By Nick Deebel
This is a question I am frequently asked. In addition to possessing a strong undergraduate GPA and MCAT score, U.S. medical schools desire and expect to see well-rounded applicants. It shows them that you are a well-rounded person in the hopes that this will allow you to better develop rapport with your future patients. As a result of this expectation, many prospective medical school applicants feel the constant pressure to diversify their applications by taking part in a myriad of extracurricular activities.
The question then becomes, “What should I do and how many extracurricular activities should I partake in?” While it is a nice thought to be “perfect” and be involved in everything from research to volunteerism to school organizations, it may not be the right answer for everyone. As an undergraduate student at a magnet college for health professions students I was faced with medical school hopefuls from day one. I distinctly remember our first student organization fair and talking to my peers who were signing up for every club under the sun because, “I am pre-med and I need all of this for my application.” Meanwhile, I stood a little bewildered when I realized I had only signed up from three organizations. I felt behind the eight ball already. I would then go on to work in one of the labs at my college and volunteer with the local blood drive. This still paled in comparison to what I knew (or thought) my peers were involved with. While I may not have had as many bullet points on my application, I invested my blood, sweat and tears, into those activities and made sure they became my passion in college.
I will let you in on a secret. Medical school admission committees only care about your extracurricular activity breadth to an extent. What they truly care about is the depth of the experience. Dedicating yourself to being passionate about three to five experiences is significantly more valuable than having a laundry list of things that you only have a surface layer of involvement with. It is possible to be a well-rounded applicant without “having your hands in everything”. While this may sound contradictory to what you have been told, I would like to point out that some of the best medical school applicants are those with only a few bullet points on their application. The key to their success is their ability to articulate the benefit of their experience and demonstrate to an admissions committee how it has prepared them for medical school. The value in an extracurricular activity comes from the lessons you learn from it and to what extent you can help your fellow man while developing as a person. If you stretch yourself too thin, you are denying yourself of that experience.
This will become evident when you arrive for your medical school interviews. During your interviews you may be asked about your experience to some capacity. When you speak about your experience, you want to be specific about what you accomplished and the impact it had on you as it relates to your ability to become a physician. Interviewers are keenly skilled at detecting whether what you say is genuine or not. Additionally, they will be able to tell whether this is something you spent a few afternoons on or whether this is something that represents a significant investment on your part.
While extracurricular activities are an excellent way to bolster your medical school application, they are only one piece of the puzzle. If you bite off more than you can chew you may find yourself struggling academically or personally. Therefore, if you remember anything from this post: I would like you to remember to stay involved in extracurricular activities to the extent that you can still be successful in your coursework and maintain an identity in your daily life. This will vary for each person and that is ultimately your balance to find. In the end, I would argue depth of the experience is far more important than breadth of experience.