medical school and what extracurricular activities you need.
So, we’re going to go through several different clinical and volunteer activities that are pretty much essential for any premedical students to have when they apply to medical school. I like to break it down into about five different categories of things that you really should be looking for and developing as an applicant over years of preparation for when you actually apply to medical school and extracurricular activities are very different activities and a series of different experiences. And you can kind of classify them into the five that I have listed here.
And we’re going to go through these individually and talk about what makes a great extracurricular activity. And also, I wanted to break it down by trying to do a little bit of a case study. And what I mean by that is we talk about each one of these categories. I also want to talk about somebody, an applicant that I’ve worked with or I’ve seen in the past that really stood out, that really made this activity unique. And to give you some ideas on how you could possibly do the same thing.
So, let’s start with community service, so community service is obviously a service activity where you are not necessarily getting a reward or compensation. So, I like to think of this as something being altruistic, trying to be much altruistic as you possibly can through activity. And what do I mean by that? That means that you’re pretty much doing something for somebody else without getting something in return. So there are lots of different ways you can do this. And I put a couple of examples on the page here, but tutoring, camp counselor, volunteering at a homeless shelter, volunteering for Meals on Wheels, things like that.
This is where you are actually giving your time to other people without necessarily getting any praise, any experience that’s going to necessarily prepare you as a physician, or even getting paid or things like that. This is really just giving your time to help somebody else. And the reason why admissions committees really like to see this is because this is what you’re doing as a physician. You’re working to give your time to other people. And although as a physician, you get compensated eventually, it’s still a lot of work.
And so medical school admissions committees want to see that you have some altruistic. Ability and altruistic nature to yourself. One note here is that lots of times people say, well, what if I volunteer at a hospital? Wouldn’t that be the same type of thing as community service is volunteering? I’m not necessarily getting paid or anything in return, but there is a bit of a caveat there. And we’ll talk about hospital volunteering more in-depth later on in this presentation.
But with hospital volunteering, although it’s volunteer and not paid, you are getting some benefit from doing that. And that benefit is you’re getting hospital experience. You’re getting to see what physicians are doing. Nurses are doing working with patients. And so you’re getting that exposure to the medical study, which is really beneficial to you as a medical student. So community service is trying to be altruistic as possible. Now, let’s look at these numbers here.
So if you see here that this minimum and average numbers and I put these on the slides, but I’m going to give a big caveat to these and we’ll talk about that. So there is actually very limited data on how many hours a premedical student has when applying to medical schools. And these numbers are actually a study that the University of Utah, some data that the University of Utah put out several years ago. And I just use this kind of as a benchmark because they had reported a minimum and then the average.
But from reviewing applications and from looking over tons of different applications over the last two years, I would say that these numbers are very, very low. And so I will give you a little bit of a caveat during each of these different sections where I think you should think about for your hours.
I think for community service applying, you should have around two hundred hours of community service on your application when applying to medical school. That’s where you’re going to be most competitive. And we’ll talk about ours a little bit more later, too. But one thing I do want to know is that a lot of applicants get very, very much caught up in do I have enough hours? But instead of only focusing on the quantity of the experience really focused to on the quality, even if you only had one hundred hours, but maybe you developed a huge volunteer program and you really contributed to an organization that could be a little bit more impactful than somebody that spent two hundred hours just kind of going to the volunteer organization without really having any impact.
So although the quantity is important, make sure you’re really paying attention to the quality of the time you’re spending. So let’s talk about a case study here. So this applicant that I had worked with had gone to Mexico several times and really developed a relationship with the individuals he was volunteering with. He helped build houses and tutored and really made an impact on the community there. And the reason why I use this as a case study is that these experiences really demonstrates his dedication that longitudinally to I mean, he did this for several years, which is great.
That’s showing medical schools that you’re going to be able to commit to something when you set your mind to it or you say you’re going to commit, you’re going to do it. And medical schools like to see that. Another thing is that kind of selfless service, that altruism. I mean, he’s not really getting anything out of a trip to Mexico and building a house except for sort of hard work. But that’s really showing that he just cares for other people.
