How to Include and Talk About Extracurricular Activities

I am a strong proponent of including extracurricular activities in applications and during interviews.  Every now and then, I will discover an activity someone does during an interview that wasn’t on their application.  I was in a student interview recently where it came out that the student was on the national gymnastics team, but this wasn’t on their application.  Being on such a high-performance team is an excellent illustration of grit, teamwork, and dedication.  I always wonder, “Why didn’t you put that in your letter, or on your CV?!?”  So let’s talk about including extracurriculars in your professional veterinary progression.

DO include them on your CV.  I recommend people adding a section at the end of their CV for extracurricular activities.  Often this is generic “hiking”, “yoga”, “running”.  But if you have some sort of position of responsibility OR a major achievement, make sure that is listed.  “Instructor, Yoga for All”, “Organizer, Weekly Biking Group”, “Eagle Scout”, and similar indicators of higher responsibility with a hobby will always get my notice. DO NOT provide any description of the role, activity, or responsibilities in the CV.  That can be a part of your letter of intent or interview.  Activities also fit nicely into the same format as the rest of a standard CV. For example:

June 2010 – present        Founder and Instructor, Modern Dance Outreach

MAYBE include them in your letter of intent.  If the activity is a central part of your life, and you want it to continue to be, and speaks to a positive growth/grit/leadership skill you have, then I would suggest including it as a paragraph.  I recommend using an example.  “During my year being a head instructor, I had an instance where…” then describe an event where you demonstrated leadership and/or learned something valuable.  If the activity is one of many hobbies, or something you did in high school and didn’t continue, or you don’t have any particularly important role in, then generally it would not be a good use of space including it in your letter of intent.

IF POSSIBLE, bring them up during the interview.  I always worry about students who have high grades and high GRE scores but NO extracurricular activities.  Academics are important, but there’s more to life than veterinary medicine.  For interns and residents, it’s more understandable- you don’t have much time to have a life outside of those training programs.  But you do have SOME time, and it’s nice to know that the person with whom I am speaking during an interview is a full, living, breathing human being with a wide variety of interests and passions.  I worry about those who ONLY do veterinary medicine- I believe they’re on the path to burnout.  

Bringing your outside activities up during the interview makes sure that the interviewers understand that you have a life outside of veterinary medicine.  If you had a leadership role, you can use the activities as a springboard for providing a story when you had to show leadership, or overcome a challenge, or manage adversity.

What if you don’t have any extracurricular activities?  My advice: get some.  Veterinary medicine is a PEOPLE business.  Learning how to engage with other people is essential, and you develop a lot of those skills being on a team, working with others on a shared goal, and teaching and learning from a variety of people.  Show that you can interact with people in a context outside of veterinary medicine.

Also, chances are you actually DO have extracurricular activities, you’re just not thinking of them as such. Even if you just spend your free time watching TV, try to think of a way to make this work to your advantage. My wife went to school with someone who loved movies so much they went to the video store every day (back when there were such things). That student might have thought, “I don’t have any hobbies; I just watch movies,” but clearly there’s a passion there that would make them memorable to interviewers.  And this person learned a lot about creativity in the process of studying movies, which can translate to veterinary medicine in surprising ways.

What hobbies or activities can you engage in, if you don’t have any from high school?  Clubs are an easy go-to.  You can often become an officer just by showing up consistently.  Any club membership is meaningful, but the more engaged with the community/students and the more socially engaged it is, the better.  Being a member of the pre-vet med club is probably slightly more helpful than being a member of the Mortal Combat gamer club (to say nothing of the greater connections and opportunities in the former).  But any club experience is valuable.

Getting involved in organized physical activities- even something as low-level as an intramural team- is also good, easy, and fun.  Dance, martial arts, and team sports associated with the college or the community are good opportunities to get some leadership experience and grow as a person.  

Playing music in a group- community band, local trad session, etc.- is also a good way to engage with others, develop a fun skill, and show that there is more to you than veterinary medicine.  Other artistic pursuits are also good, even if they are done in isolation.  One person I interviewed did painting on a semi-professional/commission basis, and could speak about it in an interesting, intelligent manner.

When picking activities, you have to be true to yourself.  Don’t do an activity you wouldn’t enjoy just to add it to your CV.  You probably won’t put your best foot forward doing so.

It should go without saying: don’t lie about your activities.  Don’t put leadership or membership roles you didn’t have.  Veterinary medicine is a small world.  It is not unlikely you will be caught.  More importantly, are you adroit enough to lie on the spot during your interview, if the activity in question comes up?  What if the person with whom you are speaking just happens to know a whole lot about that activity and can catch you out?  It’s disrespectful, unprofessional, and, of course, shows a lack of integrity.  Not qualities we are looking for in veterinary medicine.

There is more to life than academics, and this coming from a guy who would love to be a full-time student the rest of his life.  You want to be a well-rounded human being, don’t you?  So get some experience with extracurricular activities.  And, who knows, maybe it will be fun, too.

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