A proven framework for effectively choosing and describing your extracurricular activities to get into medical school
(Note: This article can also be found in our free, 66-page comprehensive guide to medical school applications, Get Into Medical School: 6 Practical Lessons to Stand Out and Earn Your White Coat.)
If you're reading this, you may have already conquered the most dreaded part of your AMCAS application: the medical school personal statement.
However, it’s not time to relax and cut corners on the AMCAS Work and Activities section, as many students do.
AMCAS allows you to list up to 15 experiences with a 700-character limit for each. Moreover, three of your experiences can be identified as ‘most meaningful’ and further expanded on using 1,325 additional characters.
About each of your experiences, admissions committees want to know:
How much time you spent
Your responsibilities and accomplishments
The impact you made
The qualities you demonstrated
For your 'most meaningful' experiences, admissions committees additionally want to know:
What you learned and how you grew
Notice how none of these bullets say, “Simply state what you did”?
That’s because the AMCAS Work and Activities section presents an incredible opportunity beyond your personal statement to provide deep insights about yourself.
Just like choosing which schools to apply to and choosing which of your great qualities to demonstrate in your personal statement, it’s up to you to decide which of your experiences to highlight in your Work and Activities section and how to discuss them.
Think about this carefully and list your most significant experiences only. Don’t list experiences just to fill up the section.
1. Choose Your Most Meaningful Experiences
How do you decide which of your experiences were most meaningful or significant?
Choosing your meaningful awards, honors, and publications is usually more straightforward than your activities, so we’ll focus on choosing activities.
First, list every extracurricular activity you've participated in during your college and postbac years.
Then, write very brief descriptions of each of the 5 areas I listed earlier that medical schools want to know about. You can do this exercise in your head, but I encourage writing it out to ensure that your short paragraph will touch upon each area.
Let’s take volunteering as an assistant cook at the Chicago Homeless Shelter as an example.
Time spent: 2 nights/week, 4 hours/night for 3 years
Responsibilities/Accomplishments: Prepared meals and served homeless individuals.
Impact: Developed lasting relationships with underserved individuals in addition to helping them meet their basic needs.
Qualities Demonstrated: Kindness, encouraging, interested in people from all walks of life.
Lessons/Growth: Gratitude, humility, human resilience.
Once you’ve listed and described your activities, write about those (in addition to research and clinical experiences, of course) that demonstrate commitment, capture your best qualities, highlight your greatest impacts, and exhibit the most growth.
I encourage you to select at least one medicine-related activity (e.g., research) as one of your ‘most meaningful’ experiences. Beyond that, all experiences should be considered fair game.
2. Describe Your Experiences
The AMCAS application will let you designate the experience type, position, organization, location, contact name, dates, total hours spent, and whether it was ‘most meaningful.’
That’s easy. Writing the description is a bit more difficult.
As mentioned earlier, make sure to discuss the following in the Experience Description section:
Your responsibilities and accomplishments
The impact you made
The qualities you demonstrated
I’ll continue with the homeless shelter example to demonstrate what a strong entry looks like:
I started out as a volunteer dishwasher and porter and occasionally helped with cooking meals when the cooks were out for any reason (responsibilities). After about a year, the head chef asked me to transition to cooking only (accomplishment and responsibility). I was excited about the opportunity because cooking is one of my greatest passions. Two nights per week, I cooked and served various meals for the local homeless community. As a cook, I initially ate with the other kitchen staff after everyone had been served. Over time, however, I ate with the people I served, and encouraged other staff members to join as well. (impact, demonstration of kindness, encouragement, and interest in others)
This example stayed well within the character limit (under 600 characters with spaces) and successfully discussed the three points mentioned above.
3. Remark on Your ‘Most Meaningful’ Experiences
When you designate an experience as ‘most meaningful,’ the application will prompt you to complete the ‘Most Meaningful Experience Remarks’ section.
This section provides the opportunity to go deeper about an experience and impact, as well as discuss what you learned and how you grew from the experience (bonus points for linking the example to medicine, but no need to force this). Continuing with the same example:
When I started volunteering at the homeless shelter, I was looking forward to accumulating volunteer hours doing something I enjoyed. However, serving some of our society’s most needy members and developing lasting relationships with them quickly trumped the pleasure of cooking. I recognized early on that my service could transcend spooning meals onto a plate. While our diners clearly needed nourishment, they were also looking for community. Simply asking many of them how their weeks were going, about their upbringing, and eventually, how they became homeless, got them to open up and share their stories. These stories stirred up feelings of gratitude and humility knowing that many of my blessings (e.g., growing up a in a nice neighborhood with an intact family) were unearned. In addition, I came to understand how resilient human beings are. Against great odds, many homeless individuals had developed and maintained a positive life outlook, and some were able to improve their housing and career situations. While I was always glad to learn about these developments, I was sad to lose touch with these friends. I suppose this experience parallels the goal of a medical doctor: to not be needed anymore.
