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What Extracurriculars Look Best on Medical School Applications? (2024)

Discover the importance of building a personal brand for a medicine portfolio and learn how to craft a compelling university application.

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Jan 12, 2024

Are you wondering what extracurricular activities will make your medical school application shine? Are you feeling overwhelmed by the seemingly superhuman students who are involved in everything from research to volunteering? In this article, we'll explore the qualities medical schools look for in applicants and provide strategies for choosing the right extracurricular activities to strengthen your application.

The “Ideal” Applicant

Many of us have encountered those exceptional students who seem to juggle multiple clubs, shadow multiple doctors, volunteer tirelessly, and engage in research projects simultaneously. While their accomplishments are impressive, comparing yourself to them can be daunting. It's essential to remember that every applicant is unique, and there's no one-size-fits-all formula for success in medical school admissions.

Volunteering

Volunteering is one of the most important extracurriculars for medical school applicants. One question that we commonly receive about service activities is whether mission trips or international volunteering look even better than community service done in your local community.

The answer is: No, international opportunities are not inherently more impressive. While it’s understandable that you might think that your service will seem more meaningful if it benefits people living in a developing country, or that volunteering abroad will just be more memorable and therefore help you stand out, the truth is that med schools simply want to see a commitment to service, whether that’s domestic or abroad.

In other words, working with underserved individuals in your local community will reflect just as well on you. In fact, one reason why volunteering locally is often more advantageous is that it allows you to serve for an extended period of time. 

Long-term service will better demonstrate your commitment to helping others and it’ll provide you with a greater opportunity to make a measurable impact. 

Shadowing

It's recommended, although not compulsory, that you shadow physicians across two or three specialties (e.g., primary care, nephrology, dermatology, emergency medicine) and across two or three contexts (e.g., inpatient, outpatient, community clinic, operating room). This way, you can demonstrate to medical school admission committees that you're familiar with the breadth of clinical practice.

In Singapore, there are structured shadowing programmes available for application: 

Job Shadowing at NUHS
Clinical Job Shadowing at Sengkang Hospital

Furthermore,  we would suggest reaching out to and directly asking doctors (consultants and above). Most hospitals offer informal, unstructured shadowing programmes where you can be attached to specific doctors for a couple of days if they are agreeable to it.

Shadowing is incredibly important as it's a valuable opportunity to observe doctors’ daily routines, whether it involves making rounds in the wards or seeing patients in the clinics. It also provides an excellent chance to engage in conversation with them and ask any questions you may have about a career in medicine. This experience can either strengthen your motivations or potentially alter your perspective on pursuing a career in medicine in the future.

Leadership

You don't need to hold formal leadership titles to demonstrate leadership skills. Opportunities to lead can arise in various situations, such as group projects or volunteer work. Being proactive, taking on additional responsibilities, and inspiring others with your work ethic can showcase your leadership abilities.

Leadership is a skill–not a title–and leadership skills are required to be successful in many positions.

For example, when you are part of a group, actively seek out situations where the role of a "team leader" or an "organiser" would contribute to the smooth functioning of the team, and then offer to take on that responsibility voluntarily. 

Whether as a facilitator in a group sport or coordinating group activities for a team project—be attentive to opportunities that arise for you to assume greater responsibilities beyond your usual duties. By setting an example and excelling in your tasks,, you will likely find that leadership opportunities naturally emerge, inspiring others along the way. 

Strategies for selecting extracurricular activities for medical school

Oftentimes, we look for shortcuts to achieve things that require years of hard work. We want to “hack” selecting the best extracurricular activities, but there is no replacement for hard work and consistency. 

Navigating the abundance of extracurricular choices can be overwhelming. To make informed decisions, it's crucial to have a filtering system. Start by answering two guiding questions:

  • Who do you want to primarily serve?
  • Define your target population based on factors like gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or medical condition. Begin specific and expand your focus as you gain experience.
  • What problem do you want to primarily solve? Identify the issue you're passionate about addressing, like social isolation, food insecurity, or lack of culturally competent care. Focus on understanding the problem before considering what part you would like to focus on. 

4 Simple Strategies for Selecting Extracurricular Activities:

Strategy #1: Choose depth over breadth

Focus on a few activities and immerse yourself deeply in them. Going beyond the surface level in your chosen pursuits can help you stand out.

Strategy #2: Aim for meaningful learning experiences

Select activities that align with your goals and offer opportunities for skill development. Extracurriculars should complement your academic journey and provide practical skills.

Strategy #3: Pursue your passion

Engage in activities that genuinely interest you. Passion drives motivation and commitment, making your extracurricular involvement more rewarding.

Strategy #4: Demonstrate leadership

Look for ways to lead within your chosen activities. Being proactive and innovative can set you apart and emphasise your leadership skills.

 

Conclusion:

Medical school admissions are competitive, but you don't have to be a superhero to succeed. By carefully selecting extracurricular activities that align with your goals, interests, and values, you can strengthen your application and stand out in the eyes of admissions committees. Remember that authenticity and a genuine commitment to service are highly valued by medical schools.

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