Please note that this page reflects the opinion of the writer, and that what they "recommend" might not be the best decision for your particular situation. It is highly recommended that you also seek out other testimonies, etc. and make the most informed decision for yourself.

All hyperlinks are colored in blue.

This page is written by Nguyen Le. Last Updated on December 30, 2021.

Legal Disclaimer/Financial Disclosure:
1. I have no financial relationship or support to disclose. All organizations and products mentioned on this page are discussed based on my experiences and my discussion with other Pre-Med students. The organizations and the owners of the products did not contact or sponsor me to be promoted on this page.
2. Unless stated specifically, I do NOT have any endorsement or recommendation for any groups, companies, organizations, or products mentioned below.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: to read what our alumni have to say about opportunities offered at UCLA, please head over to our Recs Guide (From Former Bruins) Page



On the AMCAS Applications, you are given fifteen (15) “activities” slots. However, you can allocate some of these slots to describe your leadership positions, honors and awards, etc. As a result, do NOT feel that you have to do 15 different activities (it is physically impossible to do so anyway). It is MUCH BETTER that you focus on a few activities that you are really interested in and get the most out of those (then, the 15 slots will be naturally filled in with your work and accomplishments).

At the end of the day, your GPA is important. GPA and MCAT are not everything, but they have a strong positive correlation to your chances of being admitted to medical schools. In other words, those with better stats and shorter list of extracurricular activities tend to perform better on medical school admissions compared to those with lower stats and more expansive lists of extracurricular activities.

Extracurricular activities are important for many reasons, which we will discuss below. However, do NOT let them influence your grades. Once you start dipping below the 3.50, maybe you should focus on getting those numbers up instead of relying on your extracurricular activities list to bail you out.

In short, do NOT be the one who only focuses on classes without paying attention to other areas of professional development. However, also do NOT be the one who is caught up with all of the extra stuff and let your academics suffered. There needs to be a balance between the two.

If you are intending to pursue an MD/PhD dual degree (also known as MSTP – Medical Scientist Training Program), 80% of your time outside of classes should be dedicated towards your research experience. I have been told that MD/PhD are built for researchers who want to get clinical training, NOT for clinicians who want to get research training. Also, most people who finish their MD/PhD program spend the majority of their time in a research lab, and a minority of their time seeing patients. Very few do a 50/50 split. As a result, your extracurricular activities must also reflect this strong focus (and interest) in research to show that you are comfortable with this particular style of work.

I propose that you follow the following rule of three (03):

  1. One (01) CLINICAL Activity
  2. One (01) RESEARCH Activity
  3. One (01) NON-CLINICAL Activity

Of course, you are welcome to add more if you can handle more, especially if your grades are good (e.g. 3.70+). However, whenever you add an activity, you should always ask yourself:

  1. If you can handle more
  2. Why you are joining a particular activity and whether it brings you any benefits, personally and/or professionally
  3. Whether you would want to add more stuff to your plate, or you would rather spend the extra time to: (1) relax, (2) do even better in classes, or (3) get more results out of your current activities (e.g. research)

Previously, I suggested that you follow the following rule of three (03).

  1. One (01) CLINICAL Activity
  2. One (01) RESEARCH Activity
  3. One (01) NON-CLINICAL Activity

Obviously, you can be concerned that: if everyone does the same thing, how do we set ourselves apart? The answer is: let your work and journey speak for themselves. Perhaps, the following points might guide your decision-making process regarding your pre-medical journey as well:

  • Everyone’s path to medicine is different. That is what the personal statement is for. Look inward and see what drives you to this career. Then, execute on what you wish you can accomplish as a pre-medical student.
  • Constantly ask yourself: are you proud of your work? Do you wish that you would have spent the time more efficiently, or are you feeling like you are wasting your time being non-productive? Breaks are important, but if you spend the nights partying, you have no rights to complain about your grades.
  • Do you think you have done enough clinically to show your dedication to medicine? What do you learn about the field through your experiences? Can you answer the question “what does it mean to be a doctor” comfortably and with pride?
  • Are you dedicated to your research? Do you know what you are talking about, or you simply go in and run gels as you are asked to? We will expose you if you don’t know your projects and role in your lab.
  • How about your other areas of interest? Rank them and tackle them in order of importance (i.e., gradually add in as you feel like you can handle more). What do you wish to accomplish? Do you think you achieved them, or what else do you want to do?

