Running in charity 5Ks. Traveling around the globe. Playing the piano.
These might sound like great hobbies to include in your medical school application, but the truth is that every pre-med does them. They’re fine. Average. They won’t hurt you, but they’ll do little to help you stand out.
These hobbies have become cliche, leaving admissions committees feeling underwhelmed.
So which hobbies should you include on your work/activities section and which should you omit? Before we talk about which to include, let’s first address the question of whether to include hobbies at all.
Some pre-meds seem to think that hobbies shouldn’t matter, that admissions committees don’t care what they do in their free time. There’s some truth to this logic: hobbies won’t make or break your med school application, and no matter how interesting your hobbies are, they won’t help you overcome a low science GPA.
But medicine needs doctors who know how to relieve stress, and hobbies are one way to do that. Including hobbies on your application tells admissions committees that you’re (at least a little) normal, that not EVERYTHING in your life revolves around being pre-med.
Hobbies also humanize you. They can help you bond with your admissions reader or interviewer.
We recommend using one work/activity entry to list all of your hobbies. Lump them all together, and describe each with one sentence in the description. This means you’ll need to pick your favorite 2-3 hobbies, so choose wisely. As with any work/activities entry, you’ll be asked to list the total hours. How can you quantify all of the time you’ve spent playing piano for the past 16 years? It’s a little ridiculous, but you should list the total time and list the start date of the activity, even if that was when you were four.
Now that we’ve addressed the Whether and the How of writing about hobbies on the medical school application, let’s talk about the Which. Which activities should you include and which should you omit?
Pre-meds tend to be health conscious due to their interest in the body and desire to “practice what they preach” as future care providers. Exercise is vital for successful pre-meds, but not all exercise is created equal when it comes to standing out.
Running, weightlifting, yoga, and intramural sports are probably the most common. However, these can always be made more interesting through a little variety. For example, you could run in a Tough Mudder race, experiment with aerial or karaoke yoga, or play some unusual intramural sport like croquet or curling (yes, those exist).
Some of the most unusual athletic activities I’ve seen include:
*Competing in a community boxing league
*Playing for a national handball team in Ghana
*Serving as a female coxswain on a men’s rowing team
*Auditioning for American Ninja Warrior
You don’t need something this extraordinary, but if your athletic hobby falls into a common category, you may want to try and spice things up a bit.
Verdict: include it, but don’t bank on it to help you stand out.
Traveling is great. It expands your worldview and exposes you to new experiences and cultures.
But many other pre-meds will have travel experiences to discuss, whether for medical mission trips or merely for pleasure. So it’s not usually something that will jump off the page.
Most of the time, the recreational travel includes tropical places like Hawaii or the Bahamas, or the proverbial backpack trip through Europe. It’s often terribly unoriginal and reeks of privilege, and it can even backfire against a candidate if presented the wrong way.
Again, there are ways to make your travel experiences more unique. Maybe you take a personalized road trip to visit the hometowns of your parents and grandparents. Maybe you visit wilderness sanctuaries with endangered animals. Maybe you visit some remote, obscure destination like Isle Royale or Bumpass Hell.
Some of the most unusual traveling activities I’ve seen include:
*A road trip through the deep South to write a travel article about the Underground Railroad
*A silent, meditative retreat with Buddhist monks
*An ongoing life mission to visit every Major League Baseball stadium
Verdict: include it only if your experience is truly unusual or you have nothing more interesting to talk about (see below).
Learning an instrument is a challenging and enriching endeavor that shows dedication and commitment. The problem is that playing an instrument, particularly something classical like piano or violin, has almost become a stereotype for pre-meds (a.k.a. the overachievers whose parents have forced them to stuff their resumes from birth).
I think this hobby is most egregious when it’s clear that the candidates haven’t really dedicated much time to the instrument recently. This becomes evident when the accolades are primarily from high school competitions and concertos. The admissions committees are pretty savvy, so they’ll be able to tell if you’re dredging up something from the past just to look “impressive.”
Music can still be a crucial component in your application, but it’s better if you can find a way to make it distinct. Here are some of the most unusual musical activities I’ve seen:
*Playing live music for nursing homes and hospice patients
*Marching and playing tuba in college band
*Banging a drum kit on top of a moving parade float
*Composing a song for your college graduation ceremony
Verdict: include it if you’ve continued to play in college. Otherwise, probably omit.
