Medical School Admission: AMCAS Extracurriculars and Work Activities Sections

After four years as a pre-med, you’ve racked up quite a list of academic awards, community service hours, club memberships, and even a publication for which you proudly received seventeenth author credit. Then there are the various part-time jobs you held down during college, not to mention your participation in the intramural curling team, jiu jitsu training, and trombone playing.
The work/activities section of the AMCAS application is just the place for you to tout these endeavors and show the committee that your life is not comprised entirely of memorizing flashcards and regurgitating formulas (even if it feels that way sometimes).

Adding work and activities to your AMCAS application

Other than the personal statement, the work and activities summary is the section of the primary application that requires the most writing. Your first mission is to determine which activities to include—and how many.
Start by making a list of all of the jobs, volunteer work, honors, awards, extracurricular activities, clubs, and hobbies that you have been involved in post high school. The limit is fifteen experiences, though each entry can include up to four occurrences. So, if you are a “joiner” you may need to pare the list down to the most relevant ones. Note, however, that not filling all of the spaces is perfectly acceptable—the goal is quality, not quantity. After all, two years in one research lab will only take up one entry but is much more impressive than several four-month stints working part-time in retail.

Selecting your three most meaningful experiences

On the AMCAS application, you can choose up to three experiences to highlight as the most meaningful. All entries must appear in chronological order, so this is your chance to draw attention to the achievements that you want the admissions officers to notice.
One helpful way of deciding which experiences are most meaningful is to categorize your list of 15 by type, such as “Research/Lab” or “Paid Employment.” Use these categories as a guide for what to highlight. Keep in mind that clinical and research experience should take priority; however, aim for a mix of activities.

Explaining why your experiences were meaningful

The next step is to compose a clear, concise description of each of your three most meaningful activities. Give enough context so that the committee understands the nature of the selected activity. How large was the pre-med club of which you were president? What were your duties within this role? Significant accomplishments?
While you shouldn’t turn these descriptions into mini-personal statements, some reflection on what you learned/gained from your experience for certain entries, particularly those related to medicine, is appropriate. The goal is to convey how these activities or experiences were transformative to your path to medical school, what kind of impact you made while engaging in them, and how your participation resulted in personal growth. As with every part of the application, good writing and meticulous proofreading are essential.

Why are medically-oriented extracurricular activities important?

Beyond the obvious (that this is what you’re going to be doing for the rest of your life), the significance of medical extracurriculars is the demonstration that you have explored medicine as a career field—and still want to become a medical professional. Many students come into undergrad with an idealized version of the medical field; they “want to help people.” But medical schools want to be assured that you really know what medicine is all about. Sure, you’ve seen the glamorous side of medicine: the success of a cure, the intimate rapport with a patient, the translation of basic science knowledge into therapeutics. But what about the rest?
Medical schools want to know that you’ve seen some of the frustrations of medicine: research that doesn’t quite pan out as expected, challenging or noncompliant patients, dealing with insurance and paperwork. This is not meant to sour you or dissuade you from becoming a physician. It’s just that schools would like you to make an educated decision when pursuing a medical career. They want to be assured that you’ve truly seen medicine as a practice—not just the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

What are some common medical extracurriculars?

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, these are some of the most common medically-oriented extracurricular activities pre-medical students pursue:

  • Shadowing – Shadowing a physician means following him or her around during daily duties: sitting in during patient appointments, speaking with families, processing and interpreting lab tests, and generally seeing what the life of a physician is like. To find shadowing opportunities, consider approaching family friends who are physicians, asking science professors if they have colleagues who are practicing physicians, or checking if there are any lists at your school’s pre-professional advising office.
  • Hospital Volunteerism – Many major hospitals (and some private clinics) have opportunities for pre-med students to help out on the floors by talking with patients, assisting in patient transfers, or performing medication distribution. You may feel like sitting at a desk directing patient’s families isn’t contributing much to your medical experience, but it often can be a valuable first step in gaining medical exposure. Check on hospitals’ websites and don’t delay in applying—often, this is such a popular activity that you’ll have to wait a little while for the next available volunteer training cycle.
  • Research – Since medicine is always looking for the next big cure, the safest new medications, and the answers to understanding the impact of illness on individuals and communities, research is a major part of the medical field. Research is required if you’re planning on applying to MD/PhD programs. Again, local hospitals, your school’s pre-professional advising office, and especially science professors should be your go-to for checking out research opportunities.
  • Community and International Outreach – These outreach programs include local community initiatives (such as Covenant House, a nonprofit charity for homeless and marginalized youth; the Ronald McDonald House Charities; and volunteering at nursing homes) as well as other national or international opportunities (the Peace Corps, alternative spring break trips, or programs through the World Health Organization).

So should I do all of the above activities?

The short answer is—not necessarily. Your extracurriculars are all about quality, not just quantity. We’ll discuss this further in the next installation of our Application Essentials series, but an important takeaway is to only do an extracurricular if you actually enjoy it. Forcing yourself to do a research project you just don’t like solely to pad your résumé will be obvious to medical school admissions committees, and you won’t be able to speak passionately about it during an interview.
Importantly, medical schools do not sit there with a checklist in hand, noting if you’ve “completed” the above four bullet points. Rather, it’s all about how you frame the activities you’ve done. So, to sum up, do a few activities that demonstrate (prove!) your interest in medicine by sticking with them; don’t try to be a “jack of all trades” and not really dedicate yourself to any particular activity.

The purpose of this section of the AMCAS application is to get to know you beyond your MCAT score and GPA. If you have spent years doing sculpture or sports, for example, include those interests. Beyond clinical and pre-med experiences, the committee wants to know what it is you do in your spare time.
Make sure you include paid employment in your list of 15 experiences even if it is unrelated to medicine. After all, spending hours of your time each week as a food server or retail worker means less time for you to devote to your studies and volunteering, which is important for the committee to know.
With this section complete and the personal statement done, you are well on your way to finishing the AMCAS application.

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