  1. Resume is important, but it is not everything. If you walk in with a shining resume and have no idea who you are, it will hurt you in more ways that you can imagine. As a result, you need to be dedicated to the process of self-improvement and doing a good job yourself, and other things will fall into their rightful places as time progresses. Everyone gets 24 hours a day, and the best ones know how to utilize that limited resources.

Clinical Activities

​As a UCLA student, you have access to a plethora of clinical opportunities. I generally recommend that you start out with a volunteering activity before you transition to other avenues, but that is really up to you.
I will also withhold my own judgments and evaluations of activities. I will mention a few activities as examples for each of the category, but at the end of the day, I do not believe that there is one central “best” activity. Each one will fit a person differently. What might fit me does not necessarily fit you. As a result, this is a personal decision for you to make.


Just remember this as you go through your clinical experiences:

  1. As a student, you will not get to do a whole lot because you are not properly trained. You will always have a desire to do more, but you simply do not know enough to do more. Embrace that struggle, or it will swallow you.
  2. Real life is not the same as what is depicted on TV. Even in the ER, the code light does not always go off. You can volunteer for 3 months in the ER without seeing a single trauma case. That happened to my friend. In fact, medicine is not all about the crowded, fast-paced, procedures-focused scenarios that you see in the media. In fact, it might be helpful to think: a good day is a slow day because not many people get hurt, or not as seriously.
  3. Like many things in life, it will be exciting at first, and then, it just seems to become monotonous as you get used to it – at least from the actions side. For example, primary care physicians will probably ask the same set of questions for every patient. In that case, will you quit medicine when the flame goes away?

As you participate in your clinical activity, it is important that you periodically take a step back and reflect. Ask: What does it mean to be a doctor? Can you imagine yourself working in this environment? What is keeping you up and motivated to go to work? Are you excited to meet patients every day? Can you handle the high and low of the life of being a doctor? These questions are for you to answer as you go through your clinical experiences. You must be honest, or it will come back and bite you later. Remember: there is nothing wrong with walking away from being a Pre-Med. If that is the case for you, you at least discover one path that does not suit you. Then, you can put efforts into finding something else that you are really interested in and make a positive contribution to society, such as being an engineer, a teacher, an entrepreneur, etc. If you know that medicine is something that you want to dedicate yourself to, you need to push through (or find a new activity – but don’t switch every so often because good things take time to develop).

Normally, you will contact individual physicians for this one. Right now, shadowing is not allowed due to COVID.

However, there is a student group dedicated to this: PULSE.

There is also the Cedars-Sinai Pre-Med Volunteer Program.

There are too many to list. You can find the complete list HERE.

If you are a part of a student group, we recommend that you also have a clinical activity in a hospital/clinical setting. The reason is: it is not every day that you see patients as a member of the student group, so it is better that you have something on a more continuous (e.g., weekly) basis.

Some examples include:

You can also have a clinical experience while getting paid for it. Please note that the programs/companies listed below are merely examples that I am aware of for that particular category of activity. This is in no way a form of endorsement for the programs/companies mentioned.:

  • Emergency Medical Technician – there are two main categories:
    • 9-1-1 EMTs: these EMTs work closely with the Fire Department to deal with 9-1-1 calls and trauma cases (e.g., accidents). It may sound exciting, but the frequency of calls depends on the location, and not every call will result in a Code 3 transport (with sirens and lights). Hours tend to be also a lot more brutal (e.g., I have seen people on calls for 24-48 hours straight). For UCLA students, there is UCLA EMS, which you can apply to work at. They have more students-friendly hours, and historically, all medical school applicants from UCLA EMS get admitted to at least a medical school (i.e., 100% acceptance rate).
    • Inter Facility Transfer (IFT): these EMTs do not respond to 9-1-1 calls. Instead, they focus on transporting patients, via ambulances, between care facilities (e.g., hospitals). IFTs are known for more students-friendlies hours. One example to look at is PRN Ambulance.
    • There are also EMT positions at Emergency Departments. However, these are harder to get and mostly Per Diem (you will be called to work only if there is a gap, i.e., you have to work around other people’s schedule).
    • It is important to note that there is about a $2,000 investment upfront to get an EMT license before you can apply to work. You can get this through UCLA Center for Prehospital Care . The class is a lot of fun, but it is a big financial investment.
  • Front Desk Staff at a Clinic
  • Medical Assistant – not commonly seen with full-time students, also need to take and pass a training course (with certification)
  • Nursing Assistant – more commonly seen with pre-nursing students, also need to take and pass a training course (with certification)
  • Scribe, where you help clinicians’ chart – one example is ScribeAmerica