Another cliche hobby is anything under the umbrella of cooking, baking, or trying new restaurants. This is a bit like exercise - it’s important, it’s enriching, but it basically comes standard for every health-conscious candidate. If you like healthy cooking, do your best to personalize the description through recent attempted recipes or specialty dishes.
Verdict: include it only if you have nothing more interesting to talk about (see below)
This list is totally unfair. There are perfectly normal people who enjoy the activities below, many of whom go on to become doctors. But these hobbies are the ones that could make people question whether you have the perspective and temperament to be a physician.
For those who don’t know, cosplay is a “performance art” in which participants wear self-made costumes and fashion accessories to represent specific fictional characters. This could mean attending occasional events like Comic-Con or treating every single day like Halloween. If you want to dress up like Pokemon or Marvel superheroes, keep that under wraps in your medical school application. To most readers, it might seem childish or a bit out of touch with reality.
This trend is a relatively new one. These books aim to provide a combination of nostalgia and therapeutic relaxation. But that’s a pretty generous description. Basically, it’s a fine way to relax while you’re on a plane or watching TV, but it hardly counts as a legitimate hobby.
Nerds! Just kidding. I love D&D. But just like cosplay, this activity carries a certain stigma and stereotype. To some readers, it could make you seem maladjusted and socially awkward, or at least someone with WAY too much time to kill on roleplaying campaigns.
No! Stop right there! The only things you should be “binging” are sleep and self-affirmation.
If you’re only able to afford your hobby because of your wealthy parents or relatives, then it’s probably not smart to highlight it in your medical school application. Certain activities can paint you as privileged or spoiled if you’re not careful in how you present them.
Over the years, I have worked with some artistic pre-meds. One was a child actress who later modeled in commercials during college. There was a medical illustrator who produced sketchings and drawings for textbooks. There was also a campus DJ who spun his turntables at community events. There were sculptors, food critics, and art historians.
But these types are few and far between.
Pre-meds are busy people, and their scientific and academic pursuits can often consume their lives. Arts and entertainment can seem like diversions, but they’re interesting hobbies for a few important reasons: 1.) they’re unusual and stand out, 2.) they show a well-roundedness and your ability to utilize a largely untapped part of the pre-med brain, and 3.) they show your relatability and accessibility to a wider range of people.
Try to embrace the arts, even if you don’t think you have a creative bone in your body. Your months of hard work at the pottery wheel or botched open mic performances will still communicate your desire to expand your perspective and try new things.
You might be thinking of burly men in wood sheds using power tools, but in this case “craftsmanship” can refer to anything that involves you making something from scratch.
I recall one pre-med who refurbished a non-functioning Harley Davidson motorcycle. One crocheted stuffed animals for newborns in the NICU. Another collaborated with hip-hop artists to produce albums through music editing software. A few have worked on documentary films, designed iPhone games, written and directed one-act plays, and competed in drone races as part of a robotics team.
Why is this attractive to admissions committees? It shows a lot of follow through to complete a project from scratch and make something tangible with your own two hands. Almost all of these endeavors involve trial and error, adaptation, problem solving, and a willingness to fail.
Plus, most of these will result in some kind of evidence that you can share in your application, whether it’s a portfolio, a YouTube link, an Etsy page, or a publication. It’s always good if your hobbies amount to something more than words on a page.
Interesting Hobby #3 - Performance and Public Speaking
These hobbies might strike fear into the hearts of pre-meds, but that’s kind of the point. Choosing a hobby in this category carries a certain degree of risk, since you’ll be regularly in the spotlight and subject to people’s scrutiny.
For example, one former candidate was a standup comedian who had started an improv comedy class at his school. Another was a slam poet who used this medium to decrease the taboos surrounding mental health. There was a candidate who regularly returned to his high school to give talks to the athletic teams and graduating classes.
These hobbies are attractive to admissions committees because they show confidence, healthy risk-taking, social skills, effective rhetoric and communication, and an ability to connect with one’s audience.
Hobbies like this carry the added bonus of honing skills you’ll need for interviewing, collaborating with colleagues, and forming relationships with patients.
Yes! I once had a student write about her interests in knitting, crocheting, costume-making, running, and riflery (a weird combination, I know). If you put too many hobbies on your medical school application, it will look like you have a little TOO much fun, especially if there are already any questions about your commitment to the field or your performance in the classroom.
So keep it to one spot on your Work/Activities section and save any further discussions of the activities for your secondaries and interviews.