Writing Your Activities Section for Medical School Applications

By Elizabeth LaScala, MD, PhD

Whether you are completing the Activities Section of the AMCAS, AACOMAS, or TMDSAS application, this portion of the primary medical school application deserves its own highlight. I highly encourage applicants to write their activities with excitement, passion, personal touches, and insight into how each experience relates to their desire to practice medicine. Many of these tips can be applied to all writing, including the personal statement, the activities, and the most meaningful activities essays. Here are some things to consider when selecting your activities and generally avoid in your writing.

  1. Expecting one activity to compensate for a deficiency in another area
    If you have committed 3000 hours to research, that’s awesome, and you should be proud. But do not lean on this experience to compensate for having nothing to show for shadowing physicians or having clinical experience. Many schools require or recommend (which you should interpret as require) physician shadowing, medical volunteering, community volunteering, and research. You can refer to the Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) profiles of each school to see the typical array of matriculant experiences. For example, in 2023 you can see that for Case Western, 89% of matriculants had done non-medical community service, 94% had shadowed in the clinic, 88% had done medical community service, and 96% had research experience. Make sure you are strong in all areas so that there are minimal weaknesses that detract from your other outstanding accomplishments.
  2. Writing about outdated experiences, particularly in shadowing and research
    If you volunteered in a hospital during high school or shadowed a doctor during the winter break of your freshman year in college, these examples do not count as strong backgrounds in pre-medical activities. As mentioned in “Expecting one activity to compensate for a deficiency in another area,” several experiences are important to include in your application. You should have longevity and depth in each of these activities and many, if not all, should be ongoing or very recent.
  3. Describing the nature of your activities while omitting personal experiences
    I often see activity descriptions that describe what an applicant did in a role but omit what they learned about themselves or medicine. For example, if you volunteered at the front desk at a hospital, do not say this: “I worked five hours a week after school at Tufts Medical Center as a front-desk volunteer. I answered the phones, escorted visitors, stocked supply closets, cleaned gurneys, organized files, and answered questions. I was able to help visitors, doctors, nurses, and patients with various tasks around the hospital.” Instead, say, “While volunteering, my responsibilities included managing the front desk, discharging patients, updating families, cleaning rooms, and assisting nurses. By working closely with patients and loved ones during difficult moments in their lives, I further developed my patience and compassion, which are vital qualities in a physician. While my shadowing opportunities exposed me to the clinician’s perspective, my volunteer role showed me the more intimate aspects of a patient’s lived experience. I learned how important small gestures can be to shape a meaningful connection with a patient, from sitting beside them until the doctor arrives to bringing a blanket to a patient in the waiting room.”

    Elaborate on what the experience meant to you, how you grew in your position, and how it informed the type of medical student and doctor you aspire to become. I recommend a three-sentence scaffold to get started. 1) Describe your responsibilities or the setting, 2) write about what you learned, and 3) write about how this experience will guide your medical education or career. This structure cannot be applied to all experiences, but it can help initiate insightful thoughts about what to write.

  4. Minimizing your achievements by condensing your activities
    Now is the time to brag and show off everything you have done to prepare for medical school. If you were an undergraduate researcher who co-authored a paper and gave a presentation, you already have three activities. Highlight your conferences and presentations, publications, and research in three sections. Do not omit any details or accomplishments. If you volunteered and got a service award, add that award to a different section. Finally, if you commit time to a hobby, like hiking, pottery, or martial arts, write about it in an activity! Take the time to fully express who you are, and you will stand out among many thousands of qualified applicants.


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