Applying to Medical School: The Application: Work/Activities Section Tips

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There’s more ways to not get into medical than in, but if you approach it with a plan there’s a good shot!

Applying to medical school application is more than a set of forms, the AMCAS is an extensive process that may last anywhere from half to a full year (or years if you’re reapplying).  Ideally, you’ve taken the MCAT and have finished your medical school prerequisites prior to filling in the AMCAS, the entry of the primary application itself will probably be about 20 pages printed out (see the elements of the AMCAS below). And, being that it’s so lengthy it’s quite easy to poke holes into your own application by being inconsistent and redundant.

To remind you, here are the basic elements of the primary AMCAS application (medical school application link to AMCAS):

  • MCAT (Medical Colleges Admissions Test)
  • Undergraduate & Graduate Course Work (Data Entry)
  • Transcripts to Verify Coursework (send official transcripts to AMCAS)
  • Letters of Recommendation (LOR or LORs plural)
  • Personal Statement (PS, the best composition you’ve ever written)
  • Work/Activity Section (W/A)

The general mantra for the Work /Activity section is to verify you have the credentials to join the medical profession. 

This entry will focus on the Work /Activity section, and discuss how I completed my own section. In general, to holistically evaluate my application I divided my own AMCAS application into two categories :  objective scoring (MCAT/coursework and resultant GPAs’), and subjective testaments (PS, LORs’, W/A sections). When I was applying to medical school I had already graduated college and successfully taken the MCAT, so my objective scores were already written in stone. However, the rest of the application was mine to write, and my narrative to control. Don’t write off the 15 entries you’re given by the AMCAS  to enter your work / activities as a purely obligatory busy work. It’s another opportunity for you to show the admissions boards you’re capable of becoming a physician.

Wait, so what’s the Work / Activities section and why does it matter?

Let’s face it, even assuming you get the pro-typical “safe” GPA and MCAT, getting into medical school isn’t easy. In 2012 almost 45 K hopeful students applied for medical school, and only around 19 K successfully found a seat. But, at the same time from the school’s perspective, selecting from a pool of almost equally talented, intelligent, and driven premeds is also pretty tough. Having a strong work / activities section makes it easier for them to remember you. So, the AMCAS gives you 15 short  entries (700 characters) to denote your commitment and accomplishments in volunteering, conferences, work, clubs etc.  Furthermore, you have to select three events to be the most meaningful (an additional 1325 characters) — good luck with that. As a nontraditional premed, I had a really extensive work / activities history, this came up a lot during my interviews as a positive thing.

First, I took the elements of primary application and tried to quantify them in relative terms. In other words, I took the AMCAS primary list I presented to you above, that is : MCAT, GPA, LOR, and W/A, then tried to weigh my strengths and weaknesses for each category. I compared myself against typical applicants, the things I’d rather not come up while the medical school was reviewing application probably was my weaknesses. In contrast, parts of my application that I could happily presumably talk with my interviewer about were probably my stronger portions of my application.  This helped me decide how/what work and activities I should focus on. Then, I took my resume and curriculum vitae to tell a narrative that, while not negating my flaws, showed my growth whilst plugging holes in my AMCAS ship. It also helped me narrow down how I should allot my “top three” choices.

Okay, I wasn’t actually anal enough to graph attributes, but you get the idea.

Show and Tell with W/A : To be more helpful I used my actual AMCAS entries, with my university info and other identifiers removed, you can refer to them but copying them wouldn’t be smart for obvious reasons.

After I evaluated myself, I then chose how to best distribute my potential 15 entries. In the end I actually only used 13 entries, I believe you should go for your stronger entries as opposed to space fillers.  To show schools that I’m intellectually sound, besides my upward spiral in grades, I used my work /activity section to tell them “don’t worry about my old grades” with me becoming a science/biology college tutor:

  • Targeting my academic weakness with tutoring (normal activities entries will be 700 characters)
  • While at University of Frenchtoast (UF) I obtained recommendations from the biology and chemistry department to tutor at the UF Learning Resource Center. Helping others was doubly rewarding, I achieved satisfaction from helping fellow UF students, and reinforced my understanding of the subjects tutored: organic chemistry, general chemistry and biology, physiology, and introductory biochemistry. An effective tutor must be an effective listener, as even if the problem sounds similar, students have disparate reasons for not understanding. After graduation I was still retained as a tutoring advisor and upper level science tutor.
  • Targeting my academics with applied research, this was also one of my most meaningful entries, so I had more characters allowed (see below).
  • I started the project by performing a comprehensive literature review, and creating a muscle electrophysiology timeline in neonate and adult mice. This timeline was presented to the lead investigator, and used to justify our need for animal experimentation to the Animal Care and Use Committee. From this project I was selected as a Ronald E. McNair Research Scholar, helping to fund my study. I learned how to conduct electrophysiology experiments, seeing the effects of electrochemical diffusion at first hand, strengthening my understanding of physiology. After nearly two years of work, 20-30 hours a week, I was able to present the project at UC Berkeley in 2011.
  • The Most Meaningful Entry allows for 1325 characters.
  • I was invited to start in a new lab focusing on muscle electro-physiology, biology department with Dr. Awesome Voss. After several months of background training, I started bench research, trying to tease apart the mechanisms of chloride conductance across the excitable muscle membrane. The project centered on the concept that adenosine-5’-triphosphate (ATP) has been reported as being released from exercising muscle. Besides possibly nociception, it was a mystery to what the physiological benefit of active muscle releasing ATP. Our first observation was that ATP, even released distally to the neuromuscular junction, made whole muscle fibers excitable for an extended period. To understand the conductance properties better, my project was to measure this effect in enzymatically disassociated muscle fibers. Using microelectrodes, I impaled the muscle membrane of myofibers of mice, measuring current or voltage responses, with currents and changes in voltages corresponding to changes in conductance of charge carrying ions. Using neurotoxins to block other charge carrying ions (potassium and sodium) we discovered that chloride was the ion responsible for the observed hyper excitability. We speculated that aberrant chloride channel conduction may explain some of the symptoms of the disease myotonia.

In the end it’s important to remember that unlike the GPA and MCAT which are pretty much set in stone, the over parts of the application allows for admissions boards to view you more holistically. Therefore, your primary interest should be making a strong primary application, and simply following through with secondaries. Primary applications are analogous to the school viewing your profile, secondaries are like when they finally call/text you for the first time, and you’re interview in the first date. If your profile makes you look like an axe murdered then guess what, no dates. Make your primary application strong in all aspects, and use your W/A section to reinforce to admissions to why you’re a logical pick from the herd.

Feel free to message, chat, what-have-you on twitter

If you have oddles of time, you can read the 90 page manual for the AMCAS yourself =)


4 thoughts on “Applying to Medical School: The Application: Work/Activities Section Tips

    […] I was honored to interview at also gave me positive feedback on my personal statement (and my AMCAS application as a whole). I created the personal statement the and applied to medical school the […]

    webpage said:
    August 7, 2014 at 5:25 am

    I must thank you for the efforts you have put in writing this site.
    I really hope to check out the same high-grade blog posts by you in the future as well.
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      doctororbust responded:
      August 7, 2014 at 12:53 pm

      Thanks so much for leaving such a warm comment, I really appreciate it.

      I’m trying to schedule my writing to fit into my medschool work, I’ll figure something out soon.

      I hope you start blogging, it’s a good release.

    […] Work Activities Section of Application – especially important for nontraditional applicants! […]

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