Tip #3: Maintain your hobbies, interests, & activities
This tip is extremely important, because devoting all of your energy to medical school will only work for a limited period of time—then you'll hit Burnout. Hard. If you want to maintain your physical and mental health, you need to take breaks from studying, use different parts of your brain, learn new things, and move your body: you need to be a human being, not a robot.
(If you are of that rare breed that plans to become an MD/PhD, perhaps this tip doesn’t apply to you. You all seem pretty content to live in a lab for 40 years straight. In fact, most of this blog probably doesn’t apply to you; you should just come back in a month and read the interview tips I put up.)
Why you need hobbies and commitments
First of all, if you want to become a physician, you need to learn how to work toward a goal while living a healthy life. Face it: you will be working hard for the rest of your life, starting right now. – That thought is terrifying only if you’re spending all of your energy on one goal. Once you realize that you are able to devote time to ballet class, weekly movie nights with friends, or what have you, the hard work won't seem as daunting.
Second: medical schools want to find intelligent, emotionally stable, and diverse candidates. Having hobbies and non-medical commitments is a sign of emotional health, because your whole life doesn’t revolve around applying to medical school. (Think about it: someone who has only one interest seems a little bit crazy.) You need to show whoever reads your application that you’re capable of managing commitments to a wide range of activities; after all, that's what you’ll be required to do as a doctor.
If you don’t have any hobbies, find some—NOW
You do not want to be boring—as a human being or as a medical school candidate. Something about you should be memorable. It doesn’t matter how cool, challenging, or silly your interests are, just have some. They don’t need to be typical interests, nor do they need to be “sanctioned” (i.e. being part of an official club). Just consistently do something that you enjoy.
Note that the key difference between a hobby and a random activity is consistency, especially if your hobby is something you do alone. For example, if reading is your hobby, be prepared to talk about the books you enjoy with your interviewers. (Reading one book per semester is not a hobby! If you haven’t actually read much, your interviewers will be able to tell.) But, also note that trying new things can be a hobby, as long as it’s a consistent behavior. (For example, a group of my friends started a pizza club, and they tried a new pizza place every Wednesday night.)
It’s also okay—great, in fact—to point out that your interest is new and you’re just starting to explore it. This demonstrates that you’re open to new ideas, that you enjoy learning, etc. In an essay or interview, you’d say something like: “I’ve always wanted to be more of a reader, so a couple of months ago I committed to reading one book per week. I haven’t been able to do it every week, but I have finished a lot of books that I enjoyed.” Then you might talk about what sort of effect the new hobby is having on your life. Say, you’ve noticed you’re sleeping better because reading before bed relaxes you.
How your interests affect your demeanor
It’s a lot easier to be interesting when you're interested. During my interviews, I spent a lot of time discussing my minor (philosophy), how I use exercise to relieve stress, and other semi-random things. That’s what my interviewers wanted to know about, not my GPA, MCAT score, or shadowing experience. (I am aware of how obnoxious this paragraph sounds. Please realize that I'm not claiming I'm interesting, just that my interest, in one-on-one conversation, is engaging.) Plus, when I sent my interviewers thank-you notes, I could remind them specifically of who I was by writing things like, “I really enjoyed our conversation about Nietzsche and medical ethics. And thank you for telling me about Charles Taylor. I plan to look into his work when finals are over next week.” –You get the point.
I’ve always heard that people only remember what you tell them if it’s in the form of a personal story. And I’ve also heard that people tend to remember how they felt while they were with you more than what you actually said. I think both of these are true. When you talk to interviewers, doctors you shadow, professors, etc., you want them to feel like they’re talking to a colleague. You want to be interesting, confident, personable, and professional. Having interests and being a normal yet unique person is a good step in this direction.
(Of course, becoming confident is easier said than done. More on that in the future.)