It is first of all important to understand that medical and other health professional schools are quite genuinely interested in what you have done in college besides take courses and prepare for the MCAT. You really are more than a composite of GPA and MCAT scores. However, it is equally important to understand that impressive extracurricular involvement will not save you if your numbers are too low. You will have to figure out for yourself what the appropriate balance is. The healthcare profession needs people who have learned how to balance their professional responsibilities and their personal lives.
By and large, your choice of extra-curricular activities should be guided by your interests. There is nothing intrinsically better about a cultural organization, a literary society, or the football team. Leadership in one or two things rather than membership in many is probably more meaningful, but really, this is an area where you should simply do what appeals to you. It may well be true that activities which involve taking care of people (children, the elderly, and the homeless) are appealing to health professional schools, but so are activities that demand judgment, efficiency, organization, and team work. Do what suits you. Also consider sticking with whatever you begin. Depth of involvement in an activity often leads to leadership opportunities, and this type of depth and commitment is something that is valued by professional schools. Finally, community involvement outside of the Columbia gates is also something that you may consider. Since healthcare is a service-related profession, demonstrating that you have a history of serving others is certainly helpful. Community work also provides you with the opportunity to step outside of your comfort zone, interacting with diverse populations.
Paid employment must also be seen as an extra-curricular activity. It is recognized that some students must work in order to help contribute to their college expenses and families. Although it would be a great learning experience to work in some medically related environment – a doctor's office, a hospital, a lab – this is not always possible. However, a great many non-medical jobs will require intelligence, responsibility, integrity, judgment, good humor, and the ability to deal well with the public. All of these things and many more are of interest to schools. The point is to do whatever you are doing well and look for opportunities where you will grow and develop as an individual.
There are two areas of extracurricular activity that may be seen as specifically appropriate for premeds: research experience and clinical exposure
There is a long-standing myth that students “must do research” to get accepted into medical school. It is certainly true that much of the information upon which medical treatments are based was ascertained in the laboratory. It is also true that participating in a research experience (whether bench or clinical) will help you to be a more literate reader of the current research. But an outside lab experience is not absolutely required for entrance into medical school. Medical school admissions deans will often say that they like to see that applicants have “exposed themselves to some methodology for producing new knowledge.” They define this very broadly and thus it is not just limited to wet lab experience. A senior thesis in anthropology or a summer doing clinical research would fulfill this expectation as well as lab research. The exception here is the student who wishes to pursue a career in medical research and may even be applying for a combined MD/PhD degree. If these are your interests, you will not only want, but need, to get extensive experience in basic science research beyond that provided by your course work. Opportunities are legion, both in our own departments and uptown at the medical center (including those through the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships), but also at many of the medical schools and research establishments throughout the city and around the nation. Please refer to our Opportunities list to search for the many summer research opportunities.
Clinical exposure is a different matter. This is something you should do—expose yourself to doctors, nurses, and patients at the site of healthcare delivery. There is very little within in your premedical course work which prepares you for the actual business of taking care of sick people. Many kind, compassionate, concerned, good-hearted individuals find that their own particular personality is not at all suited for medical care-taking. It is better to find that out before going to medical school rather than after. Clinical exposure will also help you to demonstrate your commitment and knowledge of the field of medicine, including both the rewards and challenges. There are a number of ways in which a Columbia student can acquire clinical exposure. Probably the most convenient because of proximity is volunteering at Mt. Sinai St. Luke's Hospital. It's close by, it's a teaching hospital, and it’s accustomed to training prospective physicians at every stage of their education. It is however also possible to volunteer in a number of other healthcare delivery settings throughout the city and often near your own home in the summers. Please refer to our Opportunities list to search for opportunities for clinical exposure.
Premedical Related Student Organizations
This list is just a sampling – there are too many related organizations to list.
The American Medical Student Association is a premedical society at Columbia University. This student club is a great community of students who share an interest in attending medical school. They plan programs and different lectures that are of interest to its members.
Columbia University Association of Predental Students This organization is dedicated to bringing together our predental students. It conducts panel discussions and field trips related to dentistry and dental school application.
Columbia University Emergency Medical Service is a Division of Health Services at Columbia and the Department of Public Safety. It is a student operated, New York State certified, Basic Life Support (BLS) volunteer ambulance corps. CU EMS provides pre-hospital emergency medical care, free of charge, to Columbia University's Morningside Heights Campus and the surrounding area 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The corps has approximately 65 active members and responds to over 700 emergency calls per year. 24 CUSJ Columbia University Science Journal. Student led publication focused on undergraduate research.
CHARLES DREW PREMEDICAL SOCIETY
The Charles Drew Premedical Society was established in order to increase the number of minority students applying and entering into health professional schools. Charles Drew serves as a support group and a resource for all underrepresented premedical students in the Columbia community.
PEER HEALTH EXCHANGE
Peer Health Exchange recruits and trains students to teach health education in underresourced high schools in NYC. Volunteers teach twelve different workshops ranging from sexual health to substance abuse and nutrition. This is a great way to gain leadership experience and to impact the lives of young people.