If you’re planning to become a doctor, you may be familiar with the common pitfalls that lead to medical school rejection— one of those is a lack of extracurriculars. While it’s not a good idea to be so focused on academics that you aren’t a well-rounded student, it’s also not a good idea to be too consumed by extracurriculars. You need the time to study and focus on school as well as your own mental health and sanity. But extracurriculars also provide a great way to channel your energy on something other than biochem homework or lab work. One of the most time-consuming extracurriculars is athletics, particularly varsity sports. In-season, sports usually practice 2 hours per day, 6 days a week. Prep time in the locker room and getting undressed afterward can easily add another 30-60 min. Taking into account games, especially away games, sports can easily take 20-25 hours per week. In comparison, most clubs take less than 5 hours per week. The question then becomes whether what is essentially a part-time job as an athlete is worth it to you as a premed.
So what’s the deal with sports? Are they a great extracurricular to add to your resume proving your a well-rounded and well-exercised student? Or are they more hurtful than helpful? Is the time invested in sports worth the opportunity cost of less volunteering and research? When I debated whether to continue sports into college, I wasn’t sure how to weigh my options. From experiencing college both with and without sports, I got to see both sides of the argument. Here’s what I learned, and what you should take into consideration when making the decision for yourself.
What the Data Shows
Neither the AAMC nor medical schools collect data on what percentage of student-athletes get into medical school. However, a retrospective study published by the JAMA Network pointed out that the otolaryngologist residents who became the most successful clinicians weren’t the ones who excelled in STEP scores, letters of recommendation, or grades. Instead, they excelled in a team sport. The authors inferred that the residents’ time management and teamwork developed throughout sports set them apart as the most effective clinicians. This doesn’t mean that involvement in sports will certainly lead to greater success as a clinician – many studies analyzing residencies yielded different results dependent on the typical statistics of GPA, test scores, etc. However, these results suggest that playing a team sport may offer an opportunity to develop important skills that will support you on your journey to become a successful physician. Of course, physical fitness is also a key part of overall health and well-being. While an easier way of getting your exercise in might just be to hit the treadmill a few times a week, organized sports offer physical activity, a team as a support network, and ways to think strategically in stressful situations.
Why Medical Schools Like Athletes
I reached out to medical schools to get their view on athletic involvement as a pre-med student. Here are some skills you may develop or improve on as an athlete that will serve you well in medical school and beyond:
Leadership and Teamwork
Athletes sharpen their skills as a leader and a team player from motivating their team to endure strenuous training and working together to win intense games. Healthcare consists of team-oriented work cultures where physicians play a key role in their expertise to lead. Knowing how to value every member, communicate clearly, and compile different perspectives into a patient’s treatment plan are important tasks for physicians to excel in helping their patients. Leadership and teamwork skills are becoming more important as more health care providers are incorporating collaborative care teams to treat patients. In addition, team sports usually have each player specialize in a position or area of the field– you have to learn how to stand your ground as an expert and authority of your own position, while also communicating with others to achieve a common goal. This is akin to patient handoffs in the real world– doctors work in teams.
After years of competing under pressure while maintaining the arduous pre-med journey, athletes appear to be more comfortable with handling the stresses prevalent in becoming a physician: medical school’s deep curriculum, high-stakes testing, and residencies’ demanding work schedules. Although they can be very stressful, they are the required stepping stones to prepare physicians with the monumental responsibility of caring for their patients. Unlike tests which often test rote memorization or random facts, sports games require quick thinking and decision making in rapidly changing situations, and rely on instincts that are developed over years of playing a game.
No matter how hard one trains, losses are inevitable. Over time, athletes learn how to handle painful defeats to continue competing. Your setbacks from sports could be a strong answer to a common secondary app question that asks about learning from failure. Medicine can be unpredictable with grim outcomes, and physicians must be able to tolerate such losses without risking their future patients’ health.
College athletics develops applicants’ resilience and discipline as they learn how to adjust to the hours of daily training expected from their coaches. Medical schools acknowledge that college athletics is mentally and physically demanding, which parallels the substantial time commitment and exhaustion often associated with the plentiful hours of studying and hospital shifts required to learn medicine.
Receptive to Constructive Feedback
A key strength of a successful athlete is their coachability. Every athlete has room for improvement, and their coach will always address what can be better. Similarly, every student will receive constant feedback to become a better doctor. Some criticism from patients or attending physicians may come off personal and negative, but students and residents must remain receptive. Handling criticism to improve your strengths demonstrates a critical skill to becoming a successful physician: the willingness to learn. A physician can always improve their skills, and thus, they will never stop learning throughout their career. Sports can also teach a valuable lesson: that progress can be slow. People do not become great doctors or athletes in bursts– it’s a longstanding commitment to a profession over years of constant training.
A student that can handle athletics alongside the other criteria necessary for medical school requires excellent time-management skills. It’s not easy to jump into studying after a hard workout, but such discipline will set you up well for medical school. Budgeting and planning your time is critical during medical school to balance the hours required for classwork/rotations and other activities (research, volunteering, leisure, etc.) without becoming overwhelmed.
Coach’s Letter of Recommendation
As athletes work closely with their coaches on a daily basis for 3-4 years, coaches often develop a strong understanding of their athletes’ characters. With such extensive interaction, they may be able to write a nuanced, effective letter of recommendation about an athlete’s personality and ability to succeed as a physician.
Concerns with Athletics
Although athletics can strengthen many valuable traits for medical school, be wary of a few common shortcomings of student-athlete applicants.
Medical schools will not accept a low GPA or MCAT score regardless of how one excels as an athlete. Medical schools require strong study habits and academic performance to demonstrate that you can handle their rigorous coursework, score well on exams that determine residencies, and most importantly, become a knowledgeable physician who will effectively care for their patients. Being a student-athlete and a pre-med precipitates on you doing well in school– it’s just that when you aren’t working, you’re involved in your sport.
Almost every contacted medical school emphasized that athletes must demonstrate a commitment to clinical experiences. As a student-athlete with hours of daily practice, it may be challenging to incorporate the clinical experience into your schedule. However, a dedicated gap year can address this weakness. Sometimes, it’s best to do a deep-dive and truly immerse yourself in experiences for you to make the most out of them. It’s not fun to do a million things half-heartedly– instead, if you feel like you need more clinical experience prior to medical school, consider a gap year or a semester off from your sport.
Similarly, being a student-athlete may make it difficult to become actively involved in volunteering – an important component that medical schools look for in a future physician. Medical schools seek applicants who strive to support and improve their community.
The decision to pursue athletics into college does not single-handedly determine your chances of medical school acceptance. What matters most is what you make of your pre-med journey. Although athletics can make you a unique medical school applicant with heightened competition, demands, and experiences, it will also take time away from your other interests and pursuits. Ultimately, the decision should come down to your passion for your sport. Do you want to become better at your sport? Being a college athlete is a unique opportunity that (most likely) won’t come up again after committing to medicine.
Regardless of which decision you make, you will have plenty of opportunities to strengthen yourself as a medical school applicant. Choose the journey you think you will enjoy most!