From taking on too much, to not doing enough, we’ll talk about what you can do to avoid the common mistakes premeds make with their extracurriculars, both in the grand scheme of things as well as in the application.
Recently, I was at the UCF Medical School Admissions Symposium, and extracurriculars were a common theme as I talked with several Deans of Admissions from different schools.
[02:15] Books to Help You on Your Premed Journey
I’m the author of a series of books called The Premed Playbook. The first one to be published was Guide to the Medical School Interview. Then we published Guide to the Medical School Personal Statement and then Guide to the MCAT, which is a collaboration with the Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep). The fourth installment, to be released in 2019, is the Guide to the Medical School Application. And the extracurriculars (ECs) actually come at the forefront of that book.
[03:50] Are ECs More Important Than the Personal Statement?
Some students may think ECs are more important than the personal statement, considering that for AMCAS, there are 15 slots for ECs with 700 characters for each slot. That’s 10,500 characters total, compared to the personal statement that only has 5,300. Plus, you get to mark three of those ECs as your most meaningful experiences and write another three separate essays with 1,325 characters each. So it’s really a huge character count.
The personal statement is still more important. But what the extracurriculars allow you to do is really tell your story even more. The personal statement is about why you want to be a doctor, while the ECs are all about who you are, what you’ve done, and how it has impacted you. Many students leave out the impact.The personal statement is about why you want to be a doctor, while the ECs are all about who you are, what you've done, and how it has impacted you.Click To Tweet
[Related episode: 5 Biggest Medical School Personal Statement Mistakes]
[05:45] Common Mistake #1: Not Writing Well Enough
When you are writing the descriptions of your ECs for your application, you can’t just write a job description. For example, if you’re a scribe, you can’t just say you worked at this hospital, you followed the physician or PA or NP, and you charted the patient encounter to allow the physician to interact with the patients and not be burdened by the electronic medical records.
Everybody knows what a scribe does. Your job with the extracurricular description is not to describe your job. Your job is to talk about how you impacted the physician or how the physician impacted you. And if you can, the best way to do this is through a story. If you’re able to talk about the patient encounter and observing a physician doing something that impacted you, describe that story. Do not just give a job description.When you are writing the descriptions of your extracurriculars for your application, you can't just write a job description.Click To Tweet
[Related episode: Do I Need to Rewrite My Extracurriculars as a Reapplicant?]
[07:28] Writing About Several Shadowing Experiences
Shadowing is a very passive experience. So when you’re writing about it for your ECs, you can generally cram them all together as one EC. If you’ve shadowed 20 different physicians, you only have 15 spots in your ECs, so you can’t take all up with shadowing. Therefore, take all these 20 shadowing experiences and describe them as one experience.
If there was one shadowing experience you’ve had that was so meaningful to you and amazing, then go ahead and talk about that one separately. But for the most part, you can combine all your shadowing into one extracurricular experience. Combine all the hours. Enter in all of the dates and just put one person as the contact information.
[09:06] Talking About a Non-Clinical Experience
If you’re describing a clinical experience and you can tell the story of a patient who impacted you and made you want to be a doctor, that’s great—tell that story. If you’re talking about a non-clinical experience, especially when you’re a nontraditional student and you may be coming from the business world, or if you were a leader of a fraternity or sorority, talk about impact as much as possible. Do this by talking numbers.
For instance, if you’re a sorority president, how many members did you have? Talk about the budget you managed, how many members you recruited, and how many lives were impacted when you were fundraising to support the community. If you’re coming from the business world, this is pretty easy since this is how you talk anyway. Then put that in your extracurricular descriptions.
[10:28] Common Mistake #2: Filling Your Extracurricular List with Fluff
Fluff can come in the form of different things. One general rule of thumb is to only write about extracurricular activities you’ve participated in after high school. If you’ve done some shadowing or clinical experience that started in high school but you’ve continued it through college, then go ahead and include that.
If you’re throwing in random activities with a couple hours here and there, this is fluff. It’s not impactful and it’s not memorable. It’s probably not something you wanted to talk about but just something you’re putting in there because you think you need to fill up space. You don’t need to.
Another version of fluff is when you don’t have clinical or shadowing experience. So before submitting your application in June, you decide to get five hours of clinical experience or volunteering in May so you can throw it in your application. This is another kind of fluff.Don't throw random stuff into your extracurriculars at the last minute, like adding 1 random day of volunteering. It's not impactful. You don't need to fill in all fifteen spots.Click To Tweet
[12:45] Common Mistake #3: Not Enough Clinical Experience
Back in Episode 171, I talked to the former Dean of Admissions at UC Irvine, and she talked about why students weren’t accepted. One of the number one reasons which she mentioned is not having enough clinical experience.
