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How to Choose the Right Electives During Your Clinical Years

The clinical years of medicine can be an exciting time when one finally gets to start experiencing the practice of medicine! Choosing electives during the clinical years can be very important and helpful to one’s future career. While some medical students may have the opportunity to choose an elective or two during their third year of medical school, most will have several elective options during their fourth year. Here are five valuable tips when choosing electives as a medical student:

1. Choosing electives during third year.

If your medical school allows you to participate in an elective during third year — excellent! When choosing an elective in your third year, it’s a good idea to pick an area you are curious to learn more about or even think you may want to pursue as a career. Participating in an elective in a particular field as an MS3 may give you a step ahead when applying for residency and will certainly give you a better understanding of what that particular field entails. The bottom line is: pick something you think you will enjoy.

If your school doesn’t allow electives as a third year, or you can’t work it into your schedule, there will be plenty of opportunities for electives MS4 year. In fact, some students intentionally forgo an elective MS3 year in order to take an extra week or two at the end of MS3 year to prepare for the USMLE Step 2. For the most part, participating in an elective (or not) your MS3 year won’t make or break a residency application. MS3 electives are really meant to give students better insight into a particular field when considering what specialty to ultimately pursue. 

2. Consider your future career and pick an elective that will align!

When considering whether to pursue a particular specialty/residency program, it is generally a good idea to pick an elective or two in that field. As an MS4, participating in electives will help better prepare you for residency and may also serve a dual purpose of helping you gather letters of recommendation for residency. Furthermore, if your future plans are to pursue a specific fellowship after residency, such as GI or breast surgery, it is a good idea to rotate in this field as a medical student. While doing so will provide you with more information about that field, it will also help you start building valuable connections when it comes time to apply for fellowship.

3. Consider your future career and pick something unrelated!

While gaining experience in your future field of choice is very valuable, using your time as a medical student to experience something you may never again have the opportunity to participate in is also beneficial. For instance, if you plan on pursuing a career in dermatology, doing a rotation in emergency medicine could still be a valuable experience. After all, you could one day be asked to provide lifesaving, basic emergency medical treatment, such as when a flight attendant asks “is there anyone with medical training on board?!” Furthermore, if you plan on a career in emergency medicine, rotating in pediatrics or anesthesiology will provide beneficial future skills in caring for children and managing airways.

4. Consider away rotations/electives.

Certain specialties, such as emergency medicine or dermatology, may require or strongly recommend a student participate in an away rotation. This is a great opportunity to participate in an elective at another institution while still building your clinical knowledge. Likewise, if you plan for a career in a specialty that doesn’t specifically require an externship, such as internal medicine, but have a specific region of the country you hope to match in, then doing an elective at an institution in that region could be very beneficial. 

5. Have fun!

The most important part about selecting electives as a medical student is to pick something you think you will have fun learning. For the most part, electives are meant to help you gain additional knowledge about a specific specialty and prepare for residency. They generally have more relaxed work hours than required rotations and are often pass/fail. Therefore, an elective is a great time to reinforce your skills or step outside the box and try something new! Always interested in learning more about the study of sleep medicine, wanting to travel abroad to study tropical medicine, or eager to hit the sports field to learn about sports medicine? Give it a shot! The point of taking an elective as a medical student is to learn and have fun!