Learn what looks good on medical school applications, what counts as various extracurricular activities, and how many hours you need
Once while browsing Reddit to better understand what premed students are most concerned about, I came across the following question:
“How can I stand out on my medical school application if I’m not one of those gunners?”
I laughed, not at the student’s confusion about how to outshine the competition, but at their use of the word “gunner.” While this was the first time I had seen the word, I knew exactly the type of student they were referring to:
The ones who are part of nearly every single premed club on campus
The ones who seem to be shadowing, volunteering, conducting research, or doing some other humanitarian work at all hours of the day
We’ve all met students like that. And while their accomplishments are impressive, comparing yourself with them can make you feel “average.” Consequently, you feel stressed out and behind. How could you compete with them? Do you even want to?
On the other hand, if you are a superstar premed student, you may be wondering whether you're optimizing your time by pursuing the right extracurricular activities. You're conducting research, shadowing a doctor, and volunteering, but are you getting enough hours of each? Are you missing anything critical?
These are incredibly important questions to ask no matter which school tier you're primarily applying to, and even more so if you're aiming for a top-10 program.
Extracurricular activities you need to participate in to get into medical school
Imagine you could know exactly where to focus your time during college to maximize your odds of getting into medical school.
If you had that information, you could spend less time on extracurricular activities you don’t love, and more on the ones you do.
Fortunately, this information is publicly available.
For years, University of Utah School of Medicine’s Admissions Recommendations page has provided their specific extracurricular requirements. Whereas they no longer list the minimum GPA or MCAT score they’ll accept—we provide a list of the average GPA and MCAT score of matriculants at every US medical school—Utah does provide the minimum number of volunteer, shadowing, and patient exposure hours you need to obtain, as well as what they look for in leadership and research activities.
In addition to listing Utah’s minimum requirements and recommendations for what it takes to be competitive, I’ve provided my recommendations for each category to help you apply to all medical schools the right way:
Description: “involvement in a service activity without constraint or guarantee of reward or compensation.”
Minimum requirement: 36+ hours within the last 4 years
To be competitive: 100+ hours within the last 4 years
My recommendation: 150+ hours within the last 4 years
Definition: “the observation of a physician as that individual cares for and treats patients and carries out the other responsibilities of a medical practice.”
Minimum requirement: 8+ hours
To be competitive: 24+ hours
My recommendation: 40-50 hours
Definition: “direct interaction with patients and hands-on involvement in the care of conscious people in a health care-related environment, attending to their health maintenance, progression, or end of life needs.”
Minimum requirement: 32+ hours
To be competitive: 48+ hours
My recommendation: 100+ hours
Definition: “a position of responsibility for others, with a purpose to guide or direct others.”
Minimum requirement: 1+ leadership experience lasting 3 months within the last 4 years
To be competitive: 3+ different leadership experiences, each lasting 3 months, within the last 4 years
My recommendation: Same as Utah
Definition: “involvement in a scholarly or scientific hypothesis investigation that is supervised by an individual with verifiable research credentials.”
Minimum requirement: “participation in hypothesis-based research,” whether as “part of a class where you answered or tested a hypothesis and received a grade”
To be competitive: “[completion of] hypothesis-based research outside of the classroom that is supervised by an individual with verifiable research credentials, [including] independent research or senior thesis.”
My recommendation: 1+ year of research in the same lab (Note: research is not required, but highly recommended if you’re looking to attend a top-40 medical school)
University of Utah used to explicitly state that applicants must meet the minimum requirement in all seven areas they evaluate (GPA, MCAT, community/volunteer service, leadership, research, physician shadowing, patient exposure), and be average or above in five of them to be considered for admissions.
And while other schools’ admissions committees haven’t revealed their specific thresholds, several staff members have confirmed to me that they basically follow the same rubric, with slightly higher or lower thresholds depending on their level of competitiveness.
Regardless, University of Utah’s requirements clearly make the point that you don’t have to be extraordinary in every single area of your admissions profile.
In fact, most of the very best applicants aren’t.
