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The extracurricular component of your application is not only an excellent opportunity to demonstrate your personality and interests, but also a great way to showcase yourself as a well-rounded medical school candidate. Many of you are likely aware of what your interests already are, but for those just beginning to explore, it is important to cast a wide net. Explore many low-commitment opportunities early in your post-secondary education and strengthen your engagement and commitment over time as you become more interested.
It is important to choose your most significant extracurricular experiences for your application; quality is greater than quantity. The value of your engagements are measured not by the number of them which you are involved in, but by the level of your commitment, and by the impact of the experience on your life. Furthermore, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons highlights seven roles that all Canadian medical graduates should be competent in to adequately provide care to the populations they serve. These attributes include: Professional, Communicator, Scholar, Collaborator, Health Advocate, Leader, and Medical Expert; six of which can be developed before the start of your medical education. When including your activities, try to exhibit some of these competencies, but by no means do you need to have experience in all of these areas to have a strong application.
There are various extracurricular activities that one can pursue and that can be included in your application and there is no specific path one must follow in these pursuits. Above all, we advise that personal interest be your guiding principle in selecting the activities you dedicate your time to; do not select an activity because you think it will get you into medical school. The extracurricular component of the application is often discussed during the interview stage, so be prepared to discuss any of the experiences you write about in your application in greater detail. Below are some examples of activities that can be included on your application, however experiences not listed here can also be included. Remember, this component is an opportunity to showcase YOU and your passions; there is no mould to fit into but your own!
There is a lot of flexibility when it comes to selecting extracurricular activities. An extracurricular activity refers to any activity outside the classroom or studying setting, which can include but are definitely not limited to any of the following: sports and athletics, dance, musical interests, artistic talents, hobbies, religious groups, clinical experiences such as shadowing, or student groups. We strongly recommend for you to diversify your extracurricular experiences as much as possible, while keeping in mind not to get involved in too many extracurricular activities.
As with many other non-academic activities such as volunteering or research, longer-term commitments (e.g. years versus months), are key and demonstrate your responsibility and dependability. Furthermore, longitudinal experiences offer you the ability to grow, expand your passions, and step outside of your comfort zone – which also helps pave the way towards building your leadership skills. Remember: there will often be more opportunities available to you than you have time for. This is why it is important to check in with yourself every week or month, to reflect on whether you are taking on too many commitments, and to have the courage to turn down opportunities when necessary. Time management is a vital skill to being a good physician, so dedicate your time wisely towards your extracurricular activities.
The choice of the extracurricular activities themselves is not as important as the lessons, maturity, interpersonal skills and personal growth that you will gain from interacting with diverse people in diverse settings through your extracurriculars. Whether it be the conflicts you helped mediate as part of your school’s basketball intramural team or the mentorship challenges you navigated when tutoring marginalized youth in your community, by actively partaking in extracurricular activities you will grow from the many valuable lessons and learn from the various narratives shared with you. These passions, stories, and teachings will also greatly assist you at the later stages of the admissions process, such as during the interview stage when you may be asked to discuss your involvement in extracurricular activities or talk about a valuable lesson learned through an extracurricular experience.
Most importantly, be yourself and align your extracurricular activities with your personal goals and passions!
Volunteering is an invaluable experience to have not just for applications, but for your own life as well. It is an opportunity to explore different interests, gain new perspectives, and to reaffirm your calling to medicine. In addition, it is a unique chance to develop and hone the softer skills that inherently come with volunteering such as empathy, teamwork, or therapeutic communication. Your volunteer activities should reflect your unique passions and interests - try not to pursue volunteer roles simply for the potential acclaim and recognition. This is especially important because it is highly recommended for volunteer activities to be long-term (generally at least 6 months) which helps demonstrate dedication and commitment, important qualities for a future physician. This can be quite tough, considering volunteering is an unpaid role, on top of the demands of extracurriculars, employment, obtaining a high GPA, and other life responsibilities. Hence, time is of the essence, so commit to causes/activities that you personally feel engaged in and passionate for, but also remember not to overextend yourself.
While volunteering in a healthcare environment (hospital, clinic, long-term care home, etc.) can be helpful for career exploration and an excellent learning experience, it is NOT necessary for an application or acceptance to a Canadian medical school. The same applies for international and overseas volunteer/medical work. These are certainly valuable experiences but should be completed only if you have the time, resources, and most importantly, the desire to contribute to those specific causes. Furthermore, the opportunity to travel abroad for volunteer work is a privilege that not every student may have access to, which is also recognized by medical school admission committees. International volunteerism may not be for everyone and can have repercussions if the right intentions aren’t there. Remember, authenticity matters. A volunteer experience abroad and a domestic volunteer experience are evaluated in the same manner - based on what you as the applicant has made of it. The time and effort you dedicated to a volunteer role you are passionate about will shine brightly in an essay or interview regardless if it is clearly for a cause that is true to you.