He’s willing to put in the extra effort. OK, so clinical work. So clinical work is super, super important, right. Medical schools want to see that you’ve spent some time in a health care setting, some time talking with patients, and time interacting with other health care professionals so that you have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into applying to medical school. So clinical work is key here. You definitely need clinical volunteer work. If applied to medical school and I take that back, it doesn’t have to be volunteer work.
It can be paid position to. But you should be exposed to physicians, exposed to nurses, other health care practitioners. You should try to directly interact with patients as much as possible so that you have that experience working with patients. So the first time you see a patient, a medical school, that’s not your first time ever talking to a patient, you at least have some background in that. The numbers here, I think, are very, very low.
This is a minimum of two hundred hours to be competitive – of clinical work. And again, that could be volunteering in a clinical setting, that could be working in a clinical setting or in a doctor’s office. It doesn’t have to be volunteer or paid – it doesn’t have to be one or the other. It could be a combination of both as well.So this, I thought, was a really good example here is that an applicant volunteer to a local free clinic and then the applicant really became more involved, more invested and took on more roles, which I thought that this was really great because what are these what are these experiences demonstrating the demonstrating that the applicant shows initiative and is willing to work with others and really try to take action to provide better care with patients. The other thing that I thought was so great here was that the applicant had a lot of experience just talking to patients and working with them and providing care as much as possible.
And that’s an important note. I get a lot of free medical students that say, well, I’m a pre-med, I don’t have any training. So it’s really hard for me to get to talk to patients or provide them care. And that is absolutely true. As a pre-medical student, you’re probably in college or graduated. You don’t have an R.N. or something like that behind your name to allow you to care for patients. It takes some digging and some time to find these clinical activities where you get up close and personal with patients.
Sometimes people do pursue extra training like they may become a medical assistant or a scribe or an EMT. So they take a few months of specific education. But when they work in a hospital, they’re able to provide more direct care because of that training. That is definitely an option. But you don’t have to do that if you don’t want to. There are other opportunities, but it’s on you to really look for these opportunities. It’s not going to just land in your lap, OK, for maybe some people will land in your lap.
Maybe you have a friend, a parent friend who’s a doctor and says, come off-screen patients in my clinic. More than likely, though, you’re going to have to search for different opportunities and different volunteer activities or working in a hospital where they allow volunteers to really interact with patients and help provide some care. But that’s going to take some digging and some looking. But it’s certainly worth it to have that on your application in medical school.
So research is something that when I applied to medical school, it was kind of just like icing on the cake. Now research is pretty much required. You almost have to have research in order to get accepted to medical school. And what I say is that you need to have research. And then now a publication is really icing on the cake. If you’re able to get published in your research, that looks awesome. It’s not required, but it looks great.
I would say that this is probably the minimum and average. It here is probably pretty close to what I see for most applicants. Most applicants will have at least been on some research-based project that they’ve kind of worked through the whole thing and maybe analyzed the results and presented them. Possibly the minimum, I think is kind of a little bit inaccurate. You definitely want more than just part of class. It should be some type of independent research outside of a class.
This client that I had worked with was really interesting. He had worked on a very long term research project and he actually tested E. coli and from hospitalized patients and their antibiotic susceptibility.
And I thought this was so great because not only did he get published on it, he showed that he had dedicated himself to this long term project. And I thought what was so neat, too, is that he had some crossover with clinical medicine and then just basic scientific research that he tested E. coli isolates from hospitalized patients. So it had a very direct clinical application. Now, a question I get pretty commonly is, does my research have to be scientific or can it be clinical research?
And there are differing opinions here. But I think that medical schools do like to see that you have some bench work science research experience. And the reason being is because in medical school, you’re going to take histology and you’re going to learn a little bit how to prep slides and look under the microscope and maybe do some pipetting or PCR kind of basic lab skills. And so you really should have that background, at least in some degree, in order to prepare for medical school.
