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PreMed Activities: The Do's and Don'ts from Current Medical Students

Are you a pre-medical student? Do you find the endless extracurricular activities to be overwhelming? Are you unsure of which activities will serve you best on your journey? Read on for advice from eight medical students, and learn how to build an application you are proud of.

Medical schools “seek students who have demonstrated exceptional personal initiative…[which] may take the form of leadership, creativity, research, community service, motivation, or other life experiences,” (Source: American Association of Medical Colleges).

The challenge facing pre-medical students is how best to demonstrate their initiative to medical school admissions committees.

I am frequently asked by pre-medical students which extracurricular opportunities would be the most fruitful to pursue. There is no simple answer to this question. There are staples of a successful application - research, some clinical exposure, and service or community involvement - but there is no magic formula for a gold-standard application. The most successful and inspiring medical students I have met thus far have had incredibly diverse experiences. I rounded up a handful of them and asked them to share with me how they spent their time in college. As expected, answers were incredibly varied. If you feel so inclined, feel free to add your own experiences in the comments section!

Please note that some comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Tricia Rae Pendergrast (this is me!)

Medical School: Feinberg School of Medicine

Current Position: Medical Student (M1)

How did you set yourself up for success on your medical school applications?

I worked as an athletic trainer for three of my four college years for about 30 hours per week. This was terrific clinical experience, but it definitely affected my GPA, and the long hours meant that I couldn’t study for the MCAT until after graduation. I also volunteered as an interview coach for undergraduate students. I had almost three full gap years before applying to medical school, which meant I had ample time to work and volunteer in order to compensate for my below-average GPA (3.6). I spent these years working in clinical research, eventually making my way to a leadership position. I also had several publications and myriad presentations. While working, I volunteered as a Rape Crisis Counselor in the Emergency Department, and a crisis counselor through Crisis Text Line.

Do you have any general advice for pre-med students?

Your secondary applications are an opportunity to demonstrate why specifically you are interested in a certain medical school. Choose relevant examples from your past to discuss on these applications. If you are very interested in research, apply to schools that emphasize research. If you are very interested in service, apply to schools that emphasize service and volunteering. If you feel like the activities you did in college do not match programs offered at a certain medical school, consider if that school is actually a good fit for you. It is a challenge to write a meaningful secondary application knowing you don’t really fit in well at the school.

Meredith Reynolds, MD

Medical School: University of South Dakota

Current Position: Pathology Resident

How did you set yourself up for success on your medical school applications?

I received a music scholarship, so I participated in concert band and a saxophone quartet for all four years of college. I also participated in jazz band for three years, took two years of sax lessons, and went on a tour of Egypt with the band for a month. I was an ambassador for international students and involved in French Club, and worked weekends at a grocery store and volunteered in the Emergency Department at a local hospital once a week.

Do you have any general advice for pre-med students?

When pitching yourself for the application, one thing to keep in mind is answering the question: How will this activity make me a better doctor? Admissions committees are interested in my experience. Do tuba lessons show your commitment to learning new things? Yes!

Briana Ruíz Christophers

Medical School: Weill Cornell Medical College

Current Position: MD/PhD Student

How did you set yourself up for success on your medical school applications?

I spent more than two years working in a lab (including two summers), spent a lot of time doing activism on behalf of LatinX students at my university, and served as a mentor/teacher throughout every year in college. I also wrote a guide for first-generation college students at my institution. After I graduated from college, I spent a year in a research lab and volunteered at an immigrant health clinic.

Do you have any general advice for pre-med students?

My activism work came up a lot in medical school interviews. I was asked a significant number of "gotcha" questions about my thoughts on diversity, which were meant to demonstrate how “radical” I was. If you are passionate about activism or controversial issues, be prepared with diplomatic answers to challenging questions.

Hannah Hendrix

Medical School: Ohio State University College of Medicine

Current Position: Medical Student (M2)

How did you set yourself up for success on your medical school applications?

I was a double major in Gender and Sexuality Studies and Biology. I did not do any research in college, and I had long-standing involvement with a free clinic registering patients, I did some Emergency Department volunteering (fewer than 80 hours), I was involved in a premed AMSA chapter at my school, which was great for learning and developing opinions about, and practicing advocacy around issues in medicine. I also worked a lot, as a features editor at the school paper, then as a supplemental instructor or tutor for several different classes over a few years. I also did an internship with Planned Parenthood's action arm in relation to my gender studies major.

Do you have any general advice for pre-med students?

