When I prepared my medical school application back in the "old days," applicants filled the MCAT out by hand, and it was only offered twice a year. At the time, I could not understand why it was so important for applicants to have engaged in extracurricular activities during college.
Becoming a physician was all about learning and applying science, I thought, so why aren't good grades and a solid MCAT score enough?
Sitting on the other side of the interview chair and working as a physician has given me more context on the importance of extracurricular activities in the medical school admissions process.
[Learn how to avoid four medical school admissions myths.]
Extracurricular activities provide insight into what you value and how you prioritize and manage your time, and they are unequivocally an important element of the medical school admissions process. However, it is difficult to quantify precisely how important they are to the admissions process.
When you are planning what types of activities to dedicate your precious and limited time to, it is important to do the following:
• Find activities that you are genuinely passionate about.
• Focus on activities that enable you to have a meaningful impact over time.
• Ensure that you have sustained clinical exposure.
If you were a medical school admissions committee member reviewing hundreds of applications, would you be more likely to extend an interview invitation to an applicant with no clearly discernible interests other than getting into medical school, or an applicant with a clearly articulated passion substantiated by his or her extracurricular activities?
Do not dispassionately sign up for activities to "check the box." It will be clear in your AMCAS application, and it is unlikely to sway an admissions committee.
Genuine excitement and passion are palpable and contagious; whether your passion is for art history or molecular biophysics, expressing this artfully in your application and demonstrating this through your extracurricular activities will increase your chances of impressing the admissions committee.
Résumé building activities that don't demonstrate any meaningful commitment or impact are easy to spot; examples can include one-time volunteer activities, or an isolated experience shadowing a physician two years ago. Consequently, activities such as these are unlikely to increase your chance of acceptance.
Not all activities need to be multi-year commitments, but sustained weekly or biweekly opportunities—as well as some activities where you demonstrate leadership skills—provide the opportunity for professional and personal growth.
Clinical exposure and experience is extremely important, and I have heard more than one senior admissions committee member refer to clinical experience as the "unspoken requirement."
This should be intuitive, but there is a cavernous difference between mastery of the scientific prerequisites to study medicine and choosing to apply your scientific and interpersonal skills to care for sick patients. Clinical exposure, preferably over a year or more, can help to solidify your commitment to medicine.
In short, extracurricular activities should not be approached as another box to check to get into medical school. Don't hesitate to focus on activities that you are passionate about, even if they seem unrelated to medicine. Strive to have a sustained impact over time, demonstrate leadership, and ensure that you have clinical exposure.
By incorporating these into your medical school admissions strategy, you are more likely to gain valuable personal experience and growth. You'll also enhance your chances of being accepted to medical school.
Mark D'Agostino, M.D., M.S., M.Sc. is a Brigade Surgeon in the United States Army. As a Marshall Scholar, he earned a master's degree in Biochemistry at the University of Nottingham Medical School, and a second master's in Health Policy, Planning and Financing from the London School of Economics (LSE) and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). After graduating from Brown Medical School, he trained at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.