June 5, 2017

How to Stand Out If You’re Totally Average: the Pre-Med Capstone Project

By: Ryan Kelly

It’s easy to feel inferior as a pre-med. You look around your classes and see people who are smarter than you, work harder than you, who have overcome unbelievable obstacles to get where they are today. And then you look at yourself and feel, well, average. Nothing interesting defines your life. You certainly haven’t overcome much in your two decades and counting on this planet. How, then, can you stand out in your medical school application given that you feel so average?

You’ve probably never heard the advice we’re about to share, and we think it’s guaranteed to elevate your application above the pack.

**Drum roll please**


A ‘capstone’ originally referred to the final stone or brick that a mason or architect would lay on a building. Over time, it took on metaphorical meaning, and people started using it to define the crowning achievement in the workplace, whether for engineers, inventors, or entrepreneurs.

Many high schools, colleges, and graduate programs have tried to emulate this idea through final projects that students must complete before earning their degree. Capstone projects encourage students to think critically, solve problems, and develop skills that will prepare them for a career and adulthood. Many capstones are interdisciplinary, in the sense that they require students to apply skills or explore issues across different subjects.


We think pre-meds should do a capstone project too. In a stack of similar applications, a significant accomplishment or distinct undertaking can set you apart and make you memorable.

But how do you create your own? We believe your ideal capstone project lies somewhere in the heart of this venn diagram:


Ask yourself,

  • What am I especially good at? What is my “superpower?”
  • Do I have access to a large group of friends? Access to funds?
  • What resources are available at my college or in my community that I could use to make an impact on my community?

These questions will help you determine what’s within the scope of possibility.


More importantly, you must determine a specific need or deficiency in your community. The best problems come from organizations where you’re already involved; that way, you can see what has already been attempted. If you don’t have any experience in the field, you’re just guessing at what you think the problems are.

Ask yourself,

  • What do I or my friends constantly complain about?
  • In what ways am I already making someone’s life better? How do I turn this into a more structured program and get others involved?
  • What’s a hot topic right now in the news that needs addressing in my community?


This is the trickiest part of the capstone project. Ideally, you will develop a unique spin on problem-solving, which utilizes your strengths and best qualities. That way, the project will hinge on your efforts and let you serve as the catalyst. This will hone your abilities and allow you to highlight your distinct traits to the admissions committees.  

The hardest part is that you have to start the process of the capstone before you can really figure out how to innovate. You have to know what’s already being done so that you can know how to put your own unique spin on it.

This idea comes from the Zen Valedictorian Principle espoused by Cal Newport. Here’s what the eminent Dr. Newport says on the subject:

“That is, identify interesting, unexpected directions toward which you can push your involvements. Take the normal course of action for someone in your situation then pump up its ambition by 50%. Next ask: if I had to make this happen, what would it really require? More often than not, you’ll realize that what once seemed hopelessly ambitious is, in reality, possible if you’re somewhat clever and, more importantly, actually follow-through.”

How to Become a Zen Valedictorian: Decreasing Your Stress Without Decreasing Your Ambition

Think this sounds time-consuming? Sure. You’re going to have to make some tough decisions about how to winnow that activity list to make time to do something impressive.

But it can be done. Again quoting Dr. Newport, “The effort required to do one thing really well (and then reap all the freebie complementary accomplishments) is less than what’s required to do two or three mildly impressive things.”

In the coming weeks, we’re going to showcase several examples and provide more inspiration for designing your own crowning achievement. Stay tuned.