First, it is important to note that just like every other non-academic activity, having a research background is not an absolute requirement for getting into medical school. Conducting scientific research is not for everyone and the number of hours you have spent doing research, or the number of labs that you have participated in do not correlate with your success in getting an admission to medical school. However, having a research background can demonstrate important skills, such as scientific literacy, contributing important knowledge to a field and critical thinking. As such, it may be of importance to explore research in one form or another during your pre-medical years.
The type of research conducted prior to medical school is not of importance. One research project is not superior to another, nor is the institution that it was completed in. You may conduct your project in a basic science lab or get involved with clinical research. You can work in a wet lab or a dry lab, and that can be done in an academic institution or a hospital. Your research can be in any academic field - it does not have to be related to healthcare or even science in any way. Furthermore, your role as a researcher can be as a volunteer student in a lab, or as a summer student in the university where you are pursuing a bachelor’s degree. It can also take shape as part of your thesis for your undergraduate degree. If you find research to be of interest, you may want to pursue a thesis-based Masters or PhD to increase your research experience. Again, none of these are a requirement of any sort for getting into medical school.
It is important to also note that your productivity and efficiency in your research role will be of highest significance. That does not go to say that you need multiple publications or poster presentations. In fact, none of these are a requirement. However, it is worthy to commit to a research project that provides you the opportunity to conduct productive and high impact work. That can take shape in a form of an abstract publication, a presentation, a grant, or a journal publication. However, if none of those are granted, it is important to remember that the skills that you gain from conducting research is important in and of itself. Research is also a great way to meet like-minded people and find mentors and friends who can help you in your path to medical school. It is also a great environment to strive for continuous progression and self-improvement.
Is it more important to build extracurricular activities around pre-defined leadership roles, or to extract leadership roles from activities and interests in line with one’s passions? Though most would agree the latter seems more sensible, what often ends up happening is the former. Many applicants feel pressure to conform to “model” leadership, gauging their own capabilities against unrealistic peer achievements or abstract descriptions of leadership loosely defined by CanMEDS and other professional organizations. Often being a leader is hastily equated with “being in charge,” e.g. being a club president or team leader. However, an applicant who pursues a role that genuinely excites them without catering to industry or professional standards, in our view, immensely raises the richness and validity of their experiences.Almost every meaningful extracurricular activity can provide lessons on and opportunities to gauge leadership.
For example, an applicant might speak on his or her experience as a general member of an extracurricular club, perhaps how they adapted to a sudden change, came up with a creative solution, or presented data in an unconventional way. If properly conveyed to a committee, any of these could count as unique yet relevant leadership experiences despite the lack of any formal sounding leadership titles, or managerial or design initiatives. Reflecting on truly meaningful experiences will allow any applicant to convey leadership qualities enthusiastically and convincingly.
The employment section of your medical application is a key opportunity to present and emphasize your unique individual attributes and skills. The value of any individual job entry on your application should be based on what you learned from the job while also highlighting any individual experiences that translated into new skills - not the job itself. Medical school applications usually have a section for you to elaborate on any meaningful experiences, such as the personal statement/essay, which can also be an opportunity to further discuss the significance of any work experience(s).
Depending on the application, there may be a maximum limit on the number of entries you can make under employment. Like extracurricular activities, quality is greater than quantity. You should consider how any work experience relates to your individual interests, goals, and global impression of your application and how it represents you. Many students for various reasons may not have the opportunity to work in a clinical setting prior to medical school, nor is it required or expected. There is the opportunity to usually engage in clinical environments through shadowing and volunteer positions throughout undergrad if you are interested. Consistency is one of the most important factors of any employment entry as it shows dedication, commitment, and maturity. Depending on the nature of the position, you can identify various levels of commitment even within one job - whether it be a commitment to advocacy, marginalized communities, curiosity, research, or self-improvement, to list a few.
Within each job position, is also the opportunity to gain a letter of reference from an employer to help support your application. Although letters of reference are highlighted in another section, it is worth noting that employers can make excellent letters of reference especially if you have worked with them for a longer period of time and they have been able to evaluate your abilities directly. Additionally, your employer may be able help you identify individual skills you have acquired during your time in your position. On the other hand, it can also help you eliminate asking them for a reference letter if they seem hesitant or unsupportive of you pursuing medicine. Whether or not to engage in a discussion regarding your medical aspirations should be based on your own comfort level.
As mentioned, it is less important to focus on the particular job, but to let Admissions Committees know how this position has impacted you and you should be able to demonstrate a level of deeper insight into the position beyond the individual job requirements. Most importantly, you should be able to describe why you were committed to the particular job/organization, what individual skills you acquired (and list them), and be able to relate them to any meaningful experiences. There is no magical job that will get you into medical school (as far as we know). Ultimately, you should allow yourself to be guided by your passions, and interests.
The employment section is unique relative to extracurricular activities or volunteering in the sense that sometimes working while pursuing medicine is non-optional. Maintaining an acceptable GPA average for applying to medical school should always remain goal #1. Without meeting the GPA requirements, it is unfortunately extremely difficult to ever proceed through the admissions process. If your work level is impacting your performance in school, you should try to discuss it with your respective university’s student services to see what services may be available to you, so that you can continue to pursue becoming the doctor you’ve always dreamed of being!