Experiences and Activities
The Four Types of Experiences
The experiences a student chooses should reflect their genuine interests and passions, and should be in line with their values and professional goals. Your extracurricular activities say a lot about you on your application, so be sure to be true to yourself when signing up for or committing to different experiences. There is no "right" or "better" experiences, only those that are right for you and your unique pre-health journey.
The four main types of pre-health experiences are health-related experience, community service and non-health related experience, leadership, and research.
Professional schools are particularly interested in your health-related experience. By working or volunteering in the field, you will display a deeper understanding of the responsibilities, duties, and issues related to your field. Professional schools also want to see that you are able to deal effectively with patients and work well on a team of professionals. Clinical experience with direct patient contact is an important part of your application.
Some careers such as physical therapy, physician assistant, or veterinary science have specific mandatory hours of experience as requirements. Other programs will consider a variety of health-related experiences. The experiences you choose should have an interest to you in terms of your life goals and be personally satisfying. They are your opportunity to gain depth and knowledge about yourself.
Health related experiences include shadowing, volunteering in a clinic or hospital, informational interviewing, working as a scribe, or any other position that allows you to find out more about your profession of interest.
- BIO 253 - Shadowing Health Professions
- Dignity Health Physician Mentoring Program
- Ask your family physician, dentist, or other health care provider if they would allow you to shadow them
- Call local clinics and hospitals and ask about shadowing availability
Scribing/Health Related Jobs:
- Scribe Program through local hospitals - currently available at Sierra Vista Regional Hospital and French Hospital
- Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) - training offered through Cuesta College
- Phlebotomist - training offered through Cuesta College
- Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) - training offered through Cuesta College and/or Compass Health
- Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) - Back Office
- Physical Therapy Aide - various local PT clinics
- Caregiver or Med Tech at Garden House Elder Care (Morro Bay)
- Reach out to family friends or local professionals in your health profession, and ask to meet with them for lunch or coffee to discuss what their typical work day is like.
- For more information on how to conduct an informational interview, sample interview questions, and more, visit our Careers webpage.
Other Health-Related Cal Poly Courses:
- SCM 101 - Introduction to the Health Professions
- BIO 301 - Service Learning in the Health Professions
- SCM 363 - Public Health Fieldwork (Internship)
Community Service and Non-Health Related
Schools are looking for well-rounded individuals who can excel in the field of medicine, but also have interests outside of their area of vocation. Whether it's cooking, gardening, running a small business on the side, or playing a collegiate sport, these activities can help you stand out during the interview process and provide more depth to you both as an applicant and as a person. These side hobbies also serve as a form of stress relief and grounding, so it's very important to stay true to them even while in undergrad and health professional school. If you have any unique or interesting extracurricular activities, share it on your HP school application. It just might be this one activity that gives you a competitive edge at an interview.
Volunteering in non-health related fields shows you've taken an interest in your community, and that you are committed to serving causes and groups larger than yourself.
Examples of non-health-related community service include:
- Habitat for Humanity
- Center for Service in Action
- Transitions Mental Health
- Special Olympics
- BIO 301 - Service Learning in the Health Professions
- Restorative Partners
- Homeless Shelters - CAPSLO
- Women's Shelters - RISE
- Wilshire Community Services
- Big Brothers Big Sisters
- SLO Food Bank
- Serving any underrepresented or threatened group of people
Examples of valuable non-health-related extracurricular activities include:
Health professionals are leaders in the medical community and leaders in their home communities. Therefore, admissions committees want to see that you have what it takes to be a leader. The best way you can show your leadership experience and ability is to join campus or community organizations, and be sure to actively participate and hopefully hold a leadership role in one or more of these organizations.
Examples of leadership experience include:
- Associated Students, Inc. (ASI)
- Peer Advising or Coaching
- Resident Advisor (RA)
- On-campus clubs/programs
- College ambassadors
- Workshop/Study Session Leader
- Peer Tutor
- Poly Reps
- WOW Leaders
- Greek Life
- Learn By Doing Lab
- Cal Poly Center for Leadership
- Pre-Health Clubs (American Medical Student Association, Pre-Dental, Pre-Nursing, Pre-PT/OT, etc.)
Continuum of Leadership
The Continuum of Leadership outlines the different levels of involvement a student has in a given organization. Students should look to move down the continuum within their clubs or organizations during their time at Cal Poly, as this demonstrates a commitment to the organization and an ability to take on increasing levels of responsibility.
- Showing up - Community service events, clubs, and Greek life
- Showing up for a long time - This expresses to the admissions board that you are able to make commitments and keep them. It also shows your long-term interest in that particular club, sorority/fraternity, sport, etc.
- Leadership - Holding a club officer position, becoming a residence hall RA, teaching a supplemental workshop, or becoming a team captain demonstrates your ability to lead others and organize.
