BreakThru Learning: Extracurricular Activities

Learner Series

Extracurricular Activities

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Extracurricular activities have always been a bit of a confusing topic for pre-meds. While GPA and MCAT are quantitative, extracurriculars are qualitative.

Quality experiences in the realms of: Volunteering, Shadowing, Research, and Leadership can help round out your application and put you in a strong position to get into your dream school. So let’s take a second to break down each of these different categories.


This is one of those categories you’ve likely been participating in since high school, and if not, no worries at all. Volunteering is a great way to show your dedication to helping others and the altruistic side of you that lies at the core of many good physicians. In a process that often times has immediate feedback or compensation (grades, jobs, etc.), volunteerism stands alone as an activity you hopefully do for the sake of helping out your community.

Within volunteering there are two different subsects: clinical and non-clinical.

As a general consensus, clinical anything is always preferred. Because clinical experience means you have patient interaction, and that you’re working without the medical system, and you have more exposure into what medicine truly entails. The fact that you’re still set on medicine after several clinical exposures indicates to programs that you know what you’re in for and you’re ready for it.

So what are good clinical experiences? The general theme is something that was impactful to you or that you can talk about. In the sense that you actually did something meaningful, but in terms of roles and positions, the highest tier of clinical volunteering is becoming an EMT. It requires studying, training, and long-term dedication to become and stay as one. Not to mention you DIRECTLY deal with and help patients with each shift.

That doesn’t mean you HAVE to become one. It’s a time-intensive activity, and it’s not always the right fit for someone. Not everyone has to want to deal with EMT-level intensive situations. Other options could be volunteering at a hospital, a clinic, a Suicide hotline, or anything else that you can think of that involves patient interaction.

As for non-clinical volunteering, this is also a great opportunity as well. While it might not fill the criteria for showing passion for medicine, it does show something much more fundamental: a desire to help. The other side benefit? There are so many opportunities without the restrictions of medicine (let’s be honest, there’s a pretty low cap on what they’d give a college student in a clinical setting). Through non-clinical volunteering, you can pick a community that you truly do want to assist with. This could be your local religious community, a shelter home, a blood drive, a food drive, projects for the underserved, or anything else that comes to mind! Take this opportunity to explore other fields you are interested in. Healthcare encompasses a lot of different fields, so volunteering in different areas can both help you obtain new skills and make you a well-rounded person at the same time.

For example, let’s say you choose to volunteer as a teacher or tutor in an underserved area. On one hand, you’ll be honing and developing skills with regards to teaching, communication, organization, empathy, and clarity. These are all fundamental attributes that will help you become a better physician for your patients. On the other hand, you’re exposing yourself to a segment of the population that is often neglected, or put into poor healthcare situations. Having that insight and experience early on will remind you in years to come of the challenges they have to go through, the importance of empathy and education, and give you a more holistic approach to patient care.


This is one of those prerequisites to choosing medicine that you have to do, for various reasons.

Personal reasons: Shadowing will give you a taste of what the backend of medicine is like. What does a doctor really do on a day-to-day basis? How does a clinic function? Wow there are so many specialties, can I see myself doing any of these? Those are the main questions you’ll hopefully be able to start tackling when shadowing experiences.

Additionally, you’ll get a chance to connect with and get insight from physicians in the field. Feel free to pick their brain about why they went into medicine, would they do it again, and any advice they have for someone at your stage.

Medical school reasons: Schools want to know that you understand what medicine is. It’s not the glamour that you see on TV and shows. Not everything is heroics. By shadowing with a few specialties, you are showing them that you did your due diligence, and you have an idea of medicine entails.

Disclaimer: To be honest, shadowing is just scratching the surface. You won’t truly understand what it’s like to be in medicine until medical school rotations or if you work in a hospital.

How many hours should I shadow? This is a common question that gets asked. The answer: as many as you need. Remember, the purpose of shadowing is to show you did your research. It’s recommended to have shadowed a few different physicians in various specialties. Personally, we believe about 15-20 hours of shadowing time is enough to get an understanding of a certain physician’s daily clinical structure. So if you do this for about 3 physicians that’ll total about 50-60 hours. Majority of schools don’t have specifications, but be sure to check the schools you want to apply to just to be safe.

