How to Spend Your Time Before Medical School

How to Spend Your Time Before Medical School

Especially when you’re planning to apply to medical school, the concept of “free time” is almost laughable. Beyond academics and standardized testing, medical schools will expect to see that you’ve devoted significant extracurricular time to three areas: patient interaction, medical research, and community service. You need to make sure you gain valuable experience in each of these ways as you consider how to spend your time before medical school.

But what about hanging out with friends, watching a movie, reading for pleasure, or even sleeping? Is there a way you can maximize this time? In addition to looking at some ideas for how to gain experience in those three significant areas, we will also discuss what to do with that precious time leftover.

Here’s a look at the best ways to spend your free time if you want to get into med school:

Patient Interactions

There is an unwritten rule that you need to show at least 100 hours of patient interaction on a medical school application. These hours should be devoted to direct patient contact rather than volunteering that doesn’t bring you in close contact with patients. You’ll be asked about your medical experiences in interviews. Your interviewers will be looking for the extent of your patient interaction, as well as your knowledge of a field within medicine and your exposure to the lifestyle and time commitment of being a doctor.

Ideas for patient interaction: Work as a scribe at a free clinic, volunteer to play with children at a local children’s hospital, or shadow a doctor in your field of interest.

Medical Research

Research universities are evaluated on the quality and frequency of their publications, so it’s important to demonstrate in your application that you have the skill set to produce academic papers from research. Research also shows your commitment to the more scientific side of becoming a doctor. This being said, research doesn’t mean that you have to sit in a lab and pipet alone. Clinical research and lab research are held in the same regard by admissions committees!

Ideas for medical research: Lab research throughout your undergraduate years, a senior thesis project with a professor, summer research at an independent lab, clinical research with a professor, or employment as a lab technician or research assistant after graduation.

Community Service

Contrary to popular belief, your community service does not have to be explicitly related to health!

This is primarily an opportunity to show leadership and commitment to serving others and helping the community around you. Choosing community service in certain areas can help shape your application focus by complimenting your values as a physician.

Ideas for community service: teaching at a local school for low income students, volunteering with immigrant support networks, advocating for public policy changes, leading student organizations to support humanitarian causes, or devoting time to environmental activism.

Remember: With all of these medically-related extracurriculars, you want to make sure that you do not simply “check the boxes”. Find activities that are intellectually engaging and personally interesting. Following your passions is key! For a more detailed look at how to take advantage of your extracurriculars, watch our presentation from a Former Admissions Officer from UCSF Med School!  

What to do with your “leftover” time

To succeed at the medical application process, you should think about your “persona”, or the theme of your application. Your drive for becoming a doctor (your personal background, your family experiences, your academic passions) should inform how you spend your free time, and, eventually, how you fill out your application. Consider what med schools look for in applicants, and think about how you are unique.

Some of the most successful applicants explore these interests in everything that they do – not just the doctor stuff!

Here are two sample student with stand-out “personas” for their applications:

Brian

  • Persona: Environmental medical researcher and public health physician.
  • Patient interaction: Volunteered as a scribe in a free clinic helping families facing the health impacts of mold in their homes. Worked closely with professional Pulmonologists and patients dealing with asthma.
  • Medical research: Student research in a toxicology lab studying plasticizers and their impact on fetal male fertility.
  • Community service: Local home remediation project. Worked to reduce toxicity in living environments in local low-income communities. Over four years, this student founded a research institute devoted to this project.  
  • Free Time: Developed homemade biofuel. Helped friends at school learn how to make their own. Loved binging on environmentalist documentaries.  

Anna

  • Persona: Women’s health rights advocate.   
  • Patient interaction: Extensive volunteering as a health worker at local STI clinic.
  • Medical research: Assist with fertility lab procedures and perform clerical work at clinic. Look at patient data, analyze HCG levels, and identify abnormalities in cycles.
  • Community service: Developed pro-queer advocacy group. Lobbied in local city. Led rallies at surrounding schools focusing on increasing community engagement.
  • Free Time: Maintaining close relationship with her single mother. Enjoys reading feminist literature.

As you can see with these examples, there is no “set” way of checking the necessary boxes for applying to medical school. The way you spend your free time – the relationships you build, the books you read, the way you drive your car – these are all part of who you are. So make sure you show that on your applications!

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