- Advocacy - Going out in the community and helping to make a positive change. Contributing in such a way really shows your passion and interest in that extracurricular, and demonstrates your desire to make your community a better place.
- Innovation - Admissions boards will always be impressed by the innovative applicant. This shows one's creativity and ability to think efficiently - important qualities of a leader.
- Legacy - After you leave that club, organization, team, etc., it would be great if you leave behind a "legacy", or a tradition that will continue on. This is on the opposite end of the spectrum from just showing up to a club meeting - if you've become a legacy, you clearly made quite a contribution to that club!
Admissions committees value research experience in an applicant because of the ways in which research develops critical reasoning skills. Some schools tend to emphasize research experience more than others in admissions decisions. For example, at many of the most competitive, research-oriented HP schools the percentage of admitted applicants who have at least some research experience is as high as 80% to 90%. Being familiar with the process of conducting scientific research will also help you evaluate the validity of research studies, and to "think like a scientist," a skill that health professionals need to possess.
Some common ways of finding research opportunities are:
- Stopping by the advising office to get faculty research interest lists.
- Via the Office of Student Research website.
- Asking a professor if they have any openings on their research team (or if they know of someone who does).
- Talking with your faculty advisor.
- Applying for summer internships.
- Signing up for the pre-health Canvas page to get access to research opportunities across the country.
- Examples include St. Jude's Children's Hospital, the American Heart Association, and more.
For more information about research opportunities in the College of Science and Math, visit the College of Science and Math (COSAM) Undergraduate Research website.
Subscribe to the Cal Poly Pre-Health Blog to stay up-to-date on the latest pre-health experiences and opportunities! Blog posts include current job listings, community service opportunities, clinical experiences, research opportunities, and more!
Virtual Pre-Health Experiences: Click here to view a list of virtual pre-health experiences that are available during the current pandemic. Opportunities include virtual shadowing, volunteering, interview preparation, and more!
Pre-Health Reading List: Another great way to gain insight into what it's like to be a health care professional is to read! Click here to view our pre-health reading list, which includes authors from a number of different health professions, as well as topics ranging from patient care, to social justice, to health care policy, among many others.
Helpful Hint: It's extremely important that you keep a detailed record of your experiences as you work towards admission to a health professional school. This includes supervisor names and phone numbers, the number of hours you spent there, and a description of what your responsibilities or duties were. All of this information will be required for each experience you choose to include in your health professional school application, and it can be downright frustrating to try to recall these details years after the fact. To avoid this, we encourage you to use our Extracurricular Tracking Log as a way to record all of this information along the way. Your future self will thank you when you're filling out your application, and all of the information you need is consolidated onto one, simple, organized document.
Reflecting On Experiences
An equally important part of gaining experiences is reflecting and meditating on how these experiences affected you, your beliefs, and your understanding of that particular health profession. We highly recommend creating a journal in which you put these thoughts and realizations into writing, as this will save you a tremendous amount of time when developing your personal statement and/or completing your health professional school application.
Below are some questions to help catalyze the writing and reflection processes:
- How did the experience or life event change and/or shape you, your identity, and/or your world view?
- How did the experience make you feel?
- How did a particular day at the experience, event, patient, conversation, or a particular moment in time make you feel?
- What did you learn about yourself?
- What surprised you? (about yourself, others, or the profession)
- What did you learn about the profession? Did your ideas of the career change or grow at all?
- What did you learn about the individual or community being served? (their life experience, how systems/services affected them, how they interacted with those systems/services and the people within them)
- Did your perspectives change at all? How?
- How did you grow/change/shift?
- What challenged you or your way of thinking? How? What have you done or will you do to reconcile that challenge?
- Be mindful of the "my impact on THEM" side of the story. What was the impact on YOU?
The Core Competencies
The Core Competencies are 15 areas of professional, academic, and interpersonal development that health professional schools are looking for in their applicants. Though this list was originally created for pre-medical students by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), these competencies apply to virtually every health professional program.
According to the AAMC, the 15 Core Competencies are:
Ethical Responsibility to Self and Others
Reliability and Dependability
Resilience and Adaptability
Capacity for Improvement
Academic and extracurricular experiences provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate their aptitude in each of these 15 competency areas. A single experience can demonstrate a student's ability in multiple competency areas at the same time. For example:
- Holding a position as an officer in a campus club or organization may demonstrate teamwork, reliability and dependability, and ethical responsibility to self and others.
- A position as a supplemental workshop leader for a science course may demonstrate oral communication, social skills, scientific inquiry, written communication, quantitative reasoning, knowledge of living systems, and critical thinking.
The Anatomy of an Applicant
For more examples of real stories demonstrating the 15 Core Competencies, as well as a breakdown of the different parts of your health professional school application, visit the AAMC's Anatomy of an Applicant website.