Last week I kicked off a series on “The Path to MD” with a post on how to get into medical school. Today, I want to touch on what activities to invest in. It’s tough to choose where to spend your precious time. Growing up, my mentors would always tell me to “Do what you love” and your passion will naturally shine through. To be honest, I never really believed that. I mean, I love singing and dancing but I’m not particularly good at either, and passion can’t really make up for lack of talent (just ask the various dance/a cappella groups I tried out for as a college freshman with unfounded confidence!). It didn’t go the other way around for me either – I happened to be really good at piano growing up but I didn’t love it (My dad’s dream was actually for me to become a concert pianist…sorry Dad). So how do you find the perfect balance between interest and talent and figure out which activities to do?
Here’s one important thing before we start: you’ll never be outstanding at an activity that you actually dislike on the inside. People think there are all these boxes to check off to get into medical school and residency. You have to do research, you have to volunteer, you have to cure a disease, etc. But if spending your nights and weekends in lab culturing cells in petri dishes sounds like hell on Earth, you shouldn’t make working in lab your primary extracurricular, no matter how much you think that’ll help your application. There are people out there who genuinely enjoy reading scientific literature and figuring out new experiments to test their hypotheses in lab; they will put their all into lab because they want to and that will show differently than someone who does it because they have to. So no matter how much you think something will impress an admissions committee, if you do it without real interest, you’re just not going to get as far as someone who actually cares. This may seem like a completely obvious statement, but for premeds who think they have to fulfill every part of some checklist to get into med school, this is actually an important lesson to learn. Be genuine.
To stand out to an admissions committee, you have to show dedication, creativity, and leadership, qualities that will allow you to make unique contributions to the entering class. Say you found an activity you like, such as volunteering at a free clinic. You can start off as one of the volunteers, but challenge yourself to take it to the next level. Get involved in a leadership role to help run the clinic, get other students involved, use your skills to make lasting improvements to the clinic. Think outside the box to apply the experiences you gained at this free clinic to something broader, such as other free clinics in underserved communities in the US or even abroad. Choose activities that can give you these opportunities to expand. Don’t limit yourself; dream big and you can usually find mentors and resources to help you achieve your goals. (It’s probably good to note here that if you’re interested in medicine, your main extracurricular activities should relate to medicine in some way.)
Invest time in something that you’re good at. This goes hand in hand with finding something you like and want to spend time perfecting and working on. To use a personal example, I don’t love doing too many things but there are a few that I like doing and also happen to be somewhat good / efficient at. It took trying many different activities before realizing which ones actually fulfilled both of these criteria. In high school a good friend and I were co-editors of the weekly school newspaper, and that started my interest in journalism. In college, I came back from volunteering in Ghana with Unite For Sight feeling a need for students to tell stories of such experiences, so I created a global health publication for the Stanford community. I didn’t think I would pursue journalism further, but in medical school a brand new fellowship popped up in my email inbox one day: the Stanford-NBC News Global Health Media Fellowship. This was a whole YEAR designed to explore medical issues in the news, taking me from working in the press office at the World Health Organization in Geneva to shooting news stories with Dr. Nancy Snyderman at NBC News in New York City. I realized I was good at writing – I was fast at it, which matters in news, and my writing jived with people. I actually liked writing too! By being the inaugural fellow (read: guinea pig) I was able to shape the format of the year and help other fellows down the line. Doing this year opened more doors to interview at MedX and I personally think having a medical journalism background set me apart from other candidates when applying to dermatology residency, helping me to get to where I am today.
There’s no formula for how to get into a good college or medical school. You have to find your own path, tell your own story, and let’s be real, that’s how you’re going to stick out from all the other stellar applications in the pool. Do something you like, something you’re good at, and something that will allow you to shine!
Where have you invested your time outside of school?