Medical students can find time for extracurricular activities despite their very busy schedules.

Learn How to Balance Medical School and Extracurriculars

Med school can be intense, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t time to have fun, too.

Medical students can find time for extracurricular activities despite their very busy schedules.

Medical students can find time for extracurricular activities despite their very busy schedules.

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While medical school is extremely demanding, that doesn't mean students can't juggle school requirements with outside interests. Medical schools frequently offer opportunities to help out in free clinics in the community, or even travel overseas before starting clinical rotations. There are also opportunities for being involved in activities outside of medicine. Students should take advantage of the plethora of options available to them to expand their experiences beyond their medical school education.

For example, many medical schools have student-run, free clinics, in which students have some autonomy but are also supervised by physicians. The University of Illinois—Chicago College of Medicine has a long-standing program where medical students can act as clinical volunteers, patient educators, or even volunteers in administration. The School of Medicine at Yale University has an established program in global heath, with multiple international elective opportunities.

There are also many programs for students from any medical school; Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center has a comprehensive list of such programs.

Although many medical students choose to focus on activities that are related to their training, extracurriculars are not limited to medicine. Medical students have formed bands or even walked fashion catwalks during their time in school. The University of Rochester's School of Medicine and Dentistry, for instance, has a widely known medical student singing group, and the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine has a group that teaches dance to the local community.

With such an array of activities, what are the best ways to achieve a balance between extracurricular activities and academics once you are a medical student?

[Read about how extracurriculars can improve M.D. applicants' chances.]

Because medical schools structure their curricula in very different ways from most undergraduate programs, it can be difficult to balance extracurricular activities in the same way you could as an undergraduate. Here are some things to consider:

1. Medical school is very different from college: Whether it's during the basic science or clinical years, medical school can be a difficult change from previous experiences for many students. Students often find that opportunities that were available to them in college, particularly nonclinical ones, may not be present in most medical schools. Given the general trend of providing exposure to patient interactions during those years, schedules can become more inflexible and make it more difficult to arrange extracurricular experiences.

2. Prioritization: With the change in the course load flexibility (from flexible to inflexible), your time becomes more precious. It's important that you manage your time effectively in medical school, so that you'll not only get your work done, but also have time to enjoy yourself.

Focus on the activities that are important to you, rather than those that might look impressive to residency programs. You'll have much more time to be involved in your first or second year of medical school; come third year, your schedule will change drastically, as the hours for clinical clerkships can be long and unpredictable, soaking up free time.

[Don't apply to medical school without a purpose.]

Though medical school is an intense experience, medical students usually find a way to make time for activities that mean a lot to them. Here are some ways to maximize your time without burning out:

1. Set aside time for non-medical school activities: It's crucial during an intense experience like medical school that you dedicate some time to yourself or things you like to do. Many students feel guilty for not studying or seeming self-indulgent, but the happier you are, the better you will perform.

2. Avoid sacrificing sleep: Sleep deprivation is an increasingly recognized problem among health professionals, particularly residents and medical students. Many recently implemented policies that restrict the number of hours that trainees can be on duty stem from concerns regarding performance when fatigued.

A 2005 American Medical Association survey reported that at least 1 in 4 medical students experienced significant fatigue while on duty. Ensuring you get adequate sleep will help both your medical school performance and your ability to be involved in extracurriculars.

[Make sure to avoid four medical school admissions myths.]

Once you find your balance, there are many opportunities to be involved in activities during medical school. Focusing on your core interests, what you enjoy, and your health are critical in surviving the stresses of medical school.

Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How to Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.