It is first of all important to understand that medical 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 medical profession needs people who have learned how to balance their professional responsibilities and their personal lives. Some doctors will tell you it is the hardest thing they had to learn, and some, to their detriment, never learn. College is not a bad time to start.
By and large, your choice of extra-curricular activities should be guided quite simply 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 attractive, 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 medical schools, but so are activities that demand judgment, efficiency, organization, 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 medicine 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. Although it would no doubt be pleasant and interesting for you to be able to work in some medically related field – 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 prehealth students: lab experience and clinical experience.
There is a long-standing myth that medical schools "expect" lab experience. 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 laboratory experience 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. The exception here is the student who, in fact, 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 research beyond that provided by your course work. Opportunities are legion, both in our own departments and at our medical school (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.
Clinical exposure is a different matter. There is obviously nothing at all 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.
There are a number of ways in which a Columbia student can acquire clinical experience. Probably the most convenient is volunteering at St. Luke's Hospital. It's right here, it's one of Columbia's own teaching hospitals, and it’s accustomed to training prospective physicians at every stage of education. The program is not open to first-year students until second semester. It is also possible to volunteer in a number of other hospitals and other healthcare delivery settings throughout the city and often near your own home in the summers. Please refer to our Opportunities list.
Premedical Related Student Organizations
This list is just a sampling – there are too many related organizations to list. Please attend the Activities Fair and check out the Student Development and Activities website to peruse other opportunities.
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 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. In addition to providing pre-hospital emergency medical treatment and transport, CU EMS provides medical standbys for large gatherings and sporting events. The corps runs health and safety classes for the public, offering certifications in CPR, AED, first aid, and CEVO II. For more information, please see
CHARLES DREW 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.
Project HEALTH is a student organization that unites healthcare professionals, Columbia undergrads, and families from Harlem, Washington Heights, and the Bronx in an attempt to interrupt the well-established link between poverty and poor health. Project HEALTH programs are student developed and student-run, and they provide an excellent opportunity to develop strong relationships with families, children, and other community members.