For all of these, you obviously need a reliable transportation method, such as a car (with the exception perhaps being only UCLA EMS).

It is possible to work on top of being a full-time student as some students demonstrate. However, the majority do have trouble balancing the commitments due to transportation issues and the (higher) hours requirements associated with a paid position (relative to a student group for example). As a result, if you want to get a paid position, you need to be good with your time management skills.


HIGHLY RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: Undergraduate Research Center - Sciences


For medical school applications, you do NOT need to do research to be a successful applicant. However, we strongly RECOMMEND that you DO RESEARCH for the following reasons:

  1. Top medical schools are research institutions, where 95% of their students have past research experiences. As a result, we argue that if you want to have a shot at these schools, you should do research, or you will arguably be at a disadvantage (unless your application really stands out in other ways).
  2. Research will be helpful for you in the long run.
    1. It will train you to read scientific papers and articles. This is helpful for the MCAT, medical school, and beyond. As a future physician, you will have to constantly read new study, analyze scientific data, etc. Also, the MCAT is based on reading comprehension of short (scientific) passages. As a result, to prepare for such challenges ahead, you should practice your ability to read and synthesize information quickly from dense articles now, through your research experience.
    2. It will help you practice organizing thoughts in your head and communicating ideas to those who are not as familiar with your work. This is significant because as a physician, you will work with patients who often have little understanding of your field of practice. You cannot just go around saying random technical words and expect them to understand you. As a result, this is now a good time for you to learn how to communicate complex ideas to those who know little about your work.
    3. Medicine is a life-long learning endeavor. For many cases, you will not know the answer and need to go find it, if such a thing even exists in the first place (e.g., is there a universal cure to cancer?). As you try to find the answer, it can get really frustrating. However, you need to embrace this journey into the unknown because that is the nature of the process. Research can help you prepare for this journey by providing you with a relatively safe practice place. In contrary to popular belief, things usually do not work in labs. However, as you persist through the failed experiments on your way to finding an answer, you will grow as a researcher and learner. In the end, thanks to your developed persistence and critical thinking ability, you can succeed in not only medicine but also other endeavors in your life.

The answer is: you don’t know. You have an idea, but that idea is likely going to change.

Of course, a few of you already know what you are passionate about. But even then, I still say that you should keep an open mind for what to come. For most others, just keep exploring. We are still young and do not know enough yet to formulate an idea of what we truly want to work on.

Most people know and understand that interests do change over time. As a result, you should stop worrying about the idea of finding “the true calling.” Whatever you are liking right now, explore it. Take a dive and see what comes out of it.

  • If you really like it, keep going.
  • If you hate it, make a decision early. Then, you know what you do NOT want to work on. With that being said, it is important to note that all good things take time. For example, you cannot expect to discuss promising state-of-the-art stem cell treatments when you barely know how to get the stem cells in the first place. Learning takes time. As a result, you should try your absolute hardest, and if you don’t see yourself going anywhere, then make a call and try the next thing. Life is too short for regrets and pondering.

When you go on for interviews, people will ask for your work and interests. However, people know that interests do change, so they will not hold you to your words regarding that topic. For example, they will not track you down after 8 years to make sure that you become a cardiologist because you said so during the interview. They only ask that you showed your genuine interest in a topic, explained what drives you to learn more about it, and demonstrated how you set out to fulfill that interest.

We highly recommend that you start early. An extended research experience will give you more time to:

  1. grow as a researcher/learner,
  2. accomplish something such as a poster/presentation/publication, and
  3. get more 199 units (usually a guaranteed “A” if you work hard enough)

However, we generally recommend that you should spend your first 1-2 quarters at UCLA figuring out your study habits before even thinking about research.