So my argument would be medical schools want to see that. So you should have some of that experience. However, you can have experience, too, outside of science. So you could have clinical research experience. I know that’s science, but I mean, with patients maybe doing drug testing or medical device testing in a clinical setting, that is definitely something that is really great to get involved with. You get both that kind of scientific process, but then you also get exposure to patients and physicians in their health care teams.
But you could also do sociology research or something along those lines as long as you’re working through the scientific process of developing a thesis and developing a hypothesis, rather working through it and analyzing results, that’s what is really important. But you should have some research experience, kind of the degree of it, where it starts, where it takes. You can vary. But I think having that basic science research is important and then you can branch off from there.
So leadership is kind of something that’s defined in accordance with your other activities. And what I mean by that is that you should have some leadership activity, but it doesn’t have to be necessarily different from your other activities. So let’s say you were a volunteer coordinator for your hospital volunteer program. That’s not a completely separate activity. That is leadership within your hospital volunteer program. That leadership can be separate, of course, but it doesn’t have to be. But you should have some experiences where you can really demonstrate your leadership capacity and why.
Well, physicians are usually the leaders in the health care team, and having those qualities as a leader is super important for you to be successful in medicine. And the minimum and average here, I think is pretty accurate. Usually, I see most applicants with and with about one leadership experience. Really, top applicants are going to have three or more leadership experiences. But, you know, this is something you just kind of need to look for. Think about the positions that you currently hold and possibly see if there are ways that you can dig a little bit deeper, take some initiative and find a leadership position within them for the case study here is that I thought this was so great is this applicant volunteered at an orphanage in India.
And then when she came back, she was just like, I think that we really need to make some change. I can’t just go and volunteer there every year. There needs to be some more tangible change being made. So she actually created a nonprofit profit organization and raised thousands of dollars and grew that non-profit organization to go and help the children in India and provide them funds and food and clothes and things like that. And why does that make that so great?
But that means I mean, the reason why this was so great is that she really took the initiative. She really thought through a problem, felt the problem, internalized it, and then developed a creative solution to really address it. And she obviously didn’t just do this on her own. She created a team of people that would work at her non-profit organization. And together they raised thousands of dollars. And so she really showed that ability to kind of lead a team, take them from an idea to a tangible outcome and collaborate very, very well with all of them. This was a really, really great leadership activity. Obviously, not everybody is going to be able to develop a non-profit organization. But I just kind of throw this out there because I think it’s just an example, too, of maybe thinking outside of the box. As I said, a leadership activity inside or in part of one of your extracurricular activities is totally fine, but this gives a really great example of somebody kind of taking that one step further and thinking through a problem and really taking initiative on it.
So physician shadowing, in addition to your clinical activities, so working with patients and working with the health care team, you should have some time just observing a physician and kind of being a fly on the wall in their practice to see what they are doing. One great way to do this and getting some clinical experience is through scribing. Lots of times other people will just go and shadow multiple physicians just to get a taste of what their practice is like. The minimum and average here, I think are very, very low.
I usually tell people about 50 to one hundred hours of shadowing is what you want to shoot for, to be competitive. Ideally, you want a shot of multiple physicians in multiple different specialties. So maybe shadowing a family medicine physician, a pediatrician, an obstetrician, a surgeon, things like that. So you can kind of get a sampling of different practices and also specialties. And then also, this is important to note that if you are applying to osteopathic schools, you should really, really shadow an osteopathic physician.
Most of the schools want you to write about your experience with osteopathy and saying that you shadowed and worked with the physician of osteopathy is super important for your application there. So the case study that we have here is this applicant, I think he actually had enrolled in a program through his school where he was kind of coordinated to work with and shadow multiple physicians over a series of weeks. And he had shadowed the primary care surgeon, cardiologist, a few other ones, and they were all in various settings.
