Building the Right Resume for Medical School
Worried about crafting the optimal collection of extracurriculars, academic excellence, and research to showcase on your application? We've covered the basics, and included some helpful links at the end for inspiration!
How are you preparing for medical school?
Well, any marathon runner will tell you that the key to making the marathon easier is the preparation you put in beforehand. Put into context here, your pre-med years are really just the preparation before the marathon begins. But how can we shape our pre-med experiences thoughtfully, instead of simply going through the motions?
We’ve all seen those students caught in the mindset of, “I need a 4.0 GPA, a perfect MCAT score, to join every club on campus, participate in research in a professor’s lab on campus so I can become published, shadow a physician, cure the Ebola outbreak, and use my few free hours of the day to volunteer in my community.” Some of these people may also be upperclassmen trying to fit all of these things into just a year or two.
To be clear–that’s sprinting. Don’t do that.
Most pre-meds lose their concentration during their undergraduate years as they begin to focus on what they believe admissions officers want to see them do, rather than developing their character by actively following their passions and trying out extracurriculars that interest them.
Here, let’s discuss the extracurriculars that can help you stand out as a medical school applicant. The admissions board of most medical schools follow the same basic rubric in terms of evaluating extracurriculars, but we will follow the University of Utah School of Medicine specific guidelines from their admissions for evaluating an applicant’s resume.
What extracurriculars should be on my resume?
With thousands of prospective medical students applying for only a few hundred positions, most pre-meds are aware that they need to achieve a high GPA and MCAT score, yet many struggle to understand what extracurriculars will help to create an impressive resume.
Fortunately, when a medical school admissions officer reviews the resume of an applicant, he or she will be looking for you to express two important things: a passion for medicine and an affinity for helping others. Just as your grades will be an undeniably important determining factor to your medical school admission, so will the extracurriculars that allow the admissions committee to paint the portrait of the doctor you could become.
Most pre-meds consider their undergraduate years as the time to overload their lives with strenuous coursework and commitment to every club on campus, along with outside volunteer work. In their free time, they are also probably working in a laboratory conducting research.
Is it enough or is it too much? The difference between a solid list of extracurriculars and an obvious attempt to throw together as many as humanly possible is found at the core of the experiences you are choosing. The admissions officer reviewing your application will look for links and trends, in an attempt to draw a broader idea of your interests; you want to create a mental image of yourself that is cohesive. If they’re painting a picture with a whole mess of unrelated activities, their mental image of you will end up looking more like Mr. Potato Head.
The admissions officer reviewing your application will look for links and trends, in an attempt to draw a broader idea of your interests; you want to create a mental image of yourself that is cohesive.
To review extracurriculars, don’t forget that the beginning of a competitive medical school application begins with a high GPA and MCAT score. From there, the admissions committees follow similar patterns when reviewing extracurriculars. They will categorize applicants based on those that meet the minimum requirements versus the applicants that went above and beyond. For example, the University of Utah School of Medicine lists minimum requirements for various extracurriculars and many other medical schools will follow a basic rubric of extracurriculars, especially during secondary applications. That being said, remember that ‘above and beyond’ doesn’t mean having 75 unrelated club memberships.
Many pre-meds choose to work in laboratories to study the structures of diseases, uncover new medical devices, investigate connections between climate change and human health, etc. All of these examples demonstrate the committed effort of individuals striving through collaboration to reach an end goal.
Firstly, research demonstrates an applicant’s curious and scientific nature. Secondly, a background in research displays the desire of an applicant to make a difference in medicine. During medical school and as a physician, you will be expected to interpret your own research, so acquiring this skill during undergrad or later is quite beneficial. The University of Utah School of Medicine has a minimum requirement to participate in hypothesis-based research, which they define to be as part of a class where a hypothesis was developed, tested, and answered.
However, to be considered a competitive applicant, you might want to look for hypothesis-based research conducted outside of the classroom, supervised by an individual with their own research credentials. Not only could you be participating in some high-powered investigations, but you might even end up garnering your own independent research as a result.