This student's example builds on the description from the earlier section by getting more specific about their interactions with homeless individuals, what they learned and came to appreciate from the experience, and an insight they gained that applies to medicine.
With all written sections of the AMCAS application, ask yourself, “How can I impress admissions committees with this section?”
In the case of the Work and Activities section, the answer lies in describing your experiences in a way that highlights your positive qualities, says something about you that hasn’t been covered elsewhere, and expresses thoughtfulness in how these experiences have impacted your decision to pursue medicine.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Below is a list of the most frequently asked questions (FAQ) I receive about the AMCAS Work and Activities section that are not answered in this article.
I encourage you to ask any other questions you have about the Work and Activities section in the Comments section below. I’ll make sure to answer your questions within 24 hours and add some of them to this FAQ section to make it easier for other students to find this information.
Question: Is it OK if I don't/can't fill all 15 Work and Activities entries?
Answer: Yes. Medical school admissions committees read thousands of applicants annually and can easily tell if you're listing work and activities just to fill up the section.
Question: Can I list an activity in the Work and Activities section that I already discussed in my personal statement?
Answer: Yes, and in many cases, you should. Otherwise, admissions committees may wonder why it was left out.
In your Work and Activities section, you should write about that particular experience from a different angle than the one you took in your personal statement. That way, you'll demonstrate greater insight and flexible thinking to admissions committees.
Question: Should I list all of my shadowing experiences in one entry, or split them across multiple entries?
Answer: If you have several shadowing experiences, whether in the same hospital or across multiple hospitals, it would make sense to list all of them within the same entry. For example, your entry in the Experience Description section could be written like this:
Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Emergency Department (Summer 2016)
Attended patients consultations with multiple physicians around the emergency room
Primary contact: Melissa Johnson, M.D.
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Neurosurgery Department (Summer 2015)
Observed neurosurgeries and attended patient pre-op and post-op consultations
Primary contact: Joseph Katzman, M.D.
And so on...
On the other hand, if you've participated in fewer (i.e., 1-3) shadowing experiences, but for longer periods of time, you could write about each experience separately. In those cases, you should write about an interesting moment or what you learned from the experience.
Question: How should I list my honors and awards? Should each one be given their own entry, or should they be combined within one entry?
Answer: If an honor or award resulted from an activity described elsewhere, mention it there (e.g., receiving the "Top Student Researcher" award could be included in your research experience entry). All other honors and awards should be combined within their own entry. If you reach the character limit, either shorten your descriptions or delete the least significant ones.
In extremely special cases, an honor or award can be 'most meaningful' to you because it represents tremendous growth or overcoming a major obstacle. In that case, feel free to designate it as 'most meaningful' and explain why.
Question: For my 'Most Meaningful Experiences,' should I write catchy or flowery stories like the one I've written in my personal statement?
Answer: Probably not. Your AMCAS Work and Activities section should focus on explicitly highlighting your accomplishments, impact, qualities, and growth.
Because you have a much shorter character limit for the Work and Activities section, it's OK to "show" and "tell" to clearly make your points. If there's anything you'd like to expand on, you may have the opportunity to do so during your admission interviews.
Question: What are some examples of showing vs. telling in the Work and Activities section?
Answer: A good rule of thumb is that “telling” involves describing what you did, whereas “showing” involves demonstrating what you achieved or learned from an experience. It’s important to include the latter because they allow admissions committees to understand the value to your community and how insightful you are.
The following examples highlight the differences between telling and showing:
Telling: “I shadowed an emergency physician during rounds.”
Showing: “I supported emergency physicians during rounds by ensuring that patients were comfortable during their stays by offering adequate snacks, drinks, blankets, etc.”
Telling: “I observed neurosurgery consults.”
Showing: “I observed how physicians demonstrate good bedside manner by encouraging questions and providing reassurance to develop trust with their patients.”
Question: How many hours should I enter for Honors/Awards/Recognitions, Presentations/Posters, Publications or Conferences Attended entries?
Answer: In most, cases, enter "0." However, the AAMC advises you to use your discretion if you spent a measurable amount of time on one of these activities, such as at a conference or event.
Question: Should I include the hours I expect to spend on activities next year?
Answer: If you've started an activity prior to submitting AMCAS that you intend to continue post submission, you may include your expected hours in the "Total Hours" field for that entry.
Question: In what order will my experiences appear on my application?
Answer: Admissions committees will see your experiences listed in chronological order by default. However, they’ll be able to rearrange your experiences by category (e.g., shadowing, volunteering) and a number of other ways based on how they prefer to review applications.
Question: Do I need to get a recommendation letter related to each of my 'Most Meaningful Experiences’?
Answer: It’s not necessary to submit a letter of recommendation from people who can speak to each of your ‘Most Meaningful Experiences.’