Research? Volunteering? …What am I supposed to do outside of class?

Kate wrote a great post about how to get involved in research (which can be found on this blog page), but why should we do research in the first place? Sure it’s an extracurricular activity – but so is swimming, tutoring, or starting a knitting club. Thinking about research brings up the larger, more relevant question of What am I supposed to do outside of class?

Our most intuitive answer to this question would be something along the lines of “Whatever I need to do to be a well-rounded (whatever that means?) medical/graduate school applicant.” As a premedical student myself, I understand that we all know it takes more than just good grades to be successful post-undergrad. But I strongly believe we are thinking about the extracurricular question in the wrong way. First, let’s break down some myths about extracurriculars and medical school specifically. 

  • Research is required for medical school 

There is some truth to this, in that medical schools want to see involvement in the research process, as research develops key skills in problem solving, time management, independence, etc. But who said it has to be basic science research involving some sort of cell line or organic molecule? There are many fields of academia including social work, humanities, public policy and many others which all ask important research questions that are very relevant to the practice of medicine. No matter what field you are in, you will still analyze hard problems, figure out solutions, develop independence, and all of the other traits we classically associate with basic science research. Your ability to explain how you developed and applied these traits is what medical schools care about. Even if you did basic science research in a cancer biology lab for three years, but you couldn’t convincingly write or explain your growth in these areas, you’re not going to make a large impact on the person reading your essay or your interviewer. You will commonly get the advice to seek out research faculty that work on things you are interested in – but this is true for all faculty – science or non-science! There are many professors doing great work in education, social work, political science, etc. that you could get involved with and even publish with. I would know, as I am currently doing my Honors thesis with a Baylor education faculty member on the topic of mental health and emotional intelligence in elementary schoolers.

  • I need to meet a certain number of volunteering and shadowing hours

While there are averages you can find online about number of volunteering, shadowing, and research hours applicants had, it is very important to understand that these are just averages that reflect all sorts of different people. Even if you spent 100 hours volunteering at a soup kitchen, but you can’t explain what you got out of it, how you impacted your community, or why the experience will help you become a physician, the experience was probably not meaningful. There is not a secret number of service hours you have to hit in order to be successful. When you find an activity you want to do, the hours will follow. Interviewers, professors, and even your peers can tell if what you did actually meant something to you. I can’t emphasize this enough – if you asked me what I thought all the best premeds/undergraduate students had in common, I would say that they are doing meaningful things they genuinely want to be doing. That’s really all it is.

  • I have to start my own club, serve on three executive boards, and participate in 10 other activities. 

This is obviously an exaggeration, but I think many premeds look at extracurriculars this way because we can mistakenly lump together the college and professional school admissions process. It may be true that colleges wanted you to be involved in a million different things, but this really isn’t the case for medical school. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given is when a friend who had just applied to medical school told me that you only get to categorize 3 of your experiences as being “most meaningful.” Just 3 experiences. She told me to think about what I would want my 3 experiences to be, as these would be the foundational pillars of the entire non-academic application. This is actually a relieving thing. You don’t have to do a bunch of things you didn’t even want to do in the first place. Just stick with the 3-4 main activities you get the most fulfillment from, and you will be in a much better place.

The takeaway message here is that there is not one magical combination of extracurricular activates that will get you into medical, dental, or graduate school. Look for activities that really do mean something to you because when you write your personal statement, secondary essay, or speak in an interview, you have to convince a complete stranger that you got something out of all the activities you did in college. As I mentioned earlier, a few quality activities are a lot better than many activities that you mostly aren’t passionate about. So should you do research?

My answer would be to first try any research that you are interested and can get involved in – whether that’s basic science or otherwise. Once you have tried research, are passionate about the field of research you are in, and would be willing to designate it on AMCAS as one of your three most meaningful activities – then I would say of course, do some research! But if you think you can’t convince a stranger that your research is important to you, and most importantly, if there are other meaningful activities you would rather be doing, then I would say do yourself a favor and go do those other things.

There are plenty of people who have gotten into great medical schools without ever being in a basic science research lab. Medicine isn’t just about finding new cures or pioneering new procedures – it’s also about improving people’s livelihoods and helping communities thrive. Extracurriculars can be such a great way to experience new things and grow as a person, but if you restrict yourself by thinking there are only a few possible things to do outside of class, you’re restricting yourself from making the most of your education.





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