A major dilemma that surrounds pre-meds is whether they can conduct research outside of a traditional laboratory or even outside of a scientific field considering they are pursuing a humanities degree. The answer is yes. Admissions officers are not looking for every applicant to be exactly the same. However, it is highly recommended by the top 40 medical schools to conduct research for at least a year in the same laboratory.
How do I get research experience?
When attending an undergraduate institution, there are a multitude of ways to get involved with research. The first step is to always identify what your interests are. Considering you are about to commit a lot of time and energy to it, it should be something you are passionate about. After all, we’ve all heard the saying “do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” right?.
The next step is to search for faculty members at your institution that are conducting the research you wish to participate in. From there, begin to contact multiple professors and determine whether or not it is a good fit for you and for them. Other methods of attaining research positions outside of university include working or volunteering for a researcher, hospital shadowing, medical center, research institute, private institute, community-based organization, etc. Also, completing an honors thesis in a university program allows students to conduct their own research and even present it at academic conferences. Be aware that some research opportunities are competitive and you will have to apply and potentially interview for them.
3. Service and Volunteering
The core of medical practice thrives on the notion of serving others, as doctors are constantly tending to patients who are facing their worst moments. Volunteering with medically-related organizations demonstrates this defining characteristic of healthcare. Make sure that when you are volunteering with organizations, you have tangible achievements to write on your resume to later explain on your application or in your interview. How many hours did you serve? What is a positive interaction you had that you can recall? What improved as a result of your effort?
How many volunteer hours do I actually need?
Objectively, The University of Utah School of Medicine defines a competitive applicant as someone who has completed over 100 hours of community service within the last four years. This number doesn’t exist for all schools; if they have established a threshold number of hours, it will range as well. This number is set because results are seen over substantial periods of time, rather than just attending two-week immersion trips or a few hours here and there.
Regardless of whether you are volunteering, working, or shadowing, it is important that you are observant of your surroundings and actively logging your thoughts, emotions, and personal growth. These are the moments that you will expound on in your personal statement in the future.
Considering the fact that there are millions of ways to volunteer, pre-meds are not constrained to any specific organization or cause, nor are they required to perform specific activities during their years when applying to medical school. The admissions officers will take notice of committed individuals who return to the same organizations and have made impacts through their charity work and are able to relay stories of their service work through statements and interviews.
Traditional vs. Non-Traditional pre-med paths
Nowadays, many pre-med students struggle with whether to follow the conventional route to medical school or deviate from the norm. Consider this: there are thousands upon thousands of applicants attempting to receive only a few hundred select spots. To garner an extracurricular outside of the medical or science field may present you with a valuable perspective from which to write your personal statements, interesting skills to describe in your interviews, or eye-catching achievements in your resume.
For example, a business internship can aid pre-med students in understanding finances, which play a major component in healthcare. Or, maybe you want to take some time to study abroad before applying to medical school, which allows you to interact with an entirely different culture and appreciate the diversity of life; another huge day-to-day aspect of a doctor.
Pro tip: the worst extracurricular traps that pre-meds can fall into are the ones that they believe should be on their resume. For example, the top three are usually described as lab research “technician” (working in a lab to clean beakers, do data entry, organize equipment, etc.), volunteering at a hospital without any patient interaction, or working in a healthcare setting without any physicians. If you wish to amend these situations, consider paid positions, such as CNAs, EMTs, phlebotomists, etc. that require basic certification and training in order for entry-level healthcare jobs.
5. Leadership Experience
Being a doctor requires a number of skills: communication, listening, and leadership experience. The ability to lead is a personality trait crucial to doctors, as they will also have to train new physicians and teach patients about their condition. Beyond having a position of responsibility, true leadership also means guiding other individuals with a sense of purpose, as determination and dedication is ultimately what drives healthcare. Therefore, many admissions officers broadly search for leadership positions in an applicant’s statement, interview, etc. Applicants can demonstrate leadership potential by having accepted a leadership position that becomes an asset to their community, employment, church, school organizations, etc. The University of Utah School of Medicine defines a competitive applicant as someone who has had three different leadership experiences each lasting at least three months within the last four years.
