Every year on the same exciting pre-autumn morning, 4th year students compete for a slice of the AAMC’s precious bandwidth to express their deep desires to attend residency programs across the nation. One of the biggest chores leading up to this day is the preparation of the application itself. The piecemeal entering of all of your extracurricular activities, who supervised you, when they started and ended, etc. grows old quickly. However, this can be a good problem to have! How to make sure you adequately populate this section as the time comes for submission? This simple guide can help you decide what’s worthy, and how to help craft your application as the big day approaches.
One caveat before we get down to business: If your medical school program is like most, you will be afforded a windfall of time during 4th year to get involved in countless projects. At that point, you will have the knowledge of a medical school graduate and the time of “a normal person” — a devilishly powerful combination. However, it is important to keep in mind that the road ahead is long, hard, and sometimes unrelenting. It is possible to be actively involved in meaningful projects while taking advantage of the opportunity to put your feet up and relax. This 4th year oasis before the demands of intern year will serve as a much needed, rarely offered break, so make sure to take advantage of it to some degree.
So, other than putting a great test score on your application, how else can you boost your ERAS CV and really make it shine for interviews?
Have MEANINGFUL experiences and activities that you want to talk about.
Having a bunch of words and data on a resume is not impressive in and of itself. Program directors and interviewers are quick to realize what is a real, meaningful experience, and what is random fluff (those one-day experiences that were undertaken for the sole purpose of throwing them on a resume). Whereas you can let your personality shine through on your personal statement, your electronic ERAS application is a lifeless list; everything that lies therein can only be brought to life by your own passion and love for what you’ve done. It is your actual voice that can make these entries come alive and pull weight with your interviewers.
A good litmus test is this: If you can speak about an experience with earnest excitement, then go for it. Take part in said activity and place it on your application with pride. If an exciting opportunity presents itself that you are interested in and legitimately want to do, then by all means jump in head first. That two-hour health fair that you volunteered for is not going to be the difference-maker on your ERAS application. The health initiative for the underserved that you built from scratch and stayed up late designing during your surgery rotation shows dedication, proactivity, and the ability to create and to lead. Those are the activities that really shine.
If you can’t find an activity you will love, get creative and make it yourself. I personally had the extreme pleasure of building a yoga and mindfulness program with some fellow students that we shared with the children of the Newark, New Jersey public school system. Let your creativity be your only limit.
If participating in research, aim to get published.
An important skill to demonstrate is taking projects to completion. Stacks of data that you compiled because you thought that doing research “looked good” will mean very little to an interviewer. Publications do mean something. They carry actual weight and will leave an indelible mark on the scientific literature. Have something tenable to show for your hours of hard work. Find a professor/mentor who has a track record for prolific publishing and is doing research in an area you are interested in.
If your research hasn’t come to fruition yet, that's fine as long as you are working on getting it to the point of completion and can speak fervidly about it.
Get involved in projects early in medical school.
The first two years of medical school are difficult and sometimes shocking. However, they are the best time to get involved in extracurricular projects. If you start a project early on, you can contribute to it for years to come, involve fellow students in different class years, and form a community working towards a common goal. This longitudinal follow-up shows dedication and inevitably leads to more value.
As you transition into third year, keeping up with extra-curriculars can become very difficult. Schedules get tighter and more demanding. That means that devotion to a project during this time will highlight your dedication and ability to manage your time, even when busy with clinical duties, a skill that is invaluable during residency.
Take control of your residency interviews.
We've talked about the art of the medical residency interview before, but as you proceed down the interview trail, you will find that a lot of interviewing is spun back on you. What questions should you ask? How should you even prepare? You will get asked questions like, “What do you want to know about our program? What questions can I answer for you?” This is your chance to segue YOUR OWN MEANINGFUL EXPERIENCES into the conversation.
“I’ve really been exercising my leadership skills through my involvement in X; how can you foster my leadership skills here?”
“I served on the student wellness committee, and even had the honor of serving as vice-president for the past year; can you tell me about the resident wellness committee at your program?”
In closing, I ask you to put yourself into a program director’s mindset. Think about how much (or, in reality, how little) attention can be paid to every single extracurricular activity. The countless entries on the myriad applications that interviewers read means that only the most important ones will be remembered. It will be easy to see which experiences are significant, and which are trivial. Don’t do things just for the sake of doing them. Be genuine, be passionate, and get involved with the things that bring you joy. This will help sustain you through the trials that come your way on your path to practicing medicine.
Update: You can now begin uploading on September 1st. This new upload window has been created so not everyone is trying to submit on the same day. Programs can download apps starting sept 29 (not 15th).