Do International Electives Look Good to Medical Schools?

We get questions centered around international electives a lot. Whether it is a few weeks in India, Guatemala or Peru, international trips and electives can have a powerful impact on your medical school application. However, it’s not always a cut and dry situation. You should think carefully about what impact it will have, is it worth the cost of attending the program, and also how the trip may play into the rest of your application.

Can an international trip hurt my application and chances at medical school?

The worst thing that can happen is that an international elective becomes a negative on your application. You may be wondering how that can be, but it certainly has the potential to. Think about the applicant who grows up in rich town, attends an Ivy League school and suddenly decides his application doesn’t feature enough “volunteer” work. So he/she pays a few thousand dollars to go on a 1 week “medical tourism trip”. He/she has never done any other volunteering, never shown an interest in helping the underprivileged and instead is hoping this trip will make up for the lack of compassion shown thus far. Well, it will not. In fact, it may make things worst. Medical school admissions committees can see through the clutter of an application and if your experience is genuine or just an application filler.

How can I use the experience to my advantage?

Now the above may seem negative, but it’s just a warning. In reality, international trips can be spectacular learning experiences when it comes to medicine and life in general. Our recommendations are to do the following:

  • Look for a trip that you don’t have to pay an application fee to go on. If you can find something where you are genuinely giving back your time and have to pay for tickets, hotels etc that is one thing. But, if on top of that, the program also wants you to pay $3,000 in “program expenses” than the program is probably a for-profit player and maybe doesn’t align perfectly with your goals
  • Spend at least 2 weeks, preferably 4+. Spending a decent amount of time shows medical schools that this wasn’t just a short term resume filler, rather something you were truly interested in
  • Continue the experience once you get home. Abroad, you may have seen incredible pathology, very sick patients and poor infrastructure. But if you come back to your dorm room and do nothing more about it than your experience didn’t mean much. Instead, utilize your time and effort to give back, lead a program, raise money, etc for the places you may have gone.