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Med School Extracurriculars That Will Boost Your Residency Application

  • by Landon Cluts
  • Nov 21, 2023
  • Reviewed by: Amy Rontal

Medical school may be one of the busiest times in your life, but it’s also a good time to figure out who you are and what kind of doctor you want to become. One of the best ways to do this is to get involved in med school extracurriculars! 

While completing the coursework and clinicals will get you that MD/DO, getting involved in extracurriculars can help you make friends in med school, build skills, stay fit, and even get you into residency. In this post, I’ll discuss what program directors look for when it comes to med school extracurriculars, and give you some tips for how to get involved.

Which Med School Extracurriculars Do Residency Programs Want to See on Your Application?

Residency programs care about two things when it comes to med school extracurriculars: they want you to have interests inside and outside of medicine, and they want those interests to be genuine.

This means that you shouldn’t do every activity imaginable just to fill up lines on your CV. Dedication to your work and following through on commitments are much more important than the number of activities you have. So, when choosing what to spend your spare time on, do things you’re passionate about that will help you grow as a person. 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some extracurricular activities you can engage in when you aren’t studying for classes or focused on clinicals. 

4 Valuable Med School Extracurriculars to Consider

1. Volunteer Work 

The first (and most well-known) extracurricular activity for med students is volunteering. We all went into medicine to help people to some degree, and volunteering is a great way to do that. Free clinics, community education outreach, periodic park cleanups, etc., are all things you can do. These activities are good for humanity and good for you!

However, listing a volunteer experience on your residency application can be a pitfall if you don’t show a clear commitment to it. For example, going to a free clinic once or twice is helpful for the patients you see, but it doesn’t show full dedication to the clinic like going there once a month for your entire medical school career would. These different volunteer approaches can be part of an application, but the latter shows a great deal of passion.

Additionally, think about what any volunteering opportunity means to you and how it will better you as a medical professional and a person in general. During a residency interview, you’re likely to be asked about these things, and being able to eloquently discuss how you grew, how it drove you, and how it made your passion for patient-centered care stronger will be extremely valuable. 

If you’re unable to discuss the experience beyond describing exactly what you did, I would advise against putting it on your applications. Residency interviewers can usually tell when an activity is being used just to fill out an application. 

2. Research 

Another common choice for an extracurricular activity is getting involved in research. Pushing medical science forward to help patient care and learn things that are not yet in medical textbooks is extremely rewarding, not to mention you may get to travel to a conference or two to connect with future colleagues. 

There are many types of research you can get into depending on your preferences. You may find clinical research—using large databases of patient information and statistics to find trends—interesting. Additionally, there’s “bench” research in which you work on the microscopic level running scientific experiments to see the effects of new medications, genetic changes, toxins, and much more. 

Research is an important part of a residency application and it may even be required to graduate from your medical school. But again, just like volunteering, ensure you’re able to talk in detail about any projects you work on. Your exact role, what you did, your findings, the implications of the research, etc., are all fair game for questions during an interview. 

It may be easy to get your name on dozens of abstracts, posters, and papers, but you’ll also need to ensure that your role is significant. This is helpful for both your residency application and also for your research integrity. One or two first author publications and the ability to talk about them thoroughly is much more valuable than trying to augment your CV with 10 fourth-author publications in which you only edited a prewritten paper.

3. Specialty Groups

Third, if you have a good idea of which specialty you hope to match into, your school likely has an interest group for it. I encourage you to become a member of the group and attend their events. You’ll learn a great deal about your specialty and meet attendings/residents that can help you get involved in research, find mentors, and more. 

If you want to, apply to be the interest group leader. This will give you a lot of leadership and organizational experience, while at the same time allowing you to directly interact with leaders in your specialty when you plan events. 

4. Non-Medical Activities

Finally, outside of the common, and important activities above, there are the activities you can do for yourself that sometimes become major talking points during an interview. For example, intramural sports are fun, they can help build a much-needed group of friends, and keep you fit. They’re a perfect way to blow off steam and center yourself after hours of studying or clinic work—plus, sports can help you psychologically, and if you’re better mentally, you’ll be a better doctor for your patients! 

Other activities such as music, video games, board games with a group of friends, and reading are all ways to make sure you still have a personal life outside of medicine. Non-medical extracurriculars can also be a great way to display your humanity in an interview and connect with an interviewer who shares the same interest!

Choosing Your Med School Extracurriculars

I recommend every medical student take on a few extracurriculars they can commit their limited time to. You don’t want to spread yourself too thin and miss out on the full experience! 

My “formula for success” when it comes to extracurriculars is: choose one activity for humanity, one activity for your career (research), and one for yourself that’ll help you connect with who you are outside of medicine.

I also recommend keeping a journal throughout medical school so you can jot down your experiences as they happen and note how they affect you. That way, when interview season comes around, you can use your notes to fill out applications and find important things to talk about during interviews!

Further Reading

There are a multitude of extracurriculars to choose from during medical school, but be sure to engage in those you have a true passion for! Remember, program directors favor quality over quantity, so make sure to join activities that truly call to you and you feel good about dedicating yourself to. That’s ultimately what’s best for you and your career! 

For more (free!) tips to set yourself up for residency success, check out these other posts from Blueprint tutors on the Med School blog:

About the Author

I am a graduate of the Ohio State University with a degree in Neuroscience as well as a minor in clinical Psychology. I am currently a research coordinator at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center prior to beginning residency. I am attending the University of Pittsburgh Medical School for my MD. I am interested in the field of Orthopaedics as well as medical education, healthcare reform, and various advocacy groups. I focus on questions/testing strategy as well as taking what you learn from a book and applying it to test questions. Twitter: @LCluts