The application cycle is ramping up, and you may be putting the finishing touches on your medical school application or just getting started. The work and activities section can be difficult for many students. You might feel like you have too many or not enough activities or do not know which story to highlight from a particular experience. Or you may not know that you should be focusing on your story and might be trying to express yourself through a basic job description.
This guide should answer these questions for you with guidance on capturing as many of your experiences as possible and how to get maximal impact from each entry.
How Many Activities Can I Have?
AMCAS allows you to add up to 15 entries of 700 characters each. You can mark three of these as “Most Meaningful,” which provides you with an additional 1325 characters to describe why it was so meaningful. The prompt for this does not mention medicine, so you should feel free to select activities that are unrelated to medicine. Focus on what provided the most value to you, personally. Don’t feel like you need to have an activity for every slot or category.
AACOMAS doesn’t limit the number of entries you can have and allows 600 characters for each description. There is no separate designation for your most meaningful activities.
If you’re applying through TMDSAS, the activities section is labeled the “Personal Biography.” Here, you are given categories of activities and asked if you have anything to add that fits the category. If you mark yes, you have 300 characters to describe the activity. This amount doesn’t give you the space to do much more than a basic job description, which is the opposite of what I recommend for the other two application services. There is also no limit to the number of activities you can add.
If you mark an activity as most meaningful, TMDSAS gives you an additional 500 characters to elaborate.
How Old Can My Activities Be?
If you’re a nontraditional student, you might have activities from a decade ago or longer and wonder whether you should include them. Or you might be a traditional student wondering whether you should include activities from high school.
A good rule of thumb is to only include things that started after graduating high school. The exception is if you began something in high school and continued it into the college years or beyond.
Some people recommend that you don’t include activities more than ten years old, but I would suggest you focus on whether you can show the reader why the experience mattered to you. This may be easiest to do with more recent experiences, but don’t leave out something impactful simply because it happened several years ago.
Which Activities to Include
With only 15 slots for AMCAS, you may have to leave some of your extracurriculars off of your application.
To make sure that each activity has value, each time you add a new one, ask yourself:
Why am I including this?
Is this something I want to write about?
Am I excited to talk about this experience/activity?
Can I talk about it enthusiastically during an interview?
Did this experience impact me, or can it show my impact?
Anything you include in your application can come up during an interview, so you don’t want to discuss anything you would be uncomfortable talking about during an interview. If there’s an activity you completed but hated or didn’t get anything out of, it’s not worth including. It won’t add anything to your application, and speaking negatively about your experiences can take away from your application. You should ask yourself what the activity and your description of it will show the admissions committee. Some activities may be on there to give a timeline of your path, and that’s okay too. Hopefully, the majority should add something to the admissions committee’s understanding of you.
Since AMCAS only provides 15 spots, you may need to combine some of your activities to fit them all. You can easily combine shadowing experiences into one entry since it’s relatively straightforward. The passive nature of shadowing also means that you likely don’t need to highlight specific anecdotes in a description. Combining them also means you only need to provide one person’s contact information. There may be exceptions, and you can either use any remaining characters or a separate entry to highlight a particularly significant shadowing experience.
Honors/Awards/Recognitions are also very easily listed in one space. They don’t require more than a listing of the name and date, so you should have no problem fitting them into one entry. The same is true for presentations. I would recommend combining these as much as possible.
If you held multiple roles at the same location, you can also potentially describe these under one entry. If an aspect is distinct, like a leadership role, it may be worth pulling that out into its own entry. I don’t recommend splitting things into more than two entries, both because of the limited space given by AMCAS and because it can look like fluffing your application.
Which Activities to Mark as Most Meaningful
When selecting your most meaningful activities, you might be wondering which one activity had the most impact. You might also be wondering if your most meaningful activities are unique enough. Luckily, you don’t have to pick one single most important activity. You also shouldn’t worry about whether or not your activities will be unique. They almost certainly won’t be, and that’s okay. What’s unique is who you are and not what you’ve done. You’ll likely be one of the hundreds of students who write about being a medical assistant, hospice volunteer, or tutor, and the list could go on. But you are the only one who can tell your exact story.
Only you can answer the question of what was most meaningful for you. And you should write honestly about whatever that is rather than trying to figure out what the admissions committees are looking for. You should also focus on what was most meaningful to you as a person and not necessarily focus on activities related to medicine.
How to Write the Activity Description
The first and most important thing you need to know about writing your activity descriptions is that it is not a resume or job description. For most activities, you don’t need to explain what it was. There may be some you want to explain, but it should be kept brief, so you don’t waste characters or bore the reviewer. They’re reading hundreds or thousands of applications, so you want to capture their attention and keep them engaged. A basic factual description will be very generic and won’t tell the reviewer anything about who you are.
The best strategy is to think of specific stories you want to tell to showcase your personality and qualities.
What Was Your Impact?
You want to write your descriptions in a way that highlights you in that role. What was the impact you had during that experience? What impact did it have on you?
A good way to do this for clinical experiences is to tell the story of one patient. Describe your interaction with the patient. How did they make you feel, and how did you make them feel? You are the only one who had that specific interaction with that patient. Showing the interaction will show your personality and your impact. Telling a story allows you to show your qualities without selling your skills.
Where Is the So-What?
As Dr. Scott Wright, VP of Advising and former Executive Director of TMDSAS, likes to say, “It’s not the what, it’s the so what.” To find the so what, you need to reflect on what you got from the experience.
Write in Paragraphs
Bullet points might be appropriate for writing a basic job description on a resume, but this is not that. You should be telling a story, and that calls for paragraphs. You should also avoid writing the way you would on a resume.
Don’t Waste Characters
Even the longer entries don’t give you much room. One of the main ways students waste characters is by repeating unnecessary information you’ve already provided. This might include writing out the full name of the location or title, repeating your hours, or restating the duration of the experience. This information is readily available to the reviewer, and repeating it doesn’t add any quality to your description.
Use All of Your Characters
Not all descriptions will require the entire space, like shadowing or presentations, but for the majority of them, you should be using most or all of the characters available to you. If you’re consistently writing short descriptions, you’re losing opportunities to show who you are. This is especially true for the three experiences you mark as the most meaningful. If you find yourself coming up short, that should be a sign that it might not have been impactful enough to earn that label. Or it is, and you need to do some more reflection to be able to explain why it was so meaningful to you.
For examples of student activity descriptions with comments on what they got right and where they could have improved, check out the Work and Activities section of The Premed Playbook Guide to the Medical School Application Process.