By: Ryan Kelly
200+ hours of clinical volunteering and shadowing - Check!
200+ hours of service - Check!
At least six months of research - Check!
Elected leadership position - Check!
Do you check off all the typical pre-med boxes? That’s great - they will help ensure that you’re viewed as qualified by the admissions committees.
But they might make you feel a bit pigeonholed. Boxed in. Generic. If all pre-meds clamor for the same kinds of activities, then how can you maintain your individuality?
As a former teacher, I often used this cartoon to teach visual rhetoric. It’s a bit reductive, but it makes a good point. Those boxy graduates on the conveyor belt have allowed themselves to be molded by the system. What do medical schools want to see? What are the requirements for these programs and how can I go above and beyond them? What would seem to be impressive to an admissions committee?
These are important considerations, but they lead to a mob mentality and dangerous malleability. Many pre-meds do whatever they’re told will get them into medical school, regardless of whether it excites them or suits their personalities. Everything becomes a means to an end. As a result, they are left with no interesting trends in their experiences and nothing that makes them stand out.
Pre-meds have a dilemma - they need to be both qualified and distinct as a candidate, but those two things can feel contradictory, or at least mutually exclusive. How can you be both at the same time? How can you avoid the “boxy” fate of so many pre-meds?
Checking the boxes isn’t like window shopping. It’s not easy. Many positions and experiences will be highly coveted, so I can empathize with the struggle to secure activities you want. You might take whatever you can get and say that “beggars can’t be choosers.”
But I also know it’s possible to find personally relevant experiences. Each year, I see plenty of pre-meds with noticeable trends in their interests and endeavors. And it’s so refreshing to see.
I think the key step is narrowing your scope to something that interests you. A standard hospital internship will give you valuable, broad exposure, but it will be saturated with other aimless pre-meds looking for a glimpse into the career. But if you seek out something specific, like volunteering in a psychiatric unit for veterans with PTSD, your chances of finding openings might actually increase. Plus, within this niche, you’ll have a greater chance of being noticed and networking with people.
In this case, you’ll be checking off a box in a personally meaningful and memorable way. Hopefully it will “trend” with other experiences in your list, like a needle exchange, homeless veteran shelter, or research about PTSD.
You should approach every pre-med box in this way. Not a huge fan of working in a lab? Try to find a field research position in a Third World country or clinical research that involves patient screening and recruitment. Not into the TA thing? Then opt for less conventional teaching and mentorship roles, like coaching a youth Quiz Bowl Team.
Need some more help thinking outside the box? 6 Ways to Level Up Your Medical School Application
Like noticeable trends, your “X-factor” is a way to create a brain-worm in the minds of the admissions committee. Some association in their minds that lets them easily recall you and your application.
A pre-med student recently shared this story with me: after getting into medical school, she met a person on her admissions committee, and when the committee member heard the student’s name, she said, "Oh yes, you're the pilot." This student happened to have her pilot’s license - although totally unrelated to medicine, it’s the thing she remembered most.
As someone who constantly reads application essays, I can confirm this phenomenon. I use this same kind of recall technique every day when considering different students in my mind. If you can create certain associations that stick with the reader, even weeks or months after reading, then you’ve done your job.
Not everyone is a pilot, though, so what counts an X-factor?
Some X-factors, like a pilot’s license, are more obvious. But something like jury duty, your barista job at Starbucks, or your summer spent running your parents’ mattress company can also be the brain-worms that keep you in the minds of the admissions committees.
You have 15 activities available in your AMCAS. Many will already be dedicated to showing you as qualified, but a few entries should focus solely on showing you as distinct.
Need some more ideas or examples? 10 Unique Activities That Got People Into Medical School
The ideal situation for a pre-med is to have some non-medical skill, passion, or involvement that supplements their abilities as a future doctor, or at least allows them to contribute within their healthcare roles.
For example, let’s say you’re really into making videos and art on your social media platforms. Seems like no big deal, or even frivolous, when viewed in isolation. But what if that interest could help you secure a hospital volunteering position as a media specialist? Or maybe you start a pre-med art class at your school, or organize a fashion show to raise money for a children's hospital. By relating your passions to the medical field, you’ll have more fun and your extracurriculars will enhance your app in a more interesting way.
This could also replace your X-factor if you don't have one. The goal is to work around the pre-med boxes, rather than working exclusively from within. You need to satisfy certain prerequisites for this career, but you don’t have to sacrifice what makes you unique.
So let’s re-configure that checklist a bit, shall we?
Clear trends and passions throughout your experiences - Check!
Something readers will remember - Check!
Supplemental skills that make you diverse - Check!
Ah, I love checking off boxes...