And what made this so ideal is, like I had just said, is that he shot multiple physicians. He got those 50 to 100 hours easily. And then he also was with different specialists and in different settings to sort of somewhere in the hospital somewhere, a private clinic somewhere, a combination of both. And so that definitely exposes him to a wide array of medical specialties and their practices, which can really help medical schools get a good idea that you kind of know what you’re getting yourself into.
You spent time with physicians and you’ve really seen what they do. So that’s very reassuring to medical schools. So that’s why his experience was so ideal. Also, I thought it was ideal’s because he shadowed these physicians for a long period of time. And so hopefully he built enough rapport and developed a relationship with them that they could potentially write him a letter of recommendation, which would be super, super helpful for his application. So those are kind of the five core extracurricular activities that I had introduced and we talk through them.
There are other extracurricular activities that I see people do and have on their application. Pretty commonly they are maybe not the core ones that you absolutely need to have, but they are activities that do look good on your application. So let’s talk about those for a few minutes. So one was international volunteer work or international travel studying abroad. I think personally that traveling internationally is great. It really helps develop you as a person and your perspective and your context allow you to see and experience other cultures different from your own.
And this can be super, super valuable as a future physician. So I highly encourage it, even just from the personal aspect, but from a medical school admissions standpoint, [admission commitees] really want to see this because of those reasons. They want to see that you’re not just in your own little bubble of your world, that you’ve been exposed to other people, into to other cultures, and you have a greater perspective than just what’s in front of you.
It also helps too because lots of times on some of these medical mission trips or medical international volunteer trips is that applicants will actually get exposed to different medical systems, which is nice to have that perspective as a future medical student to see what health care is like not only in the United States, but also to see what it’s like abroad. So I highly encourage these trips. But, you know, it can be hard for some people to afford these to find these.
It is limited availability. So if you have the opportunity, I would seize it. Talk to your school, talk to churches, family, friends. Lots of times people have families, friends that maybe go every year to a certain country and provide medical care or a church does similar things. I would try to get involved in these organizations if you can, and this is something at your disposal, definitely take advantage of it. So another thing that people kind of find themselves in in regards to extracurricular activities is what do they do during a gap year?
So a gap year is for those of you who don’t know, people that want to matriculate into medical school straight from undergrad will apply their junior year of undergrad application takes about a year and then they start the fall of their senior year after their senior year of undergrad. If you apply your senior year or thereafter, you have something called a gap year where that means you have time off between undergrad and medical school. Tons of people take a gap year is becoming increasingly common.
And sometimes I think it’s a very good thing for specific applicants to have that time in between college and medical school. If you’re kind of wondering what a gap year is, a gap year, right for you definitely reach out to us. We can talk to your application and help you determine if this is the right step for you to be taking. But if you are in a gap year, you’re already planning on some things to be thinking about in regards to extracurricular activities, is trying to stay active in whatever current volunteer work you are doing.
So it shows that longitudinality, that commitment to that volunteer work, just because you start college doesn’t mean you need to stop volunteering at the hospital showing that you continued that activity is going to look really good.
This is a discussion for another day, but if you are if you may be to have a good GPA or you need to finish pre-reqs, then an activity during that time would be continuing education through a post-bacc or a special master’s program or something. In addition, if you’re working or if you’re completely out of school and you need to have a position that actually pays, then some things to be thinking about are like a medical scribe and EMT doing some clinical research.
Oftentimes you can find these positions that are paid, that are taking college-level graduates so that you can continue to kind of get exposure to the medical field, but then also kind of double-dip by getting paid and supporting yourself. Whatever you do during this time, try to make it worthwhile. Think of activities that are going to build up your application. I always make the joke of somebody that’s in a gap year and all they do is work at Chick fil A for the year and finish Netflix.
