Admission Tips & SecretsApplying to Medical School

How to curate killer extracurriculars (aka: do what you love and you won’t work a day of undergrad)

Extra-Curricular Activities

By: Mandy Gleason, MD

As a senior resident, I do doctor things every day. So when I interview med school and residency applicants, the last things I want to chat about are doctor things. Unique volunteerism, hobbies I didn’t know existed, and gap years I wish I took – those are the topics I pull from your application and ask about. That’s not to say you shouldn’t volunteer at a free clinic or shadow in a specialty that interests you. You should! But since everyone does them, medicine-related resume builders won’t set you apart from your fellow applicants.

If you’ve started the daunting task of filling out your med school application, you already know about the Work and Activities section the application. If you haven’t started yet, just know there’s a place for you to enter your non-academic activities including extracurriculars, medically-related experiences/exposure, paid employment, volunteer work, internships, etc. But here’s the clincher, the application only lets you enter 15 of them! So let’s first talk about how admissions committees and interviewers use your Work and Activities section (I’ll call it W&A from now on), then we’ll get into the secrets of creating a stellar one.

When I was choosing extracurriculars throughout undergrad, I had no idea what activities med school admissions committees would want to see. So I just chose ones I enjoyed. Now that I’m on the other side and interviewing applicants myself, I see that my pre-med self was actually on the right track with the whole doing what I enjoyed thing. But since it never FEELS that easy when you’re the one applying, let’s break things down together, shall we?

Read More: Extracurricular activities during college: should I aim for breadth or depth?

At most med schools, each applicant (you) has a few one-on-one interviews with faculty and a few one-on-one interviews with current med students. The purpose of student interviews is to help the med school ensure that the applicant can hold a conversation with peers (aka they help the school vet you for normalcy). This doesn’t mean you’re expected to become besties with your student interviewers, it just means you need to get along with them and not throw up any red flags (lazy, prejudiced, lacking in humility – you know, the really bad stuff you clearly aren’t) that could be missed by a more senior interviewer.

The night before your interview, most student interviewers read your application and pick a few topics they want to ask you about. Asking about your experiences helps interviewers learn about who you are, and more importantly, learn what it’s like interacting with you. Want to guess where we find those experiences? Your W&A section!

Read More: Acing your medical school interviews

Alright, I’ve told you enough about the utility of the W&A section. Let’s create one that admissions committees and interviewers are going to love:

  • 10-12 activities. Fill all 15 slots and it’ll feel like you’re stretching. List less than 5 (unless they’re massive commitments that lasted for years) and you’ll look uninvolved
  • Max of 3 medical-related activities. Having a couple of these on your resume conveys an interest in medicine. Any more than 3 and you may seem like a one-trick medical pony. If you’ve done a whole bunch of medical things, just pick the ones you most like talking about
  • The longer and more involved the commitment the better. There’s nothing wrong with one-day long volunteer activities, but they don’t belong in your W&A section. Duration (years = better) and depth (coordinator or leader position = better than standard volunteer) will show your interviewers you’re committed AND give you more to talk about during the interview. As long as you’ve got a touch of quantity, quality is king
  • The more unique and unexpected the experience the better. If you have a killer hobby (say, bassoon playing or working on cars), find a way to turn it into a volunteer activity or take a class in it. If it’s got a title and contact person you’ll be able to take it of your Hobbies section (which is glanced at but not taken very seriously by interviewers) and throw it into your W&A section where the rest of the interview material is

With ALL that said, your W&A section is just one component of you application and is unlikely to HURT you no matter what it looks like. But if you have the ability to hone it a little, you can definitely HELP your future-self right around interview time.

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