Medical School Extracurricular Activities: Shadowing, Volunteering, Research, Clinical Experience and Leadership | MedSchoolCoach

Medical School Extracurricular Activities: An In-Depth Guide to Shadowing, Volunteering, Research, Clinical Experience and Leadership


Posted in: Extracurriculars

Getting through medical school and becoming a physician is demanding. But getting admitted into medical school may be even more so! It requires a lot of hard work and dedication. While academics are certainly the top priority, extracurricular activities can also be an important part of the medical school experience. We’ll explore the benefits of participating in extracurricular activities during medical school and provide some tips on how to get involved.

First and foremost, extracurricular activities can provide a much-needed break from the intensity of college coursework. They can give you an opportunity to relax and pursue your passions, whether that be through sports, music, or volunteering. Participating in extracurricular activities can also be a great way to meet new people and build relationships with your peers, which can be especially valuable during the often-isolating experience of medical school.

In addition to the personal benefits, extracurricular activities can also have a positive impact on your future career as a doctor. For example, participating in volunteer work can give you valuable experience working with underserved populations, which can be especially useful for those interested in pursuing a career in primary care or public health. Similarly, participating in research projects can give you valuable experience in conducting scientific studies and can help you develop important skills such as data analysis and critical thinking.

How many extracurricular activities do I need for medical school?

The number of extracurricular activities you need for medical school applications can vary. Some medical schools may place more emphasis on extracurricular activities, while others may place more emphasis on academics and clinical experience. In general, it’s a good idea to have a well-rounded application that demonstrates your commitment to both academics and non-academic pursuits.

That being said, the quality of your extracurricular activities is often more important than the quantity. Admissions committees are looking for applicants who have actively pursued their passions and have demonstrated leadership and commitment through their extracurricular activities. It’s better to have a few meaningful extracurricular activities that you’ve truly dedicated yourself to rather than a long list of activities that you only briefly participated in.

Ultimately, the most important thing is to be honest and genuine in your application. Don’t try to pad your application with a bunch of unnecessary extracurricular activities just for the sake of it. Instead, focus on highlighting the experiences that are truly meaningful to you and that demonstrate your potential as a future medical professional.

A good rule of thumb is as follows for minimums (of course, many students will have more!):

  • At least 3 shadowing experiences with 3 different physicians
  • At least 1 research experience
  • At least 2 volunteer experiences
  • At least 1 leadership experience

Let’s define each of these extracurriculars for your benefit:

Physician Shadowing

Physician shadowing is a valuable opportunity for pre-medical students to gain firsthand exposure to the daily work of a physician. During a shadowing experience, students have the chance to observe and assist with patient care, as well as interact with healthcare professionals and learn about different medical specialties. Shadowing can provide valuable insight into the demands and rewards of a career in medicine, as well as help students build their knowledge and skills in the field. It can also be a great way for students to make connections and gain recommendations from physicians, which can be helpful in the medical school application process. Physician shadowing can be a crucial step in the journey towards becoming a physician, helping students to confirm their interest in the field and gain the experience and knowledge they need to succeed in medical school and beyond.

Patient exposure

Patient exposure provides essential clinical insight for medical school applicants. By participating in observerships, physician shadowing, clinical rotations and research, applicants can witness firsthand the clinical experience of a physician. This firsthand experience is invaluable, providing the applicant with an understanding of the technical aspects of medicine and the critical thinking required to diagnose and treat patients. Additionally, patient exposure enables medical school applicants to better comprehend the scope of what goes into making clinical decisions. For these reasons, organized clinical experiences should be a valuable component in every medical school applicant’s plan.


As a medical school applicant, leadership activities can demonstrate to admissions boards that you have the leadership ability needed to succeed as a doctor. Through leadership activities, you can show that you have passion and dedication to causes important to the field of medicine, such as volunteering your time or organizing fundraisers for communities in need of access to healthcare. Doing leadership activities can also allow you to build relationships with healthcare professionals and observe their experiences in health systems. This provides valuable insights into how healthcare works and will prepare you well for a career in medicine. Not only will leadership activities help boost your resume, but they are also more meaningful opportunities that positively impact your life -and the lives of those around you- far beyond what’s required on standard application documents.


For medical school applicants it is vitally important to have participated in research opportunities to show schools you are an academic thinker. Possessing a background in research through internships or publications can demonstrate to admission teams that you possess the skills needed for independent research and problem solving which are highly prized qualities among prospective medical students. While research may not be required for admission, it will certainly make your application stand out from the crowd and give you an advantage as a competitive applicant.

