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Classes and Extracurriculars – which is important?

How to choose which priorities you spend your time on

Many medical school applicants assume that a strong GPA and competitive MCAT score will guarantee admission to medical school.  In point of fact, academic excellence is a prerequisite for a career in medicine and does significantly enhance an applicant’s chances of acceptance; however, scholastic achievements alone are hardly sufficient to secure a spot in medical school, as the best physicians aren’t necessarily those with the highest exam scores or the best diagnostic skills.  Rather, they are the men and women who exhibit the right combinations of intelligence and empathy and dedication and understanding.  Such individuals develop not by spending every free moment studying but by balancing their time in the classroom with that spent engaged in other pursuits, both within academia and without.

Medical school admissions committees are especially interested in admitting students who’ve already shown a passion for helping others or serving their community.  Such interest can be demonstrated in a variety of ways, including by volunteering in a hospital, training to become a paramedic, tutoring other students or becoming involved in student government.  Students displaying in an interest in activities besides those related to academics and showing a commitment to serving other people stand a much better chance of being admitted to medical than those who do not.  However, taking on additional activities means devoting less time to studying, a course of action that may have a negative effect on one’s GPA.  Thus, the following question must be asked: How much is too much?

I often wrestled with this question during my undergraduate years.  I had exceptional grades and did not doubt that my academic work would meet the expectations of various medical schools.  However, I often wondered whether I should be doing more outside the classroom.  I volunteered at a local hospital, had done research during the summer and was active in multiple student organizations but couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that my overall body of work wasn’t strong enough to satisfy a medical school admissions committee.

Fortunately, I happened to be attending school in the same city in which my state’s then-only medical school was located and decided to reach out to the institution’s admissions committee liaison, whom I had met previously when she spoke at my university.  She agreed to speak with me via phone and listened patiently as I explained my situation before asking me a very important question, “Do you think you could maintain your GPA if you took on more extracurricular activities?”

I paused to consider her question before replying, “I’m not sure.”

She said, “Based on what you’ve told me, it sounds like you’re already doing the things you need to be doing.  But if you’re not sure you can keep doing those things if you took on more, then you’ve probably reached your limit for what you can do outside the classroom.”

I asked, “Is that bad?  Does my not doing more mean I’m not cut out for medicine?”

She answered, “Not at all.  I get questions like this a lot, and I always give students the same answer: being involved in fifty different things isn’t justification for a low GPA.  We would much rather see you do what you can while still maintaining a high GPA and having good work-life balance.  What that actually looks like in terms what you can put on your application is going to be different from person to person.”

We talked for a few minutes more, discussing various other interests and goals of mine, but the above exchange remains particularly memorable for me, as it was extremely helpful in assuaging my aforementioned concerns and also provided me with useful information that I’ve tried to share with prospective medical students whenever possible, as many of them have also wondered how much is too much?

When I speak with students interested in medicine, I’m always careful to advise them that extracurricular activities are important but should never undermine the quality of one’s academic work.  Committing to one or two activities per semester or year while excelling in the classroom is a far more effective approach than overcommitting and struggling with coursework.  Medical schools are interested in students who show their human side as much as their intellect; however, they’re most interested in students who’ve a good grasp of their strengths and weaknesses and can recognize when they don’t know something or need extra help.  Applicants who routinely “bite off more than they can chew” are likely to carry such habits into their careers, a scenario that doesn’t bode well for their ability to effectively care for patients.  In contrast, students who know their limits are much more likely to become the clinician and colleague in whom everyone trusts.

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