Do things you care about. I loved volunteering at the free clinic. I got to help patients and coordinate translators, and the team needed someone doing my job. I love to teach, so I taught, I care deeply about social issues, so I was an advocate. I recommend starting early on the AMCAS entries for anything you feel is controversial, and if you're uncomfortable talking about politics, focus on why you chose these activities, and the things you achieved there. For my work at Planned Parenthood, I wrote about much how I care about reproductive health access, and talked about how I was able to create resources for women in my area and talk to patients about their access issues.

Steph Hojsak

Medical School: Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Current Position: Medical Student (M3)

How did you set yourself up for success on your medical school applications?

I was accepted through the FlexMed program at Mount Sinai so my application was less conventional. I earned good grades, but they weren’t exceptional because my undergraduate school doesn’t give out plus or minus grades. I was on the school’s varsity fencing team. I received an undergraduate teaching award which sponsored my summer research, and did my thesis on biomaterials. I also got a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute research project the summer after my first year where I worked on high tech 3D cell culture with a leader in the field. I was a TA for several different classes and did some organic chemistry tutoring. The FlexMed program required I complete 100 hours of physician shadowing.

Melanie Fritz

Medical School: Boston University

Current Position: Medical Student (M2)

How did you set yourself up for success on your medical school applications?

My first job in college was a summer camp counselor, I was a resident assistant in the dorms as a college senior, did an Americorps year post-graduation at a domestic violence resource center, and then worked for three years as a care coordinator at an infectious disease clinic. I volunteered at our local Emergency Department one semester, volunteered at a homeless shelter in food prep for about two hours per week for two years, and completed an unpaid summer internship at a refugee resettlement agency. I received an award for a sociology paper I wrote in college. I worked as a sociology research assistant for four hours per week during senior year of college, and then full time for eight weeks after graduating.

Do you have any general advice for pre-med students?

I recall getting asked a lot in interviews about my experience working in the field of domestic violence, and about the fundraising bike ride that I did. I encourage pre-med students to balance the expected clinical requirements with demonstrated commitment to passions that lie outside of medicine or healthcare.

Sabina Sprigner MS, MPH

Medical School: University of Pittsburgh

Current Position: Medical Student (M1)

How did you set yourself up for success on your medical school applications?

I spent the majority of my time during college in student government as a campus social events planner. I worked as a science teacher in local elementary and high schools. I also played in a band. I worked in a research lab for three years and also worked as an administrative assistant for the gender studies department. During summer breaks, I would volunteer at the local hospital in my hometown. After graduating from college, I spent more time volunteering in hospitals. I participated in student government while I was in a graduate program as well.

Do you have any general advice for pre-med students?

I did way too much in college. My advice to pre-med students is to find a few things you are passionate about and stick to them. Climb the ranks to be a leader in those activities. You'll gain more skills and grow more as a person if you do something you love, rather then forcing yourself to do something you don’t genuinely care about. Don’t let your extracurricular activities rule your life - balance is important!

Masooma Kazmi

Medical School: Stony Brook University School of Medicine

Current Position: MS3

How did you set yourself up for success on your medical school applications?

I majored in Biochemistry and Women’s and Gender Studies in college. As an undergraduate student, I volunteered at a hospital my freshman year and shadowed a surgeon my junior and senior year. These were good experiences, but I definitely did these things because I felt like I had to do them. I was a peer tutor for all four years of college and was also a teaching assistant for biology and chemistry classes. I have an interest in teaching, so these experiences were very fun for me. I was part of a program called AIDS Peer Education during my Junior year, which was a forum for discussion about the social, economic, and cultural factors that contributed to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I also did research in neurobiology for two years. I worked in the lab three days per week and every day in the summer. I was also part of a college chapter of a nonprofit organization that ran a crowdfunding platform to allow donors to donate money to healthcare organizations all over the world. I was also a Resident Assistant for three years in college. I thought this was a terrific experience, it helped me develop my confidence and time management skills.

Do you have any general advice for pre-med students?

My favorite experiences in college were not directly related to medicine, but they helped me develop skills that will make me a good doctor. When people are committed to something, even if it is not a common extracurricular for a pre-medical student, they gain skills that will translate to the field of medicine.

You will notice common elements within these responses. Briana, Steph, Sabina, Masooma, and I all participated in research during or after college. Most of us completed community service, held a leadership position and participated in a student group. A small cohort of us gained clinical experience before applying to medical school. It is essential to note, however, that the ways each of us obtained this experience vary widely. The opportunities available to pre-medical students differ between college campuses.

You will notice that many of the respondents above arrived at their activities of choice based on a personal passion, and many respondents included some mention of pursuing your personal interests in their advice to pre-medical students. There is a plethora of ways to secure pertinent experience for a medical school application, but only a select few will be exciting to each individual.

Instead of searching for ways to fit in, my recommendation to the pre-medical student regarding extracurricular activities is to pursue one’s passion, and trust it to drive you towards meaningful experiences.

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