You need to put yourself around patients. You need to prove to yourself that this is what you like. Don’t think of this as a checklist item. Think of this as an opportunity to prove to yourself that this is what you want to do.Don't think of clinical experience as a checklist item. Think of this as an opportunity to prove to yourself that this is what you want to do.Click To Tweet
[Related episode: Should I Apply to Med School Without Many Extracurriculars?]
Why clinical experience is so important
If you like being around your grandma and you took of her when she was sick or dying, you might not like being around somebody else’s grandma. Taking care of your own family members is very different from taking care of somebody else’s sick family members. So that clinical experience will help you figure it out.
The worst thing that can happen is if you go through this whole premed and medical school process, and then you realize you don’t like taking care of sick people. Hence, the need for getting clinical experience.Clinical experience proves to admissions committees that you've done your homework and you know that you want this.Click To Tweet
[14:50] Common Mistake #4: Lack of Consistency
You need to show consistency with your clinical experience. Too many students think it’s a checklist. Maybe they have a hundred hours of shadowing during their freshman year so they think they’re good. Then they apply in their senior year with that hundred hours of clinical experience or shadowing. A hundred hours looks great. But the last time you did it was two or three years ago. And that is bad!A huge mistake too many premed students make is thinking of this process as a checklist.Click To Tweet
You need consistency in your shadowing and clinical experience, and volunteering if you’re doing that. Consistency is important. For the clinically related things, this helps the admissions committee see that you are dedicated to this.
Consistency is key with extracurriculars
You’re applying to medical school and you’re telling them you want to be a doctor. If your actions don’t support your words, you’re going to be in trouble. If you apply without some sort of clinical experience or shadowing for years, this question is going to come up: If you are so interested in being a physician, why haven’t you put yourself around patients? Why haven’t you put yourself around doctors?You're applying to medical school and you're telling them you want to be a doctor. If your actions don't support your words, you're going to be in trouble.Click To Tweet
So you need to back up what you’re saying with your actions and have consistency. Sure, you need to study for your MCAT and study for your classes. But you also have to show consistency with everything else.
That doesn’t mean you have to do 20 hours a week. It could only mean five hours every couple of weeks or five hours a month. Regardless, just show consistency. When you put your date ranges in showing your ECs, being able to put in date ranges that are recent and consistent will help you in a huge way when it comes to applying to medical school.
[Related episode: How Much Clinical Experience Do I Need for Med School Apps?]
[18:30] Common Mistake #5: Doing Too Much Too Soon
This is common among freshmen who are still starting out. As a beginning premed, when you start off college, you need to learn how to be a premed. You need to learn how to study in the way that works for you in a college environment. There’s no longer a high school teacher giving you homework assignments or keeping you on track to do well on all the tests.
When you get to college, you’re given a syllabus. You’re given test dates and maybe some mandatory assignments. But other than that, you show up and take your test. So you better be prepared. If you’re trying to balance too much at once, sooner or later something breaks, usually grades. And you don’t realize it until it’s too late. And then you have great ECs with bad grades.
Then what students think is they’re not smart enough to be a doctor. The truth is, you’re really just spreading yourself too thin. One year of bad grades isn’t going to hurt you. But obviously, you don’t want to do that if you don’t have to.
[Related episode: He Figured out How to Overcome His 2.75 Undergrad GPA]
You don’t have to start all your ECs as a freshman
Taking on too much too soon is not a great idea since you’re losing your priority of doing well in your classes. This is not to say that you stop doing everything but classes. You do need to be consistent with clinical experience—but you don’t have to start everything as a freshman. Just ease into it since you have plenty of time.Be consistent with your extracurriculars as you're getting later in your years as a college student, but don't take on too much at the beginning.Click To Tweet
[23:34] Can You Put Hobbies in Your Extracurriculars?
Yes, you can put your hobbies in your extracurriculars. This shows the admissions committee who you are. So if you have room for it, go for it.
- Check out my Premed Playbook series of books on Amazon.
- Related episode: Should I Stop My Extracurriculars to Focus on the MCAT?
- Related episode: What Is the Best Paid Clinical Experience for Medical School?
- Need MCAT Prep? Save on tutoring, classes, and full-length practice tests by using promo code “MSHQ” for 10% off Next Step full-length practice tests or “MSHQTOC” for $50 off MCAT tutoring or the Next Step MCAT Course at Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep)!
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