“Now, let me ask you....” The professor leaned his stooped shoulders forward with his hands on his knees, his deeply lined face drawing slightly closer to mine. My stomach clenched, a swooping sensation which left me slightly breathless. “Do you play open strings?”
I received this unusual question at my first medical school interview. My interviewer, an emeritus professor and amateur cello player with a penchant for avoiding the harsher sounding “open” (non-fingered) notes on his instrument, wanted to know if I shared a similar opinion as a violinist.
In that moment, my stomach unclenched. I smiled and the professor’s eyes glittered with amusement as his lip twitched upwards. I answered honestly—that I sometimes play the lower three strings of the violin “open”—and we embarked on an extended conversation about favorite composers and the role of music in our lives. Several months later, I received an acceptance e-mail from that school.
As a pre-medical student, you may have been advised to focus on science and medicine-related extracurricular activities. While this traditional advice has abated somewhat as medical schools increasingly profess their search for “well-rounded medical students,” applicants may continue to feel pressured to craft a CV in which every item has a clear connection to medicine.
However, as exemplified by my interview experience, activities seemingly unrelated to medicine or science may prove useful, if not invaluable, as a medical school applicant and beyond. In the short term, these activities allow applicants to answer the question “what do you do for fun?” and respond appropriately to other inquiries about hobbies or extracurricular interests. But medical schools care to ask these questions because having pursuits outside of medicine has long-term practical and ethical benefits.
From a practical perspective, medical schools want to know how well applicants can maintain a “work-life balance.” Having strategies to this end may be an indicator of your ability to cope with the demands of medical school, avoid burnout, and advance in your career. These conversations are also a test for how easily applicants connect with others on topics unrelated to medicine, an essential skill for building collegial and medical professional-patient relationships, which can in turn aid in long-term career advancement. There may be an additional element of pure curiosity, as my interviewer seemed to display when asking me about my violin playing. After all, many successful medical professionals maintain significant pursuits outside of medicine: sailing, art, running, meditation, music, book-binding, and
Dungeons and Dragons are just a few of the activities pursued by my most admired mentors.
From an ethical perspective, diverse interests create a humanizing force in a field that all too often overwhelms the humanity of both healthcare professionals and patients. Having interests outside of medicine is a tool for self-care, which in turn equips medical professionals to provide optimal, patient-centered care—a nod to the age-old adage of putting on your own life preserver before helping others. Diverse interests also aid in providing optimal patient care by supporting strong medical professional-patient relationships.
Finally, medical professionals’ needs have inherent value. Accepting the importance of patients’ needs does not change the fact that medical professionals are also human, and hence, equally valuable, with needs equally worthy of consideration. Perceiving medicine as a path of complete self-sacrifice creates an unequal relationship between medical professionals and patients, which may contribute to paternalistic or condescending attitudes, or even resentment. Rather, true service through medicine may be framed as a two-way exchange between medical professionals and patients. Patient encounters are opportunities to grow, both as clinicians and more broadly as human beings. In accepting this two-way exchange of “goods,” one must acknowledge the importance of self-care. To do otherwise is to reinforce medicine as a medical professional-driven practice, with all focus placed on what can be done for—or to—the patient rather than the other way around. And self-care often comes in the form of pursuing interests outside of medicine, which has the added benefit of giving meaning to work done in the name of enabling others to pursue their own passions.
All of this is to say that any interest pursued in the name of self-care is a worthy pursuit. Note that I specify “in the name of self-care.” Given the aforementioned growing emphasis on the “well-rounded medical school applicant,” I fear that interests outside of science and medicine risk falling into hierarchical schemas—with certain pursuits ranking above others. However, I truly believe that you should do what you LOVE, not what you think an admissions committee wants to see on your application. Do not learn piano if you would rather be decorating cakes. Do not read nonfiction if you would rather read fantasy. Do not run marathons if you would rather practice yoga. Oftentimes, I suspect, pursuing your TRUE passions will lead to a more unique application. Furthermore, know that nothing is irrelevant or incompatible with medicine.
On the other hand, do not be overly concerned about not having specific pursuits outside of science or medicine. What matters the most is that you give yourself permission and space to explore what brings you joy (I encourage you to undertake this exploration!)—and that you can articulate this joy to interviewers. Maybe you do find the most joy in science and medicine-related activities. Maybe you find joy in spending time with friends and family. Maybe you love taking long walks or watching stand-up comedy. That’s ok! Just be prepared to talk about and discuss how these things enhance your life.
As a small disclaimer, these thoughts are cobbled together from personal experience, discussions with classmates and mentors, and scattered reading on medical school admissions and medical ethics. While I believe these principles to be generally true, I cannot speak to how engaging in a particular activity will affect an individual applicant or be seen by a specific admissions committee. However, my personal experience continues to corroborate these ideas.
During my first residency interview, this October, 2020, my interviewer asked me what I had done with my time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I provided an honest timeline, which included a month’s unexpected “vacation” with my family when an elective rotation was canceled. During this month, I did very little academic work, but I did plant a vegetable garden for my family.
When I mentioned the garden, my interviewer smiled and leaned forward (on Zoom, of course). “And what did you plant in your garden?” she asked. I smiled back and recalled warm summer days, earth between my toes, squirming worms, tiny seedlings, and seeds full of hope.
June is a class of 2021 student at Yale School of Medicine, applying into combined internal medicine-pediatrics residency programs. Her formal extracurricular interests include reflective writing/ narrative medicine, medical ethics, medical professional/ student well-being, and violin. In her free time, she enjoys recreational running, creative writing, reading, cooking, vegetable gardening, spending time with friends and family, and singing loudly to Broadway musical soundtracks.