How do I get shadowing? There are a few shadowing programs out there where a hospital will let you shadow various specialties over the course of a summer. Personally speaking, I think a better use of the summer is getting more hands-on clinical exposure, having a job, or getting research if you want to upgrade your resume/CV. Shadowing can easily be done throughout the year, or during winter or spring break.

Some of the ways to get shadowing are:

Utilize your connections: Upperclassman and some of your friends/peers may have already shadowed, ask them which doctors they enjoyed shadowing and if they can provide you with a way to contact the physician. Not every physician will take on students, so already knowing who does will save you time

Contact physicians you already know: It’ll be easy to connect with a physician that knows you, and they may be a little more receptive. You can start by asking your primary care physician, they might even have connections to other colleagues that would be eager to have you.

Cold call/email: Lot of offices can be busy, but we’ve found most will respond to an inquiring student about shadowing. Find a list of physicians in your community in specialties you want to shadow and send a professional email or phone call. If they don’t respond at first, don’t be afraid to send a follow-up email a week or two later. If you get nothing after two follow-ups, it’s best to move on.

Work Experience/Internships

Work experience isn’t usually at the forefront in the pursuit of the perfect application, but it definitely has its place. Especially if you are self-financing or you need some cash. Just because it’s not voluntary doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial to your education, you learning, and your personal development. In fact, one can argue the right work experiences will give you a better chance at developing valuable skills moving forward.

Some of the benefits of working or interning are clear. Experience is always valuable, and making money while doing so is a win-win. But there are other benefits as well. For starters, networking and connections. That job at the private practice might open up connections to other physicians who will let you shadow. Or that physician you work alongside might serve as a valuable mentor for the rest of your career. That gig you took up at the eye clinic might actually make you realize ophthalmology is where you want to be, and provide you with connections to do research and more. Never underestimate the power of networking, and work experiences are a very easy way to develop that. Secondly, the personal experience is largely important in making you well-rounded. Depending on where you work, clinical or otherwise, you’ll likely be given tasks that require you to work with teams, meet deadlines, get creative, and solve problems. All of these are useful in becoming a physician. The best part is, these skills are translatable across various fields. The wider your exposure, the more you’ll either appreciate medicine, or develop a unique perspective to it.
Just like with every other non-academic experience, the question is always what makes an experience good and noteworthy? The answer is always the same, anything that can help you paint the story of your growth and desire to be a physician.
Scribing however, usually takes the cake. It’s the perfect blend of responsibility, work experience and clinical exposure for a premed. You’ll not only be able to work alongside physicians and see healthcare from behind the scenes, you’ll play a critical role in patient care and hopefully pick up some medical information along the way. Of the work experiences, scribing typically tops the list. However, it can also be time-intensive (most require year-long commitments, sometimes more, and 20+ hours a week with long shifts).
That doesn’t mean everyone has to become a scribe! While we mentioned that your job or internship doesn’t have to be directly clinical, experiences in healthcare are preferred. Some jobs besides scribing that are worth looking at are lab technician or medical assistant. Additionally, you could take up roles at a healthcare company or obtain a public/global health position. Remember, healthcare is broad and there’s a lot of moving parts, so the opportunities are there if they fit your interests.

Undergraduate Clubs

With the amount of clubs available, there will always be something that piques your interest. As a general rule of thumb, the quality of your club involvement is more important than the amount of clubs you partake in. Being a board member of Habitat for Humanity and helping organize various events is much more valuable than saying you simply attended meetings for five different clubs. Medicine is about commitment. It’s a long journey, they want to know you have the drive to take your passion and go far with it.

Advice that I have heard that has stuck with me is that you excel in three different organizations:

  1. Professional (a medically-oriented club)
  2. Personal (something you enjoy)
  3. Community Service

If you hit that trifecta with quality positions in each, you’ve covered all bases and showed your well-rounded nature. I’d advise the same for premeds.


