Your activities, along with your personal statement, are the first thing the admissions committee looks at to get a sense of your motivations and interests, and whether those line up with what they’re looking for in a future physician. They should ideally include a few core things: clinical exposure, research, and community involvement. But don’t worry about spending equal time on all of these – focus on what you’re most passionate about! As we mention in our PreMed 101 guide, it’s more important that you get involved in things you’re interested in. This way, you’re more likely to take on leadership roles (leadership is an important quality med schools look for in future physicians), and when it comes time for your interview, you’ll be able to talk about it more passionately and genuinely. However, involvement in these three areas demonstrates that you have the relevant interests and experience to know that you want to pursue a career in medicine.
3 Types of Pre-Med Activities That Med Schools Look for
Clinical exposure shows that you’ve been immersed in a medical environment and know what it means to be a physician in a real, practical sense. There are two main ways to gain clinical experience: volunteering and shadowing.
Volunteering in a clinical setting gives you exposure to the inner workings of healthcare while allowing you to actively be a part of and contribute to that environment. While volunteer jobs like restocking supplies are important and helpful, they don’t provide patient contact, which is something medical schools look for in your application (some secondary questions will specifically ask about a patient experience). Aim to volunteer in a position in which you’re regularly interfacing with patients or their families. For example, some of my most meaningful clinical experiences occurred while I was volunteering as a surgical liaison in a hospital, in which I kept the families and friends of patients updated on their loved one’s status in or post-surgery. This often meant learning how to deliver difficult news about surgical complications and showing compassion for anxious and upset family members. It not only gave me a valuable glimpse into the core humanistic component of medicine, but it also helped me to refine and grow my own interpersonal skills specifically in a healthcare role.
Shadowing physicians is also a great way to gain a better understanding of what it’s like to be a physician. You get to observe doctor-patient interactions from a third-party perspective, which can provide great inspiration for the kind of physician you want to be. Most medical schools don’t require shadowing, but it is generally recommended. If you’re having trouble connecting with physicians or don’t know where to start, check with your school’s pre-health office to see if they have any recommendations. Often times, they may have shadowing programs or relationships with nearby hospitals that you can take advantage of.
Research is a critical field in medicine; it’s the foundation of advances in therapies and healthcare. Getting involved in research also shows that you’re interested in learning – an important part of being a physician. (You’ll note a lot of medical school websites emphasize cultivating a community of “lifelong learners”.) Many colleges conduct research and have opportunities for undergraduate students to get involved. Usually, research can be done for pay or credit, so you can kill two birds with one stone!
It doesn’t have to be basic science research that you get involved in. It can be clinical, or even in a non-hard-science field. If you love anthropology, great! Find a way to get involved with research being done in your anthropology department. The important thing is that you’ve shown you know how to examine and analyze data, ask relevant questions, and draw logical conclusions.
Saying you want to be a doctor because you want to help people is great and all, but you’ve got to show it. You need to back this up with relevant experiences that demonstrate your commitment to improving the lives of others. Volunteering, in a medical setting or otherwise, can count as community involvement, as well as certain groups in college. For example, Camp Kesem is a popular student group in college that provides a summer camp for children who have been affected by cancer. You can also check out your school’s version of a public service center. Sometimes they’ll have opportunities for alternative Spring breaks, volunteering days, or even fellowships. Don’t rush at the first opportunity for community involvement just because it’s something you feel you should “check off of your list”. There are plenty of ways to get involved, so find something you really enjoy doing. You’ll have a great experience and liven-up your application.
Medicine is gravitating more and more toward a holistic approach that incorporates a patient’s background and community into his/her care, and medical schools want to know that you recognize the importance of this as a future physician. (Bonus points if you get involved with an organization that serves traditionally underserved populations! Some medical schools will specifically ask how you plan to help underserved populations in your career.)
Writing About Your Activities
Keep a Record
I strongly urge you to keep a journal of notable experiences from all your activities. It’ll be useful as a memory jog (especially if you’re like me and end up taking a few years off between college and med school) and will provide good material to write about in your application, especially for those three activities you deem “most meaningful”. Plus, it’s always good to have a few meaningful anecdotes in your back pocket for responding to interview questions. When it came time for medical school applications and interviews, I was grateful for the times I remembered to write about a significant experience right after it happened before I forgot the details, and I regretted the times I didn’t.
The Primary Application
OK, so you’ve got the core activities that demonstrate your awareness of what being a physician entails and your passion for pursuing it. What now? How do you best convey that in your application? Here are a few tips:
DON’T write merely a summary of the activity.
DO emphasize the significance of that experience and what you learned from it. Did that experience inform your desire to become a physician or give you a clearer vision of the kind of physician you want to be? How did that experience change your perspective on healthcare, diversity, other cultures, etc? What skills did you gain, and how might that be applicable to being a physician? (Note: specific examples of meaningful interpersonal interactions are a great way to illustrate the significance of that experience.)
The bottom line? If you pursue your passions and actively engage in them, you’ll have the foundation for a strong medical school application!