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  • Writer's pictureSamir Desai

The Importance of Extracurricular Activities for IMGs Applying to the US Residency Match

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

The benefits of extracurricular activities

For international medical students, it's important to start thinking about the residency match early in medical school.

During your preclinical years, you’ll be spending a whole lot of time and effort in order to do well in your classes and do well on the USMLE exam. While this should be your focus, it's also important to think about participating in activities outside of the classroom.

These activities, also known as extracurricular activities, can enhance your life in many ways. They can also enhance your career and your chances of success in the residency match.

Extracurricular activities are equally important for IMGs, international medical graduates who have already completed medical school. Although you may be spending significant time preparing for the USMLE exams and participating in clinical rotations, it's critical to think about how you can participate in extracurricular activities as well.

Extracurricular activities are a significant nonacademic factor in the residency selection process

In an NRMP survey of approximately 1,800 PDs representing the 23 largest medical specialties, 54% of respondents cited volunteer/extracurricular experiences as a factor in selecting applicants to interview.

Extracurricular activities “might provide evidence for non-cognitive attributes that predict success,” writes Dr. Andrew Lee, Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at The Methodist Hospital. “The first priority of a residency selection committee is insuring that the applicant does not wash out or cause trouble during their time in the program. This is sometimes referred to generically as ‘fit.’ Everyone wants a team player who is unselfish and working towards a common goal.” Your involvement in extracurricular activities can highlight these important qualities.

Image of medical students volunteering for a service organization
Extracurricular activities, such as community service, can provide significant personal benefits and can increase your chances of a successful residency match

7 Benefits of Extracurricular Activities for Residency Applicants

  • Via your participation in extracurricular activities, you can further develop skills that are directly applicable to success as a physician. A few examples of vital skills in the daily life of a doctor are teamwork, self-discipline, time management, and leadership.

  • Involvement in organizations is a way to develop and strengthen bonds with classmates.

  • Since student organizations often have a faculty advisor or sponsor, students have extraordinary opportunities to work closely with faculty members.

  • Extracurricular activities are a significant nonacademic factor in the residency selection process.

  • Once accepted for a residency interview, the depth and breadth of your involvement in extracurricular activities can help you stand out in a sea of academically qualified applicants.

  • Residency programs look closely at extracurricular activities to gain some insight into an applicant’s potential to be a leader in the field.

  • Some residency programs believe that activities chosen as a student may predict involvement during residency. An applicant who served on a medical school committee may have an interest in serving on a residency committee.

Quality of involvement is more important than quantity

In evaluating extracurricular activities, residency programs will look at the depth of a student’s involvement. While some students believe there’s strength in numbers, residency programs value the quality of involvement.

What are programs interested in? Programs are interested in learning whether a student excelled in one or two activities. Did you demonstrate serious commitment to an organization? Were you able to make meaningful contributions?

When comparing residency applicants of equal academic ability, factors such as depth of extracurricular activities may help one student stand out.

Community service provides important benefits to both the community and the student

Although community service clearly benefits others, students themselves gain tremendous benefits from their involvement and participation.

Community service is good for the psyche. Research has shown that volunteering increases positive feelings, improves mental health, reduces the risk of depression, and lowers stress levels.

Community service involvement can also serve as a draw for residency programs. In an NRMP survey of 1,840 PDs representing the 19 largest medical specialties, 56% cited community service as a factor in selecting applicants to interview.

Is there a relationship between community service involvement and performance in medical school and residency? One study suggested just that. In research done to determine if there is a relationship between students’ volunteer community service hours and medical school academic and residency performance, students in the highest service group were found to have significantly better grade point averages, USMLE Step 2 scores, and residency director assessments, as compared to students having no community service hours.

Medical students volunteering for a community service project
Involvement in community service provides for personal fulfillment, and can be an important factor for some residency programs

Demonstration of leadership can be an important factor in residency selection decisions

As a member of an organization, you have the power to make meaningful contributions through active involvement. Leadership positions can enhance your ability to contribute.

How can you demonstrate leadership?

  • A student can serve in a leadership capacity, such as president or vice-president.

  • Since many groups host events, students can also volunteer to spearhead or coordinate an event.

  • Students can also head committees within the group.

Such demonstration of leadership ability is another way to strengthen your application. In the aforementioned NRMP survey of PDs, 63% of respondents cited leadership qualities as a factor in selecting applicants to interview. When asked to rate the importance of this factor on a scale of 1 (not at all important) to 5 (very important), PDs gave it an average rating of 4.0.

There is also evidence to suggest that leadership qualities may make for better residents. A survey of emergency medicine PDs revealed that having a “distinctive factor,” such as being a medical school officer, was one of three factors more predictive of residency performance.

Involvement in research is considered very important by some decision-makers

In a survey of PDs conducted by the NRMP, 43% of respondents cited demonstrated involvement and interest in research as a factor in selecting applicants to interview.

While research experience may not be as highly valued relative to other academic selection criteria, the most competitive specialties do place greater importance on research experience.

In evaluating research experience during medical school, programs will look closely at the level of your involvement. Did you merely collect data? Or were you involved through all phases of the project, including design, data collection, interpretation and analysis of data, and preparation of the manuscript?

Programs will also assess your productivity. Did your work result in a tangible measure, such as an abstract, manuscript, or presentation at a meeting?

Research that does not lead to a publication can still be quite valuable

Although you may seek to publish or present your research, all is not lost if you don’t reach these goals. Research experience that doesn’t lead to publication can still be an invaluable addition to your application. It demonstrates your dedication to the field, may result in stronger LORs, and provides a topic of discussion in interviews.

Your activities outside of the classroom can be very helpful in strengthening your application

No matter which activity or activities you choose, your involvement and accomplishments can bolster the strength of your application.

In the event that you receive a low USMLE score, your success outside of the classroom may help you secure interviews at programs where your score alone would not be competitive. I’ve found that low-scoring applicants with an established area of excellence (separate from academics) have an easier time attracting the interest of programs when compared to comparable colleagues with more sparse applications.

The Bottom Line: Pay as much attention to your extracurricular activities as you do to grades and scores

Although medical school and post-medical school preparation for the residency match can be incredibly intense, it's still important to consider participation in extracurricular activities.

These activities can provide significant personal fulfillment, can produce feelings of accomplishment, and can serve as an important buffer against stress. They can also strengthen relationships with colleagues, as well as with faculty and mentors. Finally, these activities can also provide a significant boost to your chances of a successful residency match.


Dr. Samir Desai is the author of The Successful Match: Rules to Succeed in the Residency Match and is co-founder of MD2B Connect, the most trusted and highest-rated provider of hands-on clinical experiences for IMGs in the U.S.

Dr. Rajani Katta is the creator of The Residency Interview 101, the online course that helps applicants quickly and confidently prepare for their residency interviews. She is also the co-author of The Successful Match: Rules to Succeed in the Residency Match and served as Professor of Dermatology at the Baylor College of Medicine for over 17 years.

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