That’s not going to look very good on your application over that same person. If they’re working as a clinical research coordinator and continuing to volunteer at the hospital and they could binge-watch Netflix at the same time, in their free time, that’s going to look good on your medical school application. You’re going to show medical schools that you’re dedicated to the path of medicine. You’re doing something related to medicine where you’re continuing to get those skills, working with patients, getting exposed to the health care setting and learning there, and also continuing your commitment to your volunteer activity.
That is what’s going to make an impact and really show strength during the gap year rather than using the gap year that could potentially hurt you if you’re not contributing to your application. An applicant that really stays in activities that are contributing to their application is going to help and that’s going to help them get ahead as well.
So as we kind of talked about what makes those best extracurricular activities, not only do you need to have with this kind of numerical quantity of extracurricular activities like we talked about but how do you make them unique? How do you really make them stand out? And these are some things that we talked about. But think about having that continual longitudinal commitment. If you started a volunteer activity in your freshman year of college and you like it and you continue it through senior year.
Great. Keep going with it. That shows that you have the dedication to something medical school and becoming a physician is a long journey. So if you can show medical schools that you can really dedicate yourself to something early on that is reassuring to them that you’re going to make it through medical school and residency and all of the training to become a physician. We talked about this, but trying to have as direct as much as possible patient care. So working with patients and talking with them and interacting with them, that icing on the cake of having a research project that actually produces a paper or presentation really just makes that stand out and shows, again, you’re kind of extra level of commitment to the project, getting a letter of recommendation from an activity in that kind of not only solidifies your when you write about the activity and you say, like I did X, Y, and Z, and I showed my dedication through this and this and this, the letter of recommendation really kind of.
You did all of these things through an activity and you learn this and then maybe the supervisor of that activity writes a letter that reinforces all that, that really helps medical schools understand that you this was a very impactful activity and you really dedicated yourself to it. The other thing, too, is passion. Do what you want to do. I know that we have those core extracurricular activities, but if you find yourself in a volunteer position that is just boring or you just do not feel like you are actually interacting or you’re not getting to really put yourself out there and learn and grow as a person from it, don’t continue with it.
Go on to something bigger and better. Find activities that are going to make you happy and enrich you. Try not just to use activity to check off that imaginary box on the medical school application, try to actually do activities that are important to you and matter to you. And that kind of goes through to this next point is that you’re going to have to write about your extracurricular activities during your AMCAS application, which is your primary application, and you will talk about them during your medical school interviews.
So, you know, even though you’re going to be classifying your activities on your application as either volunteer clinical experience, shadowing, etc, etc., it’s not like you need to check all five of those boxes like I had. I have those five core extracurricular activities. You’re going to want to have a wide array of activities, but just putting something in there just to say that I had clinical experience is really, really going to be detrimental to your application.
The reason being is because if you didn’t enjoy it, you didn’t have passion for it. That’s going to come through on the way you write about it in the way you talk about it during your interview. Medical schools are going to be able to discern that this one isn’t that important to you. This is just something you did to check off the box. So instead, as I said, make sure you’re passionate about it, you care about it.
And that’s going to really shine through in those essays and your interviews and medical schools are going to really be able to see that this was something that you cared about and that you put your all into it. So thanks so much for listening to this. Definitely feel free to reach out to MedSchoolCoach about any questions you have. Lots of times we get people that sign up for an hour to talk with one of our physician advisors that have served on admissions committees just to kind of go over their extracurricular activities, the things that they’ve done, and maybe make plans for the following year based on what they have done and what they need to do.
And that is a great way to kind of make sure you’re on the right track and that you’re developing yourself appropriately as an applicant. So definitely consider reaching out to us and having that conversation so we can put you on it, put you in on that right path and make recommendations for your extracurricular activities so that you’re competitive as much as possible when you’re ready to apply.
Thank you again for listening to me. I hope that was helpful. Stay tuned because we’re going to have a really awesome question and answer session. And so hopefully some of these questions that have come up while I presented this, I’ll get to them. We can answer them and kind of talk through some of the common questions and maybe some of your specific situational questions as well.