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Six (Other) Ways to Stand Out in Med School

Did you manage to make honors in your undergraduate years, win top academic accolades, or make AOA in med school? If so, congratulations for this accomplishment! If not, don’t stress! There are many other components to the medical school or residency application process that admissions committees consider. In fact, here are the top ways to stand out on a medical school or residency application without honors or awards: 

1. Extracurricular Activities:

The value of extracurricular activities varies from institution to institution and probably pulls more weight when applying to medical school versus residency. The bottom line is to participate in activities you truly enjoy rather than simply signing up for random activities in hopes of padding an application. If you love fitness and want to participate on a competitive sports team, that could be a great opportunity to participate in something you love while also helping enhance your application. However, if the thought of running around a soccer field or hitting a ball doesn’t sound exciting, then participating in a club or activity you’d enjoy would be more worthwhile. An admissions committee will likely see more value in one or two activities you are truly passionate about rather than half a dozen that were more superficial. When it comes time for interviews, a committee with be able to tell if you truly cared about your extracurricular involvement or were really only completing it to “check a box” on the application process.

2. Volunteer Activities:

Similar to extracurriculars, volunteer activities can certainly enhance one’s resume, but probably pull more weight when applying to medical school than residency. In fact, volunteer activities are a critical part of medical school admissions. As a premedical student, volunteering with underserved groups is an important part of demonstrating commitment to patient care. Many medical student hopefuls will often try to volunteer in a medical setting, such as a hospital or health clinic, to help people in need while also gaining first hand experience in the medical field. 

3. Work Experience:

Work experience is usually not a requirement for medical school or residency admissions committees. However, it can be a valuable enhancement to an application if you have it. Be honest and describe exactly what your work experience entailed, how long you participated in it, and importantly what you learned from it- even if the experience was non-medically related. This is especially important for students who took a gap year before medical school or residency and may have worked in a non-medical career beforehand.

4. Research Experience: 

Most medical school and residency programs do not require a certain number of research hours or publications. However, research experience can be a strongly positive component of the application, and many students will try to have at least a minor amount of research prior to medical school or residency applications. As an undergrad, there are often many opportunities to volunteer in a research lab, help conduct studies (whether bench work or clinical trials), and even contribute to manuscript writing. The important part about research is that if it is something you enjoy then it might be worthwhile investigating all the options available at your institution. If research doesn’t tend to excite you as much, it is still probably a good idea to get some experience in the research field, but it won’t necessarily reflect badly on you if it isn’t the highlight of your application. Many medical schools have paid research opportunities during the summer, chances to travel nationally/internationally to collaborate on projects, or the option to work with a resident on a project (many ACGME residency programs have a research component).

 5. Standardized Exams/Board Scores:

If standardized exams are your strong point, you could be in luck! While a very strong MCAT or USMLE score likely won’t negate a low GPA or poor coursework, it can certainly catch the eye of admissions committees, especially if there are other strong aspects to one’s application, such as volunteer activities or research. In fact, some residency and medical school programs have certain MCAT and USMLE cut offs one must meet to even be granted a secondary application or interview to their program.

 6. Letters Of Recommendation:

The value of a letter of recommendation can vary depending on the institution. In general, having a few strong letters of recommendation (or a committee letter in some instances) from people who know you well is more beneficial than multiple letters from people who only knew you superficially. A strong letter of recommendation may enhance one’s application but likely won’t make up for poor test scores or grades. On the other hand, poor letters of recommendation that may draw into question one’s character or professionality can certainly bring down an otherwise stellar application.

The value of the personal statement also tends to vary among institutions and among different residency specialties. However, regardless, the statement is a great way to showcase who you are, why you want to be a doctor (of for residency, pursue a certain field), and any other highlights to your personality or application. A personal statement is unlikely to make or break an application. However, it is important to maintain a professional, kind attitude. Lastly, make sure to proofread it! Multiple grammatical errors may reflect badly to some admissions committees.

All in all, while having a few exceptional awards or making honors/AOA can help one standout, multiple factors go into the medical school and residency admissions process, other than just honors/awards alone.