Experiencing Extracurriculars | Work And Activities: Pre-Health
After academics, the second portion of the medical/professional school journey is extra-curriculars. Along with being able to prove your scientific knowledge through rigorous coursework and long standardized tests, most schools also require students to develop themselves personally in a variety of non-academic related activities. These activities can range from a job, to volunteering at a pet shelter, teaching kids how to play piano, to truly anything. However, the secret to finding the best types of activities are not the ones that look the best on paper but are in fact those activities that speak to your soul and remind you of why you want to pursue medicine in the first place. Rasulullah S.A.W has proclaimed:
تفكر ساعة خير من عبادة سنة
A moment of introspection is greater than a year's worship
- Rasulullah S.A.W
He advises us that throughout life, one should remind oneself of the reason behind the work they are doing and why it is meaningful to them. I believe that this sentiment can be perfectly understood in the Work and Activities portion of the medical school application.
The AAMC outlines 18 different categories in the “Work and Activities” section which shows just how wide ranging the types activities can be. I would encourage everyone to at least try to hit at least one experience in each of these categories as a baseline. Most medical programs want to see that you have at least taken the time to expose yourself to the medical field itself, and that it is really something you want to dedicate the next 4-8 years of your life. As a guideline I would recommend:
Shadowing – Approximately 100 hours with at least two different specialties
Research – About one year or 100 hours in at least one lab
Volunteering – 1-2 meaningful experiences (Preferably one clinical and one non-clinical)
Leadership – At least one role of any kind
Work – Some form of work (Medical or Non-Medical)
These guidelines are just that, guidelines. Any variation of this could work and I would encourage you to pursue multiple opportunities in any of the categories as long as you are able to balance your academics and personal well-being.
As an undergraduate student I was often in awe of the amount of work it required to apply to medical school. I thought that from the very first semester I had to join multiple clubs, start research, find a job, start volunteering and maintain perfect grades. Like many other motivated “pre-meds” I did exactly that. I tried to fill almost every waking hour with something that would contribute to my application. Multiple student org. meetings a week, 3-4 faculty-research luncheons a month, weekly volunteer opportunities with a myriad of organizations. However, as the months went on, I felt quite stressed and incredibly overwhelmed, it even affected my ability to study in certain situations. After my freshman year I decided to stop going to the meetings and instead began spending my time on only a few activities. I joined a couple of global health related student organizations that gave me insights into the impact medicine has on people all over the world, something I had never thought of before undergrad. I began to do khidmat (volunteering) at madrasa (my local Sunday school) and the local Quran hifz (memorization) program at my jamaat, an effort to give back to the community that developed and supported me for so many years. Finally, I pursued a job in phlebotomy, something that would drastically change my perception of the medical field and is one of the primary reasons I am attending medical school currently.
Regarding clinical exposure, there are a variety of opportunities for undergraduates, many that I had not even heard of before I started college. Most undergrad students opt to find exposure through shadowing, working as a scribe, or even the rare nursing assistant position to gain valuable experience interacting with patients. I took a bit of a different approach. I was introduced to the practice of phlebotomy by my uncle who was a bariatric surgeon at a local hospital system in Michigan. He told me being familiar with needles is a valuable skill that most medical students are not comfortable with and it could give me an edge on my application. I decided to take him up on his offer to work, not knowing what phlebotomy was or what it would entail, and signed up for a certification class the summer after my freshman year. A few months later I knew how to draw blood! It didn’t take me long to find a job, as my uncle also had a close relationship with the manager of a laboratory in his hospital system and was able to get me an interview the very same week. I interviewed and got the job that same week!
Note: you’ll find that in these practices, and really any competitive market, contacts and your network is everything. I was able to find this through my uncle, but if you don’t know anyone in your family, or in the jamaat, who might be able to help you, make valuable connections at your university. Most positions are filled just like this.