Community/volunteer service

For medical school applicants, volunteer service is a great way to demonstrate their eagerness and commitment to medicine. Participating in volunteer activities shows admissions officers that prospective students are devoted to the greater good of their communities, and depending on how these volunteer experiences are presented, they can also provide insight into a candidate’s professional capabilities. Some medical schools may even require applicants to have volunteer hours recorded, with a minimum number set for consideration. Whether volunteer hours are a requirement or just a nice supplement to other qualifications, volunteering provides both personal fulfillment and educational benefit that all prospective medical school students should strongly consider.

An Infographic of Extracurricular Activities - A Guide for Pre-Meds

Interested in understanding what an admissions committee is looking for from its applicants when it comes to extracurricular activities? MedSchoolCoach recently held a webinar on the topic!

During a MedSchoolCoach webinar, Dr. Mehta and Dr. Marinelli, dove into the the importance of research in your extracurriculars. Read more about how to get involved with research and why it’s important below!

Dr. Mehta:  Dr. Marinelli, we have a question probably not specifically related to branding, more so the entire application and process. And just to put it simply, how important is research for medical school?

Dr. Marinelli:  Great question. I think research is something you really, really want to have. I have seen people get into medical school without research and I’ve seen people not get into medical school because they were lacking research early, so that was a big gap in their application. So, having research is definitely going to help your chances to get in, but if you absolutely cannot get research, I would still suggest applying. However, you should really prepare your application as thoroughly as possible the first time you do apply, and that should be exhausting every avenue you can possibly think of to try to get a research experience.

I get this question quite often from people that are out of undergrad because obviously if you’re not in college anymore, your research opportunities for bench research are pretty limited. So usually what I suggest to those people is to try to get that experience because it’s going to hopefully help your application. I would suggest looking into clinical research. You can look online in your area, ask around at the local hospitals or local physician offices, especially if you have a teaching hospital nearby. You should definitely talk to the teaching hospital to see if there’s any clinical research opportunities. And it may not be science research but having some research activity where you’re actually working through a hypothesis and using a thesis and using the scientific method will really help your application.

How can I find research experiences?

One of the most common questions we get at MedSchoolCoach is how to find research experiences. Here’s a quick list to help you get started:

  1. Start by reaching out to faculty members in your department or at your school. Many faculty members are involved in research projects and may be looking for students to help out.
  2. Look for research opportunities through your school’s career center or office of research. These offices often have lists of available research positions and can help connect you with potential mentors.
  3. Consider joining a research-focused student organization or club. These groups often have connections to faculty members and research opportunities, and can be a great way to get involved in research as a student.
  4. Check out online databases and job boards that list research positions. There are many websites that cater specifically to students looking for research experiences, such as the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.
  5. Don’t be afraid to reach out to researchers directly. If you have a specific area of interest, consider contacting researchers in that field to inquire about potential opportunities. It never hurts to ask!

What is the average number of publications a medical school applicant has?

MSAR actually lists school by school the amount of publications an accepted student has! Obviously, this is very variable based on the school. Many medical school applicants feel they must accumulate publications to make themselves more competitive. However, the average U.S. medical school applicant has very few publications, according to data collected by the AAMC. It is more important that applicants understand their potential impact on the field of medicine, rather than diving into publications for publications’ sake. Showing passion for a specific health care topic through well written essays and applications can often have a much greater impact on a prospective class than publications ever could.

How many hours of shadowing do I need for medical school?

While there is no specific number of hours of shadowing that you need for medical school. Shadowing is not a requirement for medical school, but it can be a valuable experience for those interested in pursuing a career in medicine. It can give you an opportunity to observe firsthand what a doctor does on a daily basis and can help you learn more about the various specialties within the field. Some applicants may choose to shadow a few different doctors for a short period of time, while others may shadow a single doctor for a more extended period. Ultimately, the most important thing is to gain a meaningful understanding of what it’s like to be a doctor and to use that experience to inform your decision about whether a career in medicine is right for you.

If you are interested in shadowing, it’s a good idea to start by reaching out to doctors in your community and asking if they would be willing to let you observe them at work. You can also check with your school’s career center or medical school advisors to see if they have any resources or connections that can help you find shadowing opportunities. International opportunities, such as Global Brigades, are a great way to get a lot of shadowing in a short amount of time, as well as leadership experience.

More Resources:

Where can a pre-med find patient exposure?

