Extracurricular Activities – Which Ones? How Many?
By Carleen Eaton, M.D.
The life of a premedical student is a hectic one. At the same time that you are juggling a full load of science courses and squeezing in some passages to prep for the MCAT, you are trying to fit in research, clinical experiences, volunteer work and memberships to various clubs and organizations. But do you really have to be a twice published, Flemish-speaking, member of the Molecular Biology Club who also happens to play the harp and has volunteered in five hospitals, three homeless shelters and patented an invention or two on the side to be admitted to med school? Actually, no. However, it will help your cause to have some well-developed interests and a list of activities that shows depth in your pursuits.
To understand the view of admissions committees, you need to first understand what is meant by a “diverse class.” This means that when taken together, the individuals who comprise the class represent a broad range of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences, which makes for a dynamic and interesting group. One student may have extensive research experience, while someone else has spent the past four years as a member of their university’s diving team and yet another has been very active in student government. This does not mean that the research guy is also expected to have been a star athlete, president of the student body and speak four languages. The question to ask is “What can I contribute to the group as a whole?”
This knowledge frees you up to pick a couple of interests and pursue them, without feeling as though you have to dabble in everything. There are fifteen spaces on the “work/activities” section on the AMCAS application, but that does not mean that you have to fill them all. Quality is truly what counts. A single entry may describe a two year research project and will be given more weight than five entries listing memberships in random clubs that you just showed up for an occasional meeting with.
One caveat is that clinical experience is a must. Committees want to know that you have thoroughly investigated the medical profession and know what you are in for before starting the 7+ year journey to become a practicing physician. Therefore, volunteering and physician shadowing should be part of your experiences since no amount of bench research, fund-raising for your favorite charity or tutoring disadvantaged kids will give you the insight into what it means to be a physician.
With this in mind, when confronted by the huge array of choices at your school and in your community, you can try a few and then stick with those that you really like. This may mean that you won’t fill up all the spots on the activities section of the application, and you probably won’t learn Flemish, but you will get to spend time doing the things you enjoy and developing some interests that show the committee who you really are and why they should offer you a spot in the class.