At first, I was definitely skeptical as to how relevant the job would be to the field and if I have received an adequate amount of training from the 3-month certification course. Needless (no pun intended. well, maybe a little) to say, it definitely showed up during my training. I was often fumbling around the lab, asking nurses way too many questions, and having a tough time even finding my way around the hospital. The most valuable aspect of phlebotomy was the overwhelming amount of patient and clinical exposure I obtained in what seemed to be a very low-level job. Each shift I was interacting with members of the lab, the phlebotomy team, nurses, residents, attending physicians and of course the patient’s themselves! I understood what it meant to be a part of a health team, and how my actions directly contributed to the treatment of the patient and the functionality of the hospital. When I wasn’t able to obtain blood, it put a halt on many of the patient’s medicine or antibiotic treatment. When the patient refused treatment, I had to engage with nurses and other members of the team to try and persuade and even explain the importance of the practice to the patient. I even found myself talking about vein anatomy, something we only briefly talked about in my course. What started as an idea from my uncle turned into a worthwhile experience where I met a number of new people, gained insight into the field I was pursuing, and made some great spending cash, all as a sophomore in undergrad! I look back at my time spent working and realize that had I not pursued a job or volunteer experience that gave me first-hand experience in the field, I would not have been able to truly appreciate the field I was pursuing and would have likely quit due to the burnout.
I share this story to show you the vast number of opportunities to gain clinical exposure if you are pursuing a career in medicine. And those experiences will and should ultimately contribute to what you are pursuing, if it is right and meaningful to you. Each conversation I had with a patient, every family member I was able to comfort by explaining how the lab test results work, was an opportunity for me to reflect on why I was pursuing medicine in the first place. Those experiences, emotions, and perspectives are exactly what I wrote about in my essays, talked about in my interviews, and now implement in medical school today.
Throughout your activities it is important to often reflect on why you are involved, or what the work means to you. It is very easy to think of the medical school application process as a sort of a checklist, because in some senses, it is. At the end of the day, medical schools are trying to admit you, the person, not the image in your application. Each and every experience in your application speaks to the type of person you are, the values you hold, and the type of physician and person you want to be in the future. Therefore, it only makes sense to tailor your activities to those sorts of categories! If you are working in a research lab that seems boring or the work unfulfilling, or if you are a member of an organization whose values do not align with your own or feel the volunteering you are doing is just not that interesting, then don’t be afraid to find something new! The major theme is quality over quantity. If you can’t talk about something, or if you don’t feel connected to the work you are pursuing then maybe it isn’t the right experience for you.
The medical school application has 15 spots to write about different activities but does not set a guideline as to how many you should fill or what types of activities to pursue. 3-5 very rich meaningful experiences, ones in which you can reflect upon and connect to your pursuit of medicine, as well as have a personal connection to, will speak incredibly more than filling up the 15 spots on the application, and will ultimately allow you to convey that meaning during interviews and beyond.
I’ll end with this anecdote. I went to a medical school interview last fall and met a number of very interesting people. Business majors, computer science majors and of course a number of traditional hard science majors. During our first icebreaker session the question posed to everyone was, “Share with the group one thing on your application that you believe is unique to you and why it relates to medicine.” I saw scores of highly qualified (both academically and professional) people from all walks of life scramble to think about what they could possibly use to answer that question, after all, aren’t we all applying to the same school, and should therefore have similar experience? Most people chose a volunteering activity they were involved in, a medically related experience, or perhaps an overseas mission trip they went on. The one that stood out the most was a falcon tamer from Oregon. He came up to the front of the room and gave a beautiful response to how training a falcon is very similar to treating a patient and how his commitment to the practice would translate to his commitment as a physician. The entire group was impressed, as well as all of the faculty, and it is still to this day the most interesting thing I have ever heard at an interview.
So, keep your head high and your spirits even higher. Always remember the why behind the what, because at the end of the day, whether we are talking medical school, exercising or even Quran hifz, it is the reason we act that makes everything matter.
May Allah T.A. keep our Moula, who gives us the strength when there is none to be found, in health and prosperity until the Day of Qiyamat. Ameen!
Authored by: Ahmed Hussain (OUMC First-Year Student)
Edited for clarity and purpose by: Taher Lokhandwala