7 Common Mistakes on the Work and Activities Section

By: Ryan Kelly

Even though it seems straightforward, the Work and Activities Section should not be taken lightly. It’s the first piece of your writing that admissions committees will read (yes, even before your personal statement), so it’s crucial to make the best possible first impression.

If you view this section as nothing more than a touched-up resume, you will likely fail to deliver the goods. There is more nuance to the Work and Activities Section than meets the eye, and as a result, there are several common mistakes that pre-meds make unknowingly.

Take some time to review our list below, so that you can avoid these typical pitfalls and set your application on a course for success!  

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Mistake #1: List every activity you’ve done, even if it was minor or a one-day event.  

Solution: List only the most important activities you’ve done. Although you are allowed a maximum of 15 spots in the work/activities section, you should aim for listing the best experiences. Most applicants list eight.

Mistake #2 - Write 700 characters of description for every activity you list.

Solution: Use the full 700 characters only for the activities that have mattered most.

Admissions officers read quickly to get the gist of what has been most important to you. If you spend 700 characters of description on every activity - on both your weekend-long volunteer experience at a health clinic AND the four years you spent on the varsity crew team - the admissions officer will have a hard time discerning which was more important. Obviously, the varsity crew team has made a dramatic impact on your life; the one weekend spent volunteering did not. Help the reader help you by spending 700 characters only on the experiences that merit them. For less important activities, limit yourself to half the available space (~350 characters).

Mistake #3 - Neglect the importance of the most meaningful essays.

Solution: In addition to the 700 characters of description, you get to choose three of your activities as “most meaningful.” Doing so will allow you an additional 1325 characters (about two paragraphs) to describe the activity’s transformative impact on you. Many students treat these essays as mere extensions of the description section, but they’re separate essays! Plan them, write them, and revise them as you would your personal statement.

Mistake #4 - Never repeat an activity from the personal statement in a most meaningful essay.

Solution: Always consider the activity’s meaning and impact first. If the activity was truly one of the most meaningful to you, then you should definitely write about it as such, even if it already appears in your personal statement. The key is making sure to discuss the activity in a new way. Include a different anecdote or example from the activity, and provide a disparate and unique insight/skill you gained from it. Reusing activities will only feel redundant if you also reuse their lessons.

Mistake #5 - Always directly connect your most meaningful activities to medicine.  

Solution: Only bridge the activity to your future in medicine if it feels like a natural connection (such as clinical volunteering). Don’t force it by comparing your job at the campus bookstore or leadership as surf team captain to the complex roles of a doctor. Hopefully, your story or example from the activity will SHOW some of these doctorly qualities you possess. If you do choose to provide a lesson towards the end of the essay, it’s best to make it apply to your overall personal development. When you do this correctly, the reader will be able to implicitly see the connections to medicine.   

Mistake #6 - Worry that medical schools will contact your people.

Solution: Take a second to chill and think about it. When buried under a big pile of applications, the admissions committees are unlikely to pause their progress to chat with your mentors and supervisors on the phone. We’ve worked with hundreds of pre-meds, and - to the best of our knowledge - this has never happened to any of them. You should do your best to present the most updated contact information, but you shouldn’t spend time fretting if a certain phone number or email address is slightly inaccurate. Sometimes you won’t be able to dig something up or be totally precise, but it’s not a huge deal. Admissions committees will only contact your superiors if you make outrageous or exaggerated claims in your writing; so you’ll be fine as long as you avoid outlandish grandstanding.       

Mistake #7 - Fail to grasp the bigger picture of your application

Solution: Don’t get so caught up in each individual essay that you lose sight of your application’s overall message to the readers. Rather than worry that each essay and activity should show a different side of your personality, focus on conveying your two or three biggest strengths in all of the essays you write: your personal statement, the most meaningful essays, and the secondary essays. If you do that (and your letter of recommendation writers back up those strengths), your application will be consistent and more memorable than someone who’s trying to be everything to everyone. By tying each activity back to the bigger picture, your application will be more effective!