(A quick note: Strong grades and MCAT scores are the foundation of a competitive application. However, this article focuses on what to do beyond achieving high stats to set yourself apart.)
How to pursue extracurricular activities the right way
There’s a select group of premed students who accomplish major achievements, whether publishing their research in a famous journal, founding an organization that provides food and health education to needy families in their community, or launching a widely-used health care app.
These students end up getting into the very best medical schools.
Sound hard? It’s supposed to be.
Oftentimes, we look for shortcuts to achieve things that require years of hard work.
For example, we all want to publish our research in a famous journal. However, we don’t want to spend evenings or summers in lab on countless failed experiments before making a big discovery.
We also want to run an organization on our own terms, to make the type of impact we want to make, and to get the media coverage we feel we deserve. However, we’re less into the process of recruiting the right individuals to help us or building the necessary relationships and collaborations to produce large-scale changes.
Nevertheless, regardless of your goal, you have to put in the time to do something meaningful if you want to stand out.
At this point, you might be thinking that you don’t really have the time to achieve something extraordinary given your course load and extracurricular activities, as well as wanting to maintain some semblance of work-life balance.
Unfortunately, your biggest competition is pushing the envelope with their activities.
Given that all of us have 24 hours a day, how is it that some people tend to produce more in the same amount of time? Is it because they give up their social lives? Is it because they’re just so much smarter?
Not really. Rather, the most impressive medical school applicants focus on fewer things and go deeper with each one.
This is exactly what you should do to stand out.
To reiterate, University of Utah School of Medicine used to explicitly require applicants to “achieve at least the minimum level of performance in all seven areas [that they evaluate] and be average or above in five out of the seven areas in order to be eligible for further consideration.”
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably less interested in becoming “eligible for further consideration” and more so in being seen as a star applicant and getting in.
To make that happen, you have to become really good in one—maybe two—of the five areas outside of GPA and MCAT scores.
Just like our society relies on people to develop different areas of expertise, medical schools want to ensure that various specialties are represented in their student bodies.
In other words: medical schools don’t want well-rounded students; they want well-rounded student bodies, ones comprising a collection of specialists (i.e., premed superstars).
The specific area you choose to become a superstar in is entirely up to you and should depend on your genuine interests. That way, you’ll be willing to put in the effort to make it happen. Moreover, by focusing on fewer things, you’ll inevitably reduce your stress.
(Before I continue, I should highlight something very important: Many premed students feel like their “superstar area” has to be something explicitly related to medicine, such as research or patient exposure. Otherwise, if they spend more time on something like non-medical volunteering, admissions committees will question their commitment to medicine. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Many non-medical experiences can allow you to best demonstrate the qualities that will make you a fantastic doctor—patient, driven, caring—and that’s what medical school admissions committees are looking for.)
Another way to think about becoming a premed superstar is focusing on becoming “that guy” or “that girl.”
For example, when done correctly, your superstardom will help you be known to admissions committees as “the inner-city diet coach” or “the fruit fly lobotomy researcher.”
(As an added bonus, securing premed superstar status brings with it a ton of material to write a great medical school personal statement, Work/Activities section, and secondary application essays, as well as discussion points for your medical school admission interviews.)
Once you’ve chosen the area in which you want to develop your specialty, you’ll have to go beyond what most students do, one small step at a time. For example:
If you’ve chosen research, ask your PI whether they’re open to you pursuing an independent project under their mentorship.
If you’ve chosen volunteering, consider what problem you want to solve, and for whom. Then, ask your peers and local community organizations for help to make it happen.
If you’ve chosen patient exposure, brainstorm ways you can improve patients' experience while in the hospital. Perhaps you can organize a fun event for patients or greet them in a special way.
The options are endless, but the end result is often the same: Multiple acceptances to prestigious medical schools.
We often only hear about the outcomes of persistent hard work, such as the non-profit, the major publication, or the new health care curriculum.
When faced with the decision to make something similar happen, we can feel intimidated by the mountain of work required to make it happen.
However, mountains are climbed through a long series of small steps.
Being a premed superstar is no different.