One important piece of the medical school application process is completing the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) online application.
In one section of the AMCAS, applicants may briefly describe up to 15 activities in which they have participated. This serves as a resume of sorts and allows the admissions committee to get a picture of you as a person and as an applicant.
Applicants are commonly unsure what activities to include in their AMCAS—this post will help you identify activities that belong. If you are just starting to think about applying to medical school, this post may also provide you with characteristics to look for when pursuing extracurricular activities. Do I need to list 15 activities? First, we should clear up a common misconception. You do not need to list 15 activities in this section. The old adage of ‘quality over quantity’ applies here, admissions committees want relevant activities, not fluff. Use the ideas in this post to help you pull together your activities; you shouldn’t be at all discouraged if you end up with fewer than 15. Constructing a preliminary list A good first step is to fill a word document with all your extracurricular activities since you started college. If you have a resume, you can draw from there. Another helpful strategy is to walk through each semester and each school break and jot down what you did outside of class. Breaking things up in this way makes it easier to remember your activities and will also help when it comes time to enter each activity into AMCAS. Err on the side of including “too much” in this initial pass, the rest of this post will help you trim the list down to the activities that should go into AMCAS. Making the cut No matter how many activities you come up with, the next step is to evaluate each activity and decide whether it should go into AMCAS. Admissions committees want to know your activities so that they can answer a number of essential questions about you as a person and as a candidate:
Have you confirmed your interest in medicine?
Are you prepared for the rigors of medical school and a career as a doctor?
Are you equipped for scientific inquiry and critical thinking?
Have you demonstrated a commitment to learning?
Are you prepared to serve others?
Do you work well with others?
Can you empathize with people who are not like you?
Will you be a valuable member of our school's community? Will you bring something unique to our school?
Each one of your activities should provide evidence that the answer to one (or more) of these questions is “Yes!” If an activity is not connected to at least one of these questions, it probably does not belong in your AMCAS application.
Let’s unpack each of those questions so you can use them to sort through your activities.
Please note: you do not need to have activities that address every one of these questions. Several of them can be covered by your personal statement, your transcript or even your MCAT scores, so don’t panic!
Have you confirmed your interest in medicine? Admissions committees want to know that you have taken steps to confirm your interest in medicine. Medical education is a significant investment of time and money, and a career in medicine requires unique dedication and stamina. Activities such as shadowing or volunteering in a hospital or clinic can demonstrate that you have thought seriously about your career choice and taken steps to make sure it’s right for you. Are you prepared for the rigors of medical school and a career as a doctor? Medical schools want students who are ready and willing to work hard, and to excel in challenging circumstances. Your college transcripts will communicate something about this to the committee, but activities that demonstrate hard work, perseverance, dedication and a willingness to step outside your comfort zone are also important to this end. Athletics, employment as an EMT or other emergency worker, even being involved in music, theater or debate during college can demonstrate that you follow through when the going gets tough. Are you equipped for scientific inquiry and critical thinking? Medicine requires you to collect and synthesize evidence, then make calculated decisions based on that evidence. Therefore it is important that you demonstrate an ability to perform research, complete projects and solve problems. While it’s true that basic science research is a plus, since much of the information you use as a physician will be biological or chemical in nature, research in other disciplines is absolutely worthy of being represented in your AMCAS. Have you demonstrated a commitment to learning? Admissions committees love “life-long learners.” Students who are curious and who demonstrate a passion for learning tend to do well in medical school and beyond. Participation in research, attendance at conferences and significant travel are a few activities that communicate this to a committee. Are you prepared to serve others? A physician often needs to make personal sacrifices in order to provide the best care for their patients. A history of service to others and volunteerism in any context (does not have to be in a medical environment) demonstrate you are ready to continue these responsibilities as a physician. Do you work well with others? Medicine is a collaborative effort. Physicians cooperate across disciplines in addition to working with nurses and other staff. In addition, the doctor-patient relationship requires communication and teamwork. Activities in which you worked as part of a team are therefore important for your AMCAS. Can you empathize with people who are not like you? Physicians must be prepared to care for people of all different walks of life. Respect for the autonomy and beliefs of each person is paramount, which can be challenging within the context of a medical encounter. Activities that show you value interaction with people who may not look, act, or believe as you do will be of interest to the committee. Will you be a valuable member of our school’s community? Will you bring something unique to our school? Medical schools are also looking for students who are creative and unique—students who will bring their own passion and excitement to the community. Getting to know all the special talents your classmates possess is an exciting part of medical school, and the admissions committee is tasked with putting a dynamic group together. Running a business, producing your own art or attaining a special achievement or award will be of interest to admissions committees. What if I have more than 15 activities that answer these questions? If you have gone over each of your activities and you feel that more than 15 provide a “yes” for at least one question, you can pare the list down by prioritizing those activities that speak to multiple items on the list. You can also remove activities that only have a tenuous connection to the character traits mentioned above—be honest with yourself and in your assessment of your activities!
If you’ve gone through these steps and still have more than 15 activities, it may help to prioritize the activities in which you participated the longest, or those activities that were most important to you. The more meaning an activity has for you, the easier it will be to give it a compelling description when writing about it in the AMCAS application.