By: Ryan Kelly
Imagine you’ve worked hard for months on your AMCAS application, and you’re showing it to your pre-health advisor for the first time.
“What is this?!” he asks, pointing an accusatory finger at your work and activities section. “Bullet points? You used bullet points? Completely unprofessional! You need to rewrite these pronto, or you’ll never get into medical school.”
You go home and immediately rewrite them in complete sentences and full paragraphs. At first it seems to make your entries worse, but then you decide you like them better. Right? Yes, you’re sure, they’re much better this way!
“What’s up with all this text?” your physician mentor asks. She’s also looking at your AMCAS for the first time. “These descriptions are so dense. No one is going to read every word. Have you thought about using bullet points?”
This is right around the time when your head explodes.
Every year, we hear these kinds of stories from our pre-med students. So-and-so said this is good, but so-and-so said it’s bad. What should I do?
Can You Use Bullet Points in Your Activity Descriptions?
Seems like a simple question that should have a simple answer.
But it turns out that it’s a pretty contentious debate, with strong opinions on both sides. There are some advice columns out there that will tell you to avoid bullets, and other forums that tell you bullets are best for certain activities, but here’s the good news:
You can do whatever you want. Truly. Bullets or sentences--it’s totally your call based on what’s more comfortable for you.
For reference, take a look at an example of each format and see what you think:
Work and Activities Description Example (Bullet Format)
St. Augustine Orphanage, Tijuana, Mexico
Planned, fundraised, and led a volunteer service trip to impoverished communities in Mexico
Coordinated and managed a team of 20 volunteers and faculty
Executed simple, precise interventions to spread change across a population
Improved communication and bedside manner while engaging locals about their health problems and barriers to care
Lived alongside children in multiple orphanages in Tijuana and poorer rural areas
Brought clothes and supplies and provided hygiene demos for the children
Gained insight into disparities and social determinants of health in underserved populations
Wrote detailed protocol and reflection exercises for future leaders to use on their trips
Bullet points take up fewer characters and can let you fit in more information. In general, they also let someone more easily glean the gist of the experiences at first glance, which can be nice for busy people with many apps to read through. There’s a camp of admissions officers that don’t want you to pontificate in the activities, and bullets can help avoid that problem.
Work and Activities Description Example (Sentence Format)
St. Augustine Orphanage, Tijuana, Mexico
As outreach coordinator, I fundraised and led a service trip to impoverished communities in Mexico. In this role, I managed a team of 20 volunteers and faculty to execute interventions and spread change across a population. As part of this experience, we lived alongside children in multiple orphanages in Tijuana while donating supplies and providing hygiene demos. I improved my communication and bedside manner while engaging locals about their health problems and barriers. During this time, I gained insight into disparities and social determinants of health for the underserved. After the trip, I wrote a detailed protocol and reflection exercises for future leaders to use on their trips.
Sentences can sometimes be better for communicating complex ideas and emotional sentiments, and they don’t put as much pressure on you in terms of formatting. Since we often think of paragraphs as a unit, writing in sentences might make it easier for you to keep things organized and flowing well. There’s a camp of admissions officers who want to hear qualitative aspects of the experience, and sentences make that easier.
What should you include in your work and activities descriptions?
Regardless of which format you choose, here’s what you’ll generally want to include in your 700 characters of activity description:
*One sentence/bullet to describe the activity if it’s not clear from the “Experience Name” you entered in the AMCAS
*One sentence/bullet to explain your primary role and its duties/responsibilities
*One sentence to show your “trackable progress” within the activity (see below for details)
*One sentence/bullet to highlight your most noteworthy accomplishments or contributions
*One sentence/bullet to cover any key exposure(s) the activity gave you
*One sentence/bullet to sum up the major takeaways, new skills, and lessons you gained
There is no precise order you need to follow, but try to stay consistent across your activities and make sure your formatting/order is as paralleled as possible each time.
If you end your bullets with periods, do it every time! If you capitalize titles and job positions, do it every time! If you end your description with a lesson or takeaway, do it every time! Okay, we think you get the point.
This consistency is KEY. Being consistent helps alleviate the hostility readers might feel towards the bullets or sentences approach; you can’t control their pet peeves or idiosyncrasies, but you can still make the material as organized, clean, and well thought-out as possible.
Click here to read more advice on formatting your work and activities section.
Can you use bullets and sentences interchangeably?
Some forums and advice columns will say this approach is okay, and that it depends on the type of activity. In general, the popular opinion seems to be that bullets are good for shadowing experiences or “entry-level” clinical volunteering roles, whereas more complicated leadership or extracurricular experiences would benefit from sentences.
Our advice: if possible, avoid this flip-flopping inside your work and activities section. It’s probably not going to make or break you, but it can be jarring for an admissions reader to suddenly see a shift in formatting and style. Worst case scenario, your inconsistency will be interpreted as careless or unprofessional.
And DEFINITELY don’t mix both styles within the same activity description. We’re not sure we’ve ever seen that; you don’t want to stick out for the wrong reasons.
Click here to read some common mistakes people make in the work and activities section.
This whole “Bullets vs. Sentences” debate is similar to people arguing about whether they should use the Oxford comma, or whether they should put one or two spaces after a period. These considerations are microscopic in scope, but they still matter to people.
You’re not going to be able to predict where an admissions officer lies on this spectrum, and as the old saying goes, “you can’t please everybody.”
Write your activity descriptions in a way that feels comfortable to you, and make sure things are palatably consistent, and you’ll be in good shape.
Best of luck with the rest of your many micro-considerations!