When applying to competitive university programs, you may, as a CEGEP student, be inclined to join dozens of clubs and activities, seeking to check off as many of the common “boxes” of extracurriculars as possible: volunteering, scientific research, and so on. We think that this approach is far from optimal, and we seek to give you an introduction in this article to the most efficient approach to extracurriculars.
Variety and depth
A common concern is whether students should invest time into a variety of extracurriculars, doing the bare minimum for each one, or rather pour most of their time into one or two activities that they care about and maximize their impact in those. While we would love to tell you that the latter is the correct approach, the reality for McGill’s programs is that you need a combination of both. Please note that this article is written with a focus on McGill Law, Dentistry and Medicine, since the requirements for US and UK admissions are very different. Given that CVs can be up to two pages for McGill, you will be disadvantaged by having one much shorter in breadth than that of other applicants, even if those activities are high-quality.
We recommend that you only pursue extracurricular activities that you’re truly interested in, rather than trying to match your actions to what you think the program you are applying to is looking for. This approach isn’t idealistic, but pragmatic: in reality, every extracurricular has the potential to be outstanding, so rather than miscalculating, it’s better to put time into activities about which you are passionate and that you can thus pursue the most achievement in. To have an extensive enough CV and to also catch admissions officers’ attention through the quality of your achievements, we suggest that you focus on two or three main activities, but also try to pick up a variety of different low-commitment activities (think 1 hour/week) as not to fall behind your peers. Further, by pursuing activities that you are passionate about (e.g. coaching a neighbourhood soccer team) without specifically seeking to tick off a box on your application, you will often end up using your time in much more interesting ways which will distinguish you from your peers.
Next, we will discuss a few common categories of extracurricular activities. This is by no means a comprehensive listing, nor is it our recommendation for the best ones to pursue; we simply seek to offer insight into these oft-misunderstood activities.
Often the point of entry into extracurriculars for applicants to medical school, this category is arguably the one which is the most overestimated by applicants. It is not necessary to have any community service experience on your application if it does not interest you; in fact, several of our consultants have secured admission to McGill Medicine and other competitive programs with no such experience. By all means, do participate as a volunteer if you find it interesting; however, if it does not particularly drive you, it is often one of the least noteworthy ways to spend your time.
This is because you should seek to differentiate yourself from other applicants throughout your CEGEP career, not only through your achievements but even when beginning an activity. As such, we warn against participating in programs which are very popular among medical school applicants, such as the McGill University Health Centre’s volunteering program, for admissions purposes. If you are involved in onerous tasks (e.g. feeding geriatric patients), these can be a great opportunity to familiarize yourself with a hospital environment and ensure that you would like to work in a health profession. However, if you are doing low-impact work (like wayfinding), it is probably not going to add to your application since it is so common, and it represents time you could spend on higher-quality activities like a part-time job, while also making money (more on that below).
Conversely to community service, this is probably one of the most underrated “extracurricular” activities. Working a part-time job while studying demonstrates that you are able to manage your time exceptionally well, and allows you to build character by facing real-world problems on a weekly basis. If you are able to work ~10 hours/week while studying, even if for a reduced period of time (e.g. your 3rd CEGEP semester), it will undoubtedly constitute a great asset to your application. McGill Medicine has granted interviews to students who worked a high amount of hours per week while studying, even when they had few other extracurriculars, since this allows them to admit students who need to work to afford their tuition, and boosts economic diversity.
Note that the type of job is not important: as such, a research position in a lab is not necessarily better than working as a cook in a fast-food restaurant. If anything, working in a “lesser-grade” position shows that you aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty, and conveys a positive impression. Rather, you should look beyond the simple job title, and try to find parallels between your job’s reponsibilities and your future field of study.
An additional note: all the advice in this section also applies to unpaid work. We usually don’t recommend that you work unpaid internships (including lab research assistant positions), as people tend to overestimate the relevance of the underlying responsabilities of that internship. You could most likely find a paid job that will boost your CV just as much, if not more, than an unpaid internship.
Although working part-time during your studies is more impressive, it is also a great idea to get a full-time or near-full-time summer job. This will add to your work experience, and further build tenacity that will help you in interview settings.
Leadership positions are undoubtedly the highest-quality type of extracurricular activity, in the sense that 1 hour of spare time contributed to a leadership position will add more to your application than an hour of community service or work (though not by a large margin for part-time work). Contrary to the popular impression, the value of leadership positions isn’t necessarily determined by your title (e.g. President, or Executive), but rather by the extent of the work that you do and that you will describe in applications. These can be held in a variety of contexts, from clubs to student associations. From the beginning of your studies in CEGEP, you should join activities in which you have potential for growth, so that you can aspire to an eventual leadership position; if possible, you should constantly strive to gain more responsabilities and to attain higher positions in every extracurricular activity undertaken. Leadership can also be held within your community, outside of traditional pre-university activities, such as in the example of coaching a soccer team that we mentioned earlier.
This category is a bit less popular than the previous ones, but is still worth noting. Competitions can vary from scientific (e.g. Science Fair, math competitions) and academic (e.g. creative writing contests) to debate-related (e.g. Model United Nations, parliamentary debate). If you are naturally skilled at one of these fields, it can be worthwhile to invest time into them and collect impressive awards. However, if you aren’t, you shouldn’t worry; however, neither should you pour too much time into these simply for a participation certificate, as it’s unlikely to be a big asset. If you enjoy these activities regardless of achievement, they can be a good way to pursue an intellectual interest outside of classes, and can lead to the obtention of leadership positions such as team captain.
Another underrated category: especially in medical school applicants, team sports are a staple, with almost half of admitted students anecdotally having been involved in a school-organized sport, varying from rowing to basketball. Again, if you enjoy one of these activities, they can both demonstrate tenacity in your application and provide a useful stress buffer and social outlet. If you can find the time and drive for one, they are highly recommended.
Summing it all up
Focus on two or three main activities, with a little attention given to a couple of low-impact activities. Always try to partake in unique/interesting activities that you enjoy, whether it be sports, competitions, work or volunteering. And, as often as possible, try to gain leadership postitions in those activities.
What we haven’t covered
Due to their personalized nature, some key points related to this article would be best discussed in a one-on-one meeting with you. Those parts include:
- Possible list of commonly recommended, yet low-impact extracurricular activities;
- How to choose activities that are relevant to your interests and desired field of study, and which ones those are for medicine, dentistry and law;
- How to navigate internal politics and opportunities within extracurricular activities to obtain notable awards and leadership positions;
- Writing a description of activities in your CV for admissions by identifying key parallels between your activities and your field of study.