How to highlight your student-athlete experiences for med school applications

athletics medical school admissions strategy

College athletics take a lot of time out of your schedule: student-athletes must reserve four hours per day for practice, multiple hours per week for rehabilitation in the athletic training room, a few hours per month for meetings, and several days per semester for traveling and competing. If you are a pre-med student-athlete, you might begin to wonder if the time spent on your sport could be better allocated to typical pre-med activities like shadowing, research, and clinical hours. However, rest assured that you’ll learn important life skills as a student-athlete which can uniquely bolster your medical school application and help you become a great future physician.

Here are some skills and attributes you have developed as a student-athlete which can help you stand out in your medical school applications.

Time Management

If you’re a pre-med student-athlete, you know that every second of your day matters. You’ve probably been asked, “How do you balance everything?!” many times. Unsurprisingly, medical students and physicians also need to be able to hold a tight schedule and balance multiple commitments. Explain in your application and to your interviewers how much time your sport demands, how you have refined your time-management skills to be a successful student and athlete, and how you will use these skills to be a successful medical student and future physician.

Failure, Perseverance, Reflection

“Tell me about a time you failed.” A student-athlete should have no problem answering this oft dreaded question. Student-athletes fail every day in small and big ways. Maybe you missed an important jump shot or goal, or maybe you couldn’t complete a difficult running workout. Failure is exactly how you become a better athlete, and student-athletes must face their limitations every day to improve their skills and fitness. When athletes fail, we reflect upon the weaknesses that caused us to fail and work on turning those weaknesses into strengths. Then, we come back stronger and better. Similarly, physicians rarely know the answer to complex medical cases, but they reflect upon their experiences and mistakes to become better caregivers for their patients. As a physician, you will fail often, too, and you will be prepared to learn from your failures in medicine thanks to your experiences with failure in sport! 

Sometimes, athletes are put in high-pressure situations and either fail or succeed in big ways. Perhaps you shot a game-winning shot at the buzzer or lost the most important race of your career by one-hundredth of a second. During these intense moments, we often can’t think rationally about our actions and reactions – we learn about our true selves when we are under pressure. Then, we reflect upon our actions and figure out how to be a better player, sportsperson, and teammate. When you become a physician, you will be well-prepared for high-pressure situations in medicine thanks to your experiences as a student-athlete.

Teamwork and Diversity

Whether you play a team sport like basketball or an individual sport like swimming, your teammates rely on you to work hard at practice and perform when it matters. Athletic teams are often comprised of individuals with diverse skillsets and backgrounds - working together to maximize the contribution of everyone’s strengths is one of the most challenging aspects of sport. Everyone cannot always perform at their best, and teams often have members who don’t get along with each other. You’ve probably learned to motivate teammates who are down or resolve conflicts between members of your team when something doesn’t go well. Similarly, as a future medical student and physician, you will work on diverse teams with people who have different strengths than you. You will be able to draw upon your experiences in sport to mitigate conflicts within teams, help others showcase their strengths, and contribute your own strengths to your team when your teammates are relying on you.

Injuries and Health

Unfortunately, many student-athletes experience a minor or serious injury during their career. During times when we are injured, we learn not only to adapt to new methods of training but to value our own health. If you’ve experienced an injury that caused you to seek the help of physicians and spend time in rehabilitation, then you have learned what it is like to be a patient. And you might have even experienced what it is like to live with a temporary (or in some cases, permanent) disability. What did you learn from your interaction with physicians and healthcare professionals from your perspective as a patient? What did they do well, and what do you think could be improved for the benefit of the patient? How can we increase accessibility for people living with disabilities? Perhaps your experience as a patient motivated you to seek a career in healthcare. In your application, explain how your experiences as an injured patient will inform your future practice as a physician and make you a better caregiver.

Criticism and Coachability

At practice, student-athletes must constantly respond to criticism. Your coach probably gives you feedback every time you do… anything. As such, you’ve certainly learned how to handle criticism and be a coachable athlete and person. Similarly, throughout medical school, residency, fellowships, and your career as a physician, you will constantly receive feedback from your mentors and patients. To be an excellent physician, you must embrace criticism and respond to feedback well. You must be coachable! As a student-athlete, you have been practicing these skills since you began your career in sport. In your medical school applications and interviews, you should highlight how your coachability and ability to respond to criticism will help you grow throughout your career and learn how to be the best doctor that you can be for your future patients.

Michaela is an MD/PhD at Harvard-MIT. She holds a BS in Biochemistry with minors in Philosophy and Biomedical Engineering from the University of Colorado (summa cum laude), where she was an NCAA Division I, All-American track athlete.

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