In today’s installment of Do No Harm: Your Guide to Being a Pre-Med, we’re going to be talking about the extracurriculars you’re expected to complete. These aren’t as absolutely necessary as the Big Two of shadowing and clinical volunteering, but they are needed to show admissions counselors that you’re a well-rounded and interesting individual.
Before we dive into the three extracurriculars of general volunteering, leadership experience, and research experience, I just want to caution y’all on a trend I see too often with premeds and high-achieving students in general: Don’t pad your resume! Don’t do activities just because you think admissions counselors might like it because it’s only going to hurt you in the long run. These admissions officers have been in the game for years, and they can smell fakeness a mile away. Further, during medical school admissions, you will be asked to interview, and if you can’t talk at length about an activity you put on your application, be it a leadership role in a club or an organization you were a part of, you’re going to be in for an awkward ride.
So please, as trite as it sounds, just be yourself! Beyond shadowing and clinical volunteering, there’s no cookie-cutter path to becoming a doctor, so explore the clubs and activities that genuinely interest you. In the end, this road to medicine is about your growth as an individual, so make the most of it!
Unlike clinical volunteering, general volunteering does not have to be limited to a clinical setting or even have anything to do with medicine at all. Any sort of community service or outreach can count as general volunteering, but the important thing to remember is that you want to both make a legitimate impact on your community and grow as a person. Holding meaningless positions in “volunteer organizations” that meet once a semester to complete a trivial community service activity isn’t going to be as well-received as an activity where you invest your time and passion into make a real difference. Again, you want to be so passionate about this volunteering opportunity that you will be able to discuss it at length with a med school interviewer.
For freshmen and sophomores in college, I would highly recommend trying out as many volunteering organizations as you can and then paring your list down to just one or two that you are truly passionate about. I know my freshman year, I volunteered with a program called PAIR, the Partnership and Immersion of Refugees, and while others really enjoyed working with the young children at PAIR, I wasn’t as inspired. There was certainly nothing wrong with PAIR, for it’s an incredible and fine organization, it’s just that I personally didn’t feel like we made a good fit together. Then, after searching a bit more, I found the Rice University chapter of Engineers Without Borders and immediately fell in love with the service projects they were in charge of. I ended up investing a lot of time and effort into EWB, and I believe I’m a better person for it while also having made a noticeable change in the lives of others. So don’t panic if you don’t immediately find the volunteering opportunity that’s right for you! Keep searching, and I’m sure you’ll find that club where you can fit in and improve the lives of others.
Leadership experience is also an implicit requirement of medical school inasmuch as schools like to see that you’re engaged with extracurricular organizations and that you’re capable of working well with and leading others. Again, I would caution against fluffing up your resume with meaningless titles or positions that are shakily existent. Make sure you only list leadership activities that you made a meaningful contribution to, and only seek out leadership positions where you can make a legitimate impact
For freshmen and sophomores looking to find leadership experiences, I would recommend jumping on any opportunity that presents itself in organizations you enjoy participating in. No matter how small or temporary the position might be, go for it and make sure to apply yourself to the fullest. Invest your passion and effort into everything that you do, and people are sure to take note. You just need to get your foot in the door to be able to show people you’re ready to take on larger and more important roles.
That being said, schools don’t need you to be president of your student body or to be the head of a startup; all they want to see is that you aren’t just passively participating in activities. Even “low level” leadership positions can be amazing experiences if you invest enough time and energy into them. For example, my sophomore year, I acted as the Off-Campus rep for my residential college, Baker. I ended up running unopposed because nobody else bothered to apply for the position, since the OC rep had a history of having flaky, if not nonexistent, responsibilities. However, as OC rep, I managed to petition for more funds into the Off-Campus student account and used this money to found the World Famous Baker College Corgi Study Break, which still runs to this day. So even if you have a position that might not be prestigious or noteworthy, pour in all your efforts and passions into completing the job as fully and authentically as you can. Medical schools don’t want you to save the world; they just want you to change it, even if it’s only in a small way.
The final extracurricular medical schools like you to have completed is research. Because research drives much of medical school rankings, they like to see that you are familiar with research techniques and methodology. You don’t necessarily have to complete research in a medical field, or even science at all; schools just want you to complete some form of research. Research on the syntax of language is just as well-received as research on the effects of space radiation on memory, so don’t worry about finding a specifically medical research topic if you don’t want to! It’s really just important to do research period so that you are familiar with the scientific process and the melancholy of peer review.
As for finding research opportunities, I would talk to professors whose classes you enjoyed to see if they do research or if they have any colleagues they could recommend you to. If you don’t have any professors you’re close with, then swallow your dignity and cold-call (or really, cold-email, because this is the 21st century) professors in subjects that seem interesting to you. That being said, in my experience, it’s not the research topic that inspires you; it’s the Principle Investigator who does. Because research work is universally mundane and soul-sucking, it’s the PI who’s responsible for keeping you engaged and impassioned. The PI sets the tone for the lab, so you want to find one who loves what he/she is doing and who loves teaching younger generations about their subject.
This post is part of a series. Other installments of this series can be found here: