Should You Include Religious or Political Activities on a Medical School Application?

Kathleen Franco, M.D.

You've undoubtedly heard that if you want to avoid conflict, refrain from talking about religion and politics. While I generally subscribe to that thinking, I believe that there are exceptions when it comes to applying to medical school.

I will offer you my best advice as though I were working with you individually; your job will be to determine where you fit into the scenarios I describe.

When I've been asked by med school candidates if they should include their religious or political activities on their application, perhaps surprisingly, my short answer is yes.

Don't shy away from including these activities on your med school application. After all, they are part of what makes up your experiences and philosophy of life. I would caution you, however, to take a hard look at the amount of time you spend involved in these activities versus others on your list, and the types of organizations you're involved in.

[Read: 10 Actions That Hurt Your Medical School Chances.]

Let's say you spent 1,000 hours working for a political candidate and 25 hours volunteering at a nursing home. Let's also say that, in your opinion, working for the candidate was more important than volunteering at the nursing home.

While I won't argue against your opinion, I will say that some on the admissions committee may believe that engaging with nursing home residents versus a political candidate is more important for your professional development.

In terms of the types of organizations you're involved in, know that the more recognized the political organization is, the better it may be received. For example, if you're involved with the Republican or Democratic party, both of which are mainstream groups, by all means include that information in your application.

However, if you're volunteering for a fringe or radical group, and especially if you're committing a significant amount of time to it, I would avoid disclosing that information.

[READ: What to Consider Before Applying to Medical School.]

Know that an admissions committee may view certain political and religious activities more favorably than others. As an example, time spent serving in a soup kitchen on behalf of your religious group will likely be viewed more favorably than time spent fundraising for that same group.

Keep in mind also that you'll want to strike a balance between the time and commitment you give to your political and religious activities and the time and commitment it's going to take to become a physician. You don't want the screener to believe that your social agenda is more important than medical school and becoming a physician.

I encourage you to include your religious and political activities in your essays in addition to your med school application. By doing this, you offer the screener a second look at the dedication and affinity you feel toward those groups. Writing about your experiences with those groups also highlights how important they are to you and how they have helped shaped you into the person you are.

Some students express wariness about including religious and political activities on their application and in essays because they are uncertain how the screeners will react. I can assure you that there are as many individual differences in screeners as you can possibly imagine.

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I know screeners who fall into ultra-right, ultra-left and moderate categories. I know screeners who are atheists and devout worshippers. Who will review your application is the big question. Most screeners try to be fair, but, in truth, unconscious bias may affect their decision.

In my experience, I can recall retrieving a few applications that were initially screened out because of screener sensibilities. You can't count on that happening, of course, especially when screeners are sorting through thousands of applications.

With this in mind, if your application is not as strong as it could be, I recommend you play it safe by trying to appeal to most everyone and avoiding potentially controversial topics. Focus on your volunteerism and experiences as they relate to healthcare.

If I were a med school applicant, I wouldn't want to attend a school that didn't want me as I am. The school would accept me as a whole package, including all my activities. I hope most schools would agree with that viewpoint. Nonetheless, when thinking about what and how much you wish to reveal about your religious and political activities, carefully consider the caveats above.