The Activities Section: The Side Dishes That Make Your AMCAS Application Delicious

It’s springtime, and here that means barbecues on the deck – grilling meat, specifically, if you’re one of a certain group of friends who invited me over for a recent Stanley Cup game. Gracious as my hosts were, I felt a bit daunted by the huge piece of steak that filled my plate, accompanied by a small scoop of potato salad grabbed at the grocery store as an afterthought. Unlike my friends, I don’t think ketchup is a side dish.

Your AMCAS application is a bit like a plate at a barbecue. A lot of attention is given to the “meat” of your application – the personal statement – but it’s what you write about in the activities section that adds flavor and variety to your profile. Here’s a recipe for delicious post-secondary descriptions:
1. Use these descriptions to connect with the admissions committee. You started this process in your personal statement by showing a side of yourself beyond the CV. Do that here as well. Avoid the bland job-descriptions-in-bullet-points approach – for one thing, bullet point formats are lost in the application’s text box, and you’ll end up with a jumbled block of partial sentences. For another, you can use this as another way to humanize yourself, and the best way to do that is to express yourself like a real person. Treat these like mini-essays that fill in empty spots on your plate.
2. Select your experiences wisely. You might have more than 15 impressive activities, and you almost surely have more than three meaningful experiences. Include those that required your most active participation. Demonstrations of leadership, teamwork, and clinical exposure are always important. And avoid reusing activities you have written about in your personal statement as your meaningful experiences. Reveal the breadth of your experience.
3. Introduce the organization. If you worked for a well-known group like the Red Cross, this can be very brief. Otherwise, succinctly share the purpose of the organization. For instance, “Friends for Life is a national mentoring organization for disadvantaged youth; our campus branch tutored 4th and 5th graders in the Boston area.” If your experience is in a lab, explain in layman’s terms the research goal.
4. Describe your responsibilities. This is the heart of your experience, so be specific about what you did – and the impact you had. This might be your role as a team member in a lab: “I used PCRs, Western blots, SDS-gels, plasmid DNA and total RNA purification methods in experiments to express and purify genes for use in hemorrhagic shock experiments; my analysis was used in experiments intended to improve organ preservation.” Or it might be your leadership of a student group: “I recruited a 12-member working group that investigated safety concerns; our report to college officials resulted in increased patrols and dorm escorts that reduced on-campus crime by 20%.” Whatever it is, go beyond the superficial job description and use this space to identify your strengths and accomplishments.
5. Identify how this experience will help you as a physician. Don’t ask the Admissions Committee to connect the dots for you. Whether improving your retention through teaching MCAT courses, communicating with a diverse group of people as a food bank volunteer, or learning the art of compromise as you negotiated with university administrators, your last sentence should make the connection between that experience and your medical studies and/or career.
6. Tell us why you chose your meaningful activities. Your three meaningful activities should expand on these points above, but they also need to tell us why each one matters to you. This is a chance to reveal your goals, values and personal qualities in a way that the shorter descriptions of your responsibilities don’t allow. Through these three activities, we’ll see how you put your beliefs into action, so don’t be afraid to get personal here. It’s great to hear that you made a strong impact on a person or a community, but also tell us be sure to tell us why making that kind of impact is important to you. And of course, emphasize again how this is going to make you a better physician.
Clocking in at 700 characters each, with an additional 1325 characters for your three meaningful ones, it may be a challenge to make your activities seem as hearty as the main course. But with some skillful organization and creativity, these tasty sides will add a lot to your meal.
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