Extracurricular Badassary: A Beginner’s Guide

If you, like me want/wanted to get into medical school, you’ll be no stranger to the reality that being an excellent student is not enough anymore. Medical school is getting more and more competitive each year, and these days it isn’t uncommon to take 3 or more years off before beginning a medical school journey. The real question then becomes, how the heck do you stand out among the other amazing candidates also vying for a spot in your medical school program? Well, there are three ways: One- your family could donate many dollars to your program of interest-not really an option for most of us, two-you write a killer essay that blows the AdCom’s collective mind, or three-you can stand out because of your extracurricular activities. Today, I am focusing in on that third activity, and what your extracurricular list should look like to make your application stand out from the crowd.

Why it Matters

The reason why the CV is so integral to your application is because it paints a clearer story of who you are. Grades and scores prove you can do the work, an essay demonstrates your passion for medicine, but the extracurricular activities you participate in demonstrate to the committee exactly who they are letting into their program. You see, as much as we like thinking that medicine is about the intellect and passion we have for serving the sick, medicine is just as importantly about who we are as people. Bottom line, AdComs don’t want selfish, dull, unmotivated, followers in their programs. Before the interview, the only way to distinguish this is from what you chose to involve yourself in during your time as a student. That’s why it matters so much that you look like the awesome-possum you are regarding your EC list.

Rumors Abound

First, let me dispel three rumors about extracurricular activities. First, there is no magic number of extracurricular activities to put on your CV. Some people come in with 5, some come in with 30. The real trick is not what you do, but why you do it. You don’t have much space to describe what each activity is, so be sure that you highlight what matters most to telling the story of who you are as a person. Secondly, while it’s encouraged you get as much “patient contact” time as possible, AdComs know that all your time shadowing and volunteering isn’t worth a whole lot in the scheme of things, so don’t feel that you are toast if you only have 20 hours of contact time in your application. You should have some contact, but quality and consistency over quantity. Thirdly, you don’t have to do research. Period. Is it good for you to experience research-I would unequivocally say yes as someone training to be a Physician-Scientist-but it isn’t a do or die situation like many pre-meds believe.

The Guide

Really, our guide for Extracurricular Badassery can be broken down into one concept: To really stand out, you don’t need to have cured cancer, or discovered a new drug, been a Navy SEAL, brought clean water to orphans in Namibia, or started your own funding organization. Instead, what you need is a story to tell through your extracurriculars-one or two in each of four categories that I have listed below. If you’ve got that-a story that the AdComs can see through your extracurricular activity choices, one that shows you excel in these four areas, you’ll be golden.


Do you give a crap? Really, do you care about your community, your tribe, your people? Show me that you care about something-anything really. If it’s research-engage fully in research. If it’s the campus itself-tell me about how you worked on Title IX reform or joined Student Senate. Maybe it’s Greek Life-you really love building community. Whatever the case is, I, and admissions committees want to know that you throw yourself into the things you care about. This is a sure sign that you will be resilient through medical school, and will advocate for your patients in the future. I’m not saying to crusade for every cause that comes your way, only to demonstrate that you have the tenacity to stand for something-that rather than believing in something, you have conviction to do something about it. For example-I am convinced that basic science is critical for our survival as a species, and so I did research into the effects of environmental plastics on hormonal development. Or another-I am convinced that children deserve excellent and free/cheap care, and so I served as VP of Finance/Philanthropy in my medical fraternity and pushed for us to strengthen our financial and relational engagement with Children’s Miracle Network. That’s what I mean-pursue your causes wholeheartedly.

Physicians are leaders by default. People will look to you when on the floor, even if they have more experience, even if they probably know what to do already-and it is your job to lead them by example and enable them to succeed. Are you going to lead, or are you going to follow? In your CV, you need to prove that you can lead, but this doesn’t mean that you need to be El Presidente of your Pre-Med Club, or Captain of your Volleyball team, or even lead in a traditional capacity. All of those are great things, but they don’t demonstrate real leadership. What does show that you can lead is being able to write about how you helped foster change in an organization, or Coached Little League, or stood up for an injustice in your community and organized a protest, or took a risk and started a new club even if it failed miserably (personal experience my friends). In regards to leadership, titles mean nothing. Instead, focus in on what you did to lead, and what leadership means to you.

Kind of self-explanatory-or is it? Yes, please have patient contact time. But more importantly, demonstrate that you are willing to serve however you are able to, regardless of its connection to medicine or not. For me, this meant emphasizing the work I did in my church, and serving my community in that capacity. I probably didn’t have more than 30 hours or so of “patient service time”, but what I did have was a clear demonstration that I was committed to serving those around me. For you, perhaps it’s putting on puppet shows for children or doing Hep screenings for the local Hmong population in your area. Whatever it is, demonstrate that you have a servant’s heart, because at the end of the day, that is what medicine is truly about.

Passion Project

This is the fun one. Obviously, it goes without saying that you should be passionate about everything you do with regards to extra-curricular activities-committees can see right through your crap if you were just checking a box-but the “Passion Project” portion of your ECs should include something that makes you uniquely you. Maybe you instruct SCUBA, or perhaps you were a Navy SEAL or something, or you played on your school’s ultimate team. Maybe you just really like strategy, and you were the Three-peat world Pokemon Video Game Champion (side note-that guy went to my school in undergrad-he’s an actuary now). Or perhaps you love to write, or started a company or something, or you just like gigging with a jazz ensemble on the weekends. Whatever it was, and no matter how big or small, let it be known that you love something outside of medicine. The committees will wonder if you’re for real if everything you do is about medicine, and this is a chance to prove that you carry the passion for life into all you do. PS: committees adore people who played collegiate sports or were in the military-both have been shown to be positive predictors of success as physicians.Remember that it’s okay if your CV doesn’t look perfect. You aren’t going to be number one your whole life, and it’s okay to remember to show yourself a little grace when you apply. Even if you don’t fulfill every expectation perfectly, trust your instincts and don’t worry about it-no one is ever a perfect candidate. Just remember to be authentically you, and don’t hide your shortcomings when it comes interview season-be open and honest about you-the story, not you-the applicant, and I am certain that you will be a better candidate for it.
By Matthew Wright
Medical College of Wisconsin
Motivate MD Team

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