Okay. So, everyone knows great grades and MCAT scores are really important for getting into medical school. And everyone also knows that rest of your resume is also supposed to be super impressive. But what exactly constitutes ‘impressive’ these days? It’s becoming increasingly competitive to get into literally ANY medical school in the US, so the threshold for what is considered ‘impressive enough’ is getting higher every year. Let’s talk about what makes certain co-curricular activities stand out on an application, and what is worth devoting time and energy towards.
Actually, before I jump right in, I want to state that it’s pretty much a given that you need to have some clinical experience as one or more of your primary co-curricular involvements. Without clinical experience, you have no way of ‘proving’ that you are serious about working in health care and that you know what working in health care is like. Research experience isn’t technically a requirement, but it’s SO common that I think it is almost a prerequisite. I feel like even most non-science majors work in a lab or on a clinical project ‘on the side’ in order to get their feet wet with research. If you think about it, most medical schools want their students to be on the forefront of knowledge production, so they are looking for applicants who have demonstrated interest in the research process.
With that out of the way, for your non-clinical/research involvements, here goes:
1. Go outside your university community.
Student organizations are great for meeting other students, but many times (not ALL the time, but MANY times), they literally do not affect people outside your university bubble. Attending a meeting once a month where you maybe learn something new is fine, but it isn’t revolutionary. Also, it is pretty easy to start a new student organization at most universities, and medical schools know that. I feel like every other student I know was the founder of some organization or another. I’m not saying you SHOULDN’T start a student organization, but that you shouldn’t do it just for the sake of your resume because I don’t think it’s even that impressive to admissions committees anymore. You should only start an organization if you believe it really adds something new to your university community that isn’t available elsewhere. Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that you can interact with your college peers all day in classes, on campus, etc. Try to go outside of your university community for some of your co-curricular activities.
One relatively convenient way to do this is to find student organizations that work with external companies or organizations. For example, while I was in university, I was involved in a non-profit consulting organization, in which I worked with a team of other students at my school on a project for a nonprofit organization. I have worked on (and managed) teams of students working with the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Global Citizen, and Medina Clinic. I was working with my peers on a weekly basis, but the projects we were working on addressed issues the nonprofit organizations were facing, and provided a lens into the ‘real world’.
2. Internships can be very valuable
Internships can give you ‘real world’ experience while you are in university, and are especially important if you are not taking time off to work before medical school. They can be a great way to learn more about a specific industry, or a niche within health care.
Students typically associate internships with summer vacation, but it may be possible to do a part time internship during the school year if you are located in or near a major city. If you aren’t near a major city, an organization or company may allow you to complete an internship remotely during the school year. The key with this is that you have to reach out to organizations and companies of interest on your own, especially if they don’t have an established internship program. You have to pitch yourself well, and show that you can provide value to that organization. If you’re successful you may end up being able to work on some sort of independent project for a company or organization you find interesting during the school year. I think this type of experience is way more valuable than joining another student organization. I have to stress that you should expect to provide unpaid labor, but the goal is for you to learn more about an industry of interest and to gain some skills, so in my opinion, it is definitely worth the time.
3. Integrate your interests
If you have another interest outside of health care that you are passionate about and deeply involved in, try to integrate that interest with healthcare if possible. Some things are easier to integrate than others, but I think it can be really unique to take an intersectional approach to medicine and health care.
An example that comes to mind is that I love fashion and design, and in order to integrate that with health care, I have considered designing a scrub line. I didn’t actually end up pursuing this because I think there are some really fashionable scrubs out there already. This is just an example of a way to integrate two seemingly unrelated interests. I think this sort of thing makes people really interesting to medical schools (speaking from experience). I also think this ties together the different parts of your application and makes you easier for admissions committees to understand. Running with the example I just gave, compare two students. Both have a few clinical experiences and a few experiences within fashion. The second student, however, has also integrated the two by designing a scrub line. From the perspective of an admissions committee, the fashion experiences now don’t seem as disjoint/random for the second student. I don’t mean to say that every single thing you do has to tie back to health care – I just think integrating your interests makes you a more creative applicant.
4. Become an expert in one area
Someone once told me that if you can become an expert in one niche, that will make you much more attractive to schools, employers, etc. than if you are ‘well rounded’. For the most part, I agree with the advice that being an expert in one area is more valuable than just being moderately good at a bunch of different things. Part of this is because there are SO many people who are moderately good at a bunch of things, so it’s hard to differentiate yourself unless you’re an expert in one area. So with that in mind, I think if many of your co-curricular activities are related to your niche area that you are (or want to be) an expert in, that is generally a good look. For instance, participating in research on Alzheimer’s Disease, working with Alzheimer’s patients for your clinical experiences, teaching a yoga class for Alzheimer’s patients as part of a service organization, and then doing a part time internship for a pharmaceutical company that manufactures an important drug for Alzheimer’s patients positions you really well for claiming that you are an expert. You won’t be an expert on Alzheimer’s Disease, but you will have gained unique insights on health care relating to Alzheimer’s patients, and you can totally make a case for being an emerging leader in the Alzheimer’s world. I think this is a good strategy if you are truly interested in something- diving deep and actually doing everything you can to learn more about that topic via co-curricular activities will help you see different facets of that one topic and will enhance your perspective many fold.
5. And you should probably have hobbies..
It’s important to have hobbies that you can talk about in an interview, essays, etc. Hobbies help you grow as a person and are primarily for your relaxation and enjoyment. They aren’t for the purpose of padding your application, but they can definitely make you more interesting as a candidate. Also, there are valuable lessons and/or skills you can learn from hobbies. An obvious example is that if you like running marathons, there is some perseverance and discipline that you gain as a byproduct of that training process. I also just think this is important to think through because if someone (especially an interviewer) asks you what your hobbies are, you should have something to say or else it’ll be super awkward. I recommend thinking through this because I’ve had experiences where someone has asked me what I like doing outside school and I’ll draw a blank for a second and think to myself “Oh my God do I even have hobbies?” I think most people have hobbies, and that it makes you a more interesting person to cultivate those even if you’re busy with school and whatnot.
Finally, a word of general advice: don’t overcommit yourself. Before signing on to any activity, make sure you understand the time commitment. Communicate clearly with those you will be working with/under on how much time you expect to devote on a weekly/monthly basis; it’s best if there is a written record of this communication. I think it’s super important to protect yourself from getting roped into doing more than what you signed up for, and I think the best way to do this is to communicate clearly in the beginning how much you are able to commit. That way, you don’t look like the bad guy if you have to put your foot down and say no to something; you just refer back to what you initially stated you’d be able to commit, and articulate that nothing has changed – you are still only able to commit X hours per week, and nothing more. I don’t recommend making a huge fuss for every little thing, this is more for if you find yourself being taken advantage of and/or spreading yourself too thin.