Types of Leadership Experience:
Many pre-meds choose to be tutors, teaching assistants, sports team coaches, take a year off to aid individuals abroad, etc. There are many options to choose from, as the definition of a leader is someone who has assumed responsibility to guide others and influence them positively. Take all of the previous examples. Each one involves being a mentor to someone or some group of people. As a physician, you are often in a setting teaching and informing the next generation of healthcare practitioners to come.
Let’s say you worked a part-time job during your undergraduate years and moved your way up to a supervisor/management position. Though it may seem unrelated, having a position of authority at work allows you to collaborate with a team, delegate tasks, tackle more responsibility, and be introduced to a variety of people through your office. At universities, many pre-meds join various clubs, organizations, sororities, and fraternities, and stay committed to these institutions throughout the years in order to naturally assume leadership positions as upperclassmen.
Is that everything?
Although these ideas are generally expected from a potential candidate to medical school, never feel limited when deciding what you want to do in your free time. The purpose of your extracurriculars is to stand out in a positive way when constructing your narrative and to demonstrate the core competencies throughout your involvement.
What are the core competencies again?
To refresh your memory, the core competencies are four categories divided into interpersonal, intrapersonal, thinking and reasoning, and science. Under the science competency are the two skills of living systems and human behavior. Under the thinking and reasoning competency are critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, scientific inquiry, and written communication. Under the intrapersonal competency are ethical responsibility to self and others, reliability and dependability, resilience and adaptability, and capacity for improvement. Under the interpersonal competency are service orientation, social skills, cultural competence, teamwork, and oral communication.
These are essentially the language in which the admissions committee will read your application. They will be mentally dragging and dropping your experiences into the different core competency buckets, in order to see where you excel, as well as where you may be lacking experience. While fifteen skills may seem overwhelming to master in the time period from now until you have to apply to medical school, you can begin preparing yourself to slowly acquire all of the needed experience over time, rather than all at once. Remember, you’re still just training for the marathon.
Pulling it all together: How To Write a Resume for Medical School
Just as writing the application to medical school may appear daunting, so is creating a resume to be submitted and reviewed to the admissions panel. However, view your medical admissions resume as an argument that highlights the achievements you want to showcase. When sorting out the resume itself, categorize your academic achievements, extracurriculars, work experience, etc. by relevance, rather than chronology. The bottom of a resume is best for skills you wish to include, such as speaking multiple languages or having knowledge of laboratory equipment.
When it comes to sculpting your resume, most pre-med students struggle to “cut the fluff.” In other words, less is more. Remember that medical school interviews are meant to allow you the opportunity to expand on experiences that are in your application. The questions they will ask you will aim to challenge you to go beyond what they wrote in your resume or personal statement. Stick to a maximum of four bullet points for each experience with only one line of information written to describe the activity or achievement.
One of the key ingredients when crafting your resume is to show your progress. Your progress in extracurriculars or work experiences can be bullet-pointed out as “earned promotion”, “trained X amount of people”, “increased membership by X%”, etc. Finally, as with an essay, formatting and grammar should be clear and consistent.
The most important keynote to take from building your resume is to not expect your strong suits to be in every single category. At the end of the day, medical school admissions officers understand that we are all human beings and are not meant to check every single box under the extracurriculars section, or to have a resume longer than one page. If you check over the University of Utah School of Medicine’s minimum requirements homepage for extracurricular activities, the admissions panel communicates the message that you do not have to be stellar in everything you try.
At the end of the day, medical school admissions officers understand that we are all human beings and are not meant to check every single box under the extracurriculars section, or to have a resume longer than one page.
Remember, being a doctor involves facing many more challenges than you will as a student, and the admissions officers are trying to decipher through multiple pieces of paper and an interview whether you are adept enough to handle the rigors of healthcare.
As many medical students will tell you, be yourself and follow your passions. As long as you are doing so in a thoughtful manner, you will do more for yourself by diverging slightly from the pre-med conveyor belt, without completely jumping off the tracks.
From Foster City, California, Roxana is currently majoring in Evolutionary and Ecology Biology with an Education minor at the University of California, Merced. She hopes to pursue her MD to become a surgeon while also researching hospital practices in order to further improve healthcare. In her free time, Roxana enjoys reading, writing, hiking, and hanging out with her friends at their favorite restaurants.