Volunteering, Research, Community Service: Great Ways to Get Rejected from Medical School

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By: Ryan Kelly

Do any of the following sound like you?

  • You’re volunteering every week in the hospital to get enough hours to put on your medical school application.

  • You’re pushing through your research internship even though you don’t like it much - because you know medical schools want students with research experience.

  • You’re volunteering your time at a homeless shelter or attending blood drives to get your hours above the threshold most medical schools seek in their applicants (roughly 200 hours if you’re curious).

I have bad news. This will probably get you rejected.

Don’t get me wrong: if your grades and test scores are stellar or if you grew up in poverty, then you’re probably all set with the normal list of extracurricular activities.

But if you’re like most other applicants - privileged bio majors with good enough grades and test scores - then counting hours won’t help you get into medical school.

It’s called the Laundry List Fallacy. Most pre-meds haven’t even heard of it. The Laundry List fallacy describes someone who’s simultaneously involved in, say, four extracurricular activities, who believes that a laundry list of different activities is a good thing. It’s not. It’s good to be involved, of course, but if the only purpose of the involvement is to check things off a list, then all of the hard work you’re doing won’t help you get in.

The problem with the laundry list is that each item becomes a means to an end. Rather than give your all, you just show up to do your time. You don’t give the activity respect, so you end up with an average experience.  

The other problem with the laundry list is that even if you check off every box, you end up looking like every other applicant to medical school.

What’s the alternative? The Capstone Project. The gist is to do something - one thing - so well that admissions committees can’t ignore it. The capstone will be the highlight of your application, and as long as everything else about your application is good enough, doing the Capstone will guarantee your acceptance.   

You’re probably thinking: “Sign me up!” Slow down there, Champ. No, literally. Before you can accomplish something as lofty as a Capstone Project, you need to drop some other commitments.  We must live by Cal Newport’s Zen Valedictorian rules --

  1. Underschedule

  2. Focus on depth over breadth, and

  3. Innovate.

To quote Newport:

“The Zen Valedictorian strives to be interesting, not widely accomplished. The psychology of impressiveness reveals that people are more impressed by someone who makes them ask ‘how did he do that?’ than someone who has a sizable laundry list of standard activities.”

Underscheduling means having free time, even having a life. Unless you have an extra hour or two, you won’t have the flexibility to accomplish something meaningful.

Focus means to drop activities that aren’t meaningful. The true Zen Valedictorian does one extracurricular at a time. Trouble figuring out what to drop? Ask yourself this question: “Would I still do this activity even if it had no bearing on whether I get into medical school?” If the answer is no, drop it.

Innovate means to put your own unique spin on the activities you do. But before you get there, you have to follow rules one and two.

Curious how to design your own Capstone Project? Join us in the coming weeks to learn the steps involved.