As far as medical school extracurriculars go, you may have heard that patient exposure is considered to be the most important. Schools want to see that pre-meds have partaken in clinical activities that allow patient exposure. That begs the question: where exactly can pre-meds find patient exposure? Thankfully, there are a variety of ways for pre-meds to get patient exposure. Hospitals often provide internships and volunteering opportunities, as well as shadowing programs that allow pre-meds to observe patient care practices and procedures. Many undergraduate and graduate degree programs offer courses that teach pre-meds how to interact with patients. Some clinics and research centers search for pre-meds on volunteer basis. Ultimately, there are a plethora of patient exposure opportunities for pre-med students — all one needs to do it search for them. Here are 10 places you can turn to:

  1. Hospitals or clinics: Many hospitals and clinics offer clinical experiences for pre-med students, either through formal programs or as volunteers. These experiences can provide valuable insight into the daily workings of a healthcare facility and allow students to observe and interact with patients and healthcare professionals.
  2. Private medical practices: Some private medical practices, such as primary care offices or specialty clinics, may also offer clinical experiences for pre-med students. These experiences can be a great way to learn about different aspects of patient care and gain exposure to different medical specialties.
  3. Research institutions: Research institutions, such as universities or hospitals, often have research projects that pre-med students can participate in. These projects can provide hands-on experience in the research process and may involve working with patients or collecting and analyzing data.
  4. Non-profit organizations: Many non-profit organizations, such as community health clinics or outreach programs, offer clinical experiences for pre-med students. These experiences can provide valuable exposure to underserved populations and allow students to gain experience working in resource-limited settings.
  5. Shadowing a non-physician healthcare professional: Pre-med students can also gain clinical experience by shadowing a healthcare professional, such as a PA, nurse, or therapist. Shadowing allows students to observe and assist with patient care and can provide valuable insight into the daily responsibilities of a healthcare professional, even if it’s not a physician (MD or DO) directly.
  6. Student-run clinics: Some universities have student-run clinics that offer clinical experiences for pre-med students. These clinics can provide an opportunity for students to work with patients and learn about different medical conditions and treatment options.
  7. International health experiences: Pre-med students can also gain clinical experience by participating in international health experiences, such as volunteering at a health clinic or hospital in a developing country. These experiences can provide valuable exposure to different healthcare systems and cultural perspectives on health and illness.
  8. Virtual clinical experiences: With the increasing use of technology in healthcare, pre-med students can now gain clinical experience through virtual clinical experiences. These experiences may involve interacting with patients and healthcare professionals online or observing medical procedures remotely.
  9. Emergency medical services: Pre-med students can gain clinical experience by volunteering with emergency medical services, such as an ambulance service or a first responder program. These experiences can provide exposure to emergency medicine and allow students to learn about the care of critically ill patients.
  10. Long-term care facilities: Pre-med students can also gain clinical experience by volunteering at long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes or assisted living facilities. These experiences can provide insight into the care of older patients and the challenges of managing chronic medical conditions.

What is the difference between shadowing and clinical / patient exposure experience?

Shadowing and clinical experience are both important for medical school applicants, but they are distinct activities that offer different types of experiences and benefits.

Shadowing involves observing and following a practicing physician as they go about their work. This can include observing patient consultations, surgeries, and other procedures. Shadowing allows applicants to get a sense of the day-to-day life of a physician and to observe firsthand the skills and knowledge that are required to be successful in the profession. Shadowing can also help applicants to confirm their interest in a particular medical specialty and to develop relationships with practicing physicians who can serve as mentors.

Clinical experience, on the other hand, involves actively participating in patient care. This can include tasks such as taking vital signs, administering medications, and assisting with procedures. Clinical experience allows applicants to gain hands-on exposure to the healthcare field and to develop important skills such as communication, teamwork, and professionalism. Clinical experience can also help applicants to gain a better understanding of the healthcare needs of different populations and to develop empathy and compassion.

While shadowing provides insight into the work of a physician and can help applicants to confirm their interest in a particular specialty, clinical experience allows applicants to gain hands-on experience and to develop important skills that will be essential in a medical career.

What is the best way for a pre-med to gain leadership experience?

There are many ways for a pre-med student to gain leadership experience. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Join a student organization or club: Many schools have a wide range of organizations and clubs that focus on different interests and activities. Consider getting involved in one that aligns with your passions, and work your way up to a leadership position.
  2. Take on a leadership role in a volunteer organization: Volunteering is a great way to give back to your community and can also be an excellent opportunity to gain leadership skills. Consider taking on a leadership role in a volunteer organization, such as organizing a fundraiser or leading a group of volunteers.
  3. Start your own project or initiative: If you don’t see any existing opportunities that interest you, consider starting your own project or initiative. This could be something as simple as organizing a community clean-up day or as involved as starting a non-profit organization.
  4. Participate in leadership development programs: Many schools offer leadership development programs or workshops that can help you develop your leadership skills. Consider signing up for one of these programs to get a more structured approach to leadership development.

Ultimately, the key to gaining leadership experience is to take on challenges and responsibilities that push you outside of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to take on leadership roles, even if you don’t feel completely ready – these are the experiences that will help you grow and develop as a leader and future physician.

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