Here’s the big one. If there’s any extracurricular that is on the back of every premed’s mind, it’s research. Off the bat, you don’t need research. However, it is a pretty big positive to have if you can obtain it (and don’t mind doing it). 

We dislike to refer to these activities as “checkboxes”, even if that’s what they may appear to be. So let’s look into what benefits you can get with research and other reasons why someone would want to do it.

First off, academic literature is a very big part of healthcare. New treatment modalities, unique disease presentations, and meta-analysis are all foundational in the advancement of medicine. As a physician, you’ll frequently have to do your own readings and keep up to date on what the latest literature says. Research in a sense has its own language, and its own system in place. Becoming familiar with how research works, is peer-reviewed, created or rejected, and published will give you a good foundation moving forward. It’ll teach you skills like critical thinking, academic literature research, writing and communication. For some, it’ll be a breath of fresh air into a world of medicine that they truly enjoy. Hopefully, at the very least, it pokes at your scientific curiosity, whether that leads to more research down the line or simply exploring different sectors of medicine. While that is all fine and dandy, how exactly does someone get research? There’s a few different venues.

  • Summer Programs: Most schools offer programs dedicated to assigning students a project for the summer with a PI. Be sure to look these up early and apply before the deadline. Since it’s convenient, it can be competitive.

  • Reaching out to your professors: Some professors in academia also participate in a research lab. Take a look at the topics they research and see if it grabs your interest.

  • Connections through friends and other premeds: Your friends and peers may already be in labs. See if they know of any openings and can vouch for you to join them.

  • Cold emails to labs that interest you: Last resort, just look up professors and labs at your university, read about their projects, and if you’re interested, send them an email. Don’t be afraid to follow-up one or two times if you don’t hear anything back in 1-2 weeks.

One of our BreakThru Mentors has a GREAT write-up about how to get research that’s a bit more in-depth. You can check it out here.

Speaking of research that draws your interest, there are so many different projects to get involved with! You are not confined to test tubes and gel electrophoresis!

In fact, there’s likely a subsect of research that is appealing to you. You can delve into the realms of natural sciences (bio, chem, etc.), social sciences (psychology, sociology, business, etc), global health, public health, epidemiology, engineering… even space medicine! Anything that is related to healthcare or medicine is a completely legitimate project and use of your time in regards to applications. It could be clinical in nature as well (dealing with patient outcomes, data, etc.)! None are better than the other, so pick the one that is interesting to you, because you will have to talk about it during interviews.

After you get involved and spend your time on these projects, you may start to wonder, do I need to get published? If I’m not published, does it even matter?

In short, no you do not need to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. That is the epitome of research as an undergrad, and if you are able to make it that far, that’s awesome! If not, don’t stress! Results that turn into oral presentations at conferences, poster presentations, and abstracts are also very notable to put on your application! Even just having been involved is something you can mention, but having something to show for it looks a lot better.

As a side note, since you’ll likely be looking to get something out of it, take a look to see how often that PI publishes, or if that project has potential to be submitted as a poster or presentation. While you want to pick something interesting, you also have to play the application game.

Final Points

At the end of the day, choose activities that you enjoy and will be able to talk about during interviews. Get experiences that will help you develop a variety of skills. Don’t be afraid to get creative and pick something that might be a little out of the box. While some people might do it to check the boxes, that’s not how we want to approach it. Every experience, every exposure can contain something valuable, and wasting time on projects that bore you won’t bring you much benefit.

If you can comfortably say by the time you apply, that you were able to start developing skills in problem solving, commitment, teamwork, organization, communication, critical thinking, time management, adaptability, and leadership, then you did something right.

While all of these sound overwhelming, make sure not to over do it. None of these are worth compromising your GPA or MCAT.

Nobody expects a new premed to be able to walk into a clinic ready to work. There’s not really any expectations at all when it comes to the medical aspect. What is expected, is that you’ve worked to lay your foundation that you can build your medical career on. That is what this is all about. It’s about knowing what you’re signing up for, being able to relay your resolve, and best prepare yourself for the journey ahead. If you can do that, you’ve done your job as a premed and admissions will be able to see that.

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