Speaking of publications, they are NICE TO HAVE but not NECESSARY. Having them can boost your chances to be accepted to a medical school, but we have seen many successful applicants who did not have any. Plus, we understand that there are many factors that will influence the likelihood that someone will get a publication – some of which are luck-dependent:

  1. How hard you work – probably about the only thing that you can control
  2. How early/late did you join the project
  3. The difficulty of the project – no one actually knows until the project is finished (or worse, ended prematurely)

As a result, it is much better that you focus on doing a good job as a researcher, and other things will fall into places.

Remember the key point is that through your research experience, you want to grow as a scientist and learner. To do so,

  • Do spend time in the lab to have more opportunities to practice and improve your skills. Recommended time: 10 hours/week.
    • All good things take time. Think of it like activation energy. You need to somehow get through that hump first. The faster you can get through it; the easier things will become in the long run. And the only way you can get through the hump quickly is to put a lot of efforts into it.
    • Conducting research is like walking through a maze. In a maze, it takes so much time for you to find a way out, but once you see it, you sprint forward. Same thing in research. It takes you so much time to find an approach that works, and once you find it, everything will start to fall into places. But to reach that stage of finding an approach that works, that takes times and efforts.
    • Moreover, it is important that you show up because your consistent presence will help you build trust. People need to know that they count on you, and that you can deliver on (or beyond) their expectations. The only way that you can do that is to always be there, work hard, and show that you (1) care about your and their projects and (2) will do whatever it takes (ethically, of course) to help finish the research endeavors.
  • Practice your critical thinking skills.
    • Think about what you are doing. If you only go in and do what you are told to do without thinking about it, we will expose you during medical school interviews.
    • Ask questions.
      • As an underclassman, you have the freedom to ask your upperclassmen and graduate mentor about why things are done in a certain way. So, stay curious. However, when you are an upperclassman, it is now on you to find the answers yourself to move your project forward. Also, you have underclassmen coming to you for answers, so you need to be on your game.
      • We recommend that you try to ask at least 1-2 questions during each lab meeting. When you start out, if you are shy, you can come up with questions (even if basic), keep them to yourself, and ask them after lab meetings to your upperclassmen and/or graduate mentors (or better yet, go find the answers yourself before asking). As you become more senior, you should feel more confident in asking questions. The reason why we suggest you doing this is that: (1) if you have a goal, you force yourself to meet that goal, so in this case, you force yourself to get into the habit of asking questions, and (2) you force yourself to analyze data on the spot and improve your processing speed. If you do not force yourself to get into this habit, you will never get better.
    • Read papers critically. As I reflect on my research experience, I realize that the activity that is most beneficial to my growth is also perhaps the most painful one: journal club. Journal club required a tremendous amount of work because to prepare for it, I needed to sit down and think about each and every single little detail of the papers critically. It was hard at first because I did not know what I was doing, and I was going through these articles at a turtle speed. However, over time, my skills gradually got better with practice, and thanks to those sessions, I grew as a thinker, learner, and researcher. So perhaps, my suggestion to you is to have these mini journal club sessions for yourself every once in a while. For example, every quarter, pick a paper of your interest, and force yourself to find 5 things that the paper did well in and 5 things that the paper could improve upon. By forcing yourself into finding these details (with a definite target number such as “3” or “5”), you are motivated to read the paper over and over again and think about each detail a lot more in-depth. And in the process, you grow so much faster in your critical thinking ability. It will be hard at first, but it will get easier over time.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: UCLA Undergraduate Research Center – Sciences – Finding a Project and Mentor

Unfortunately, there is no central database that I am aware of that keep track of all of the opportunities, so your best resource will be:

  1. Department Websites
  2. Your Major Counselor or the Counselor of the undergraduate field that you are interested in (e.g., MCDB). They typically have a good idea of which PI might fit what you are looking for. Please note that you can’t find a Counselor for Medicine, because Medicine is not a major. If you want to venture into subspecialities (e.g., Orthopedics Surgery) and the people you are looking at do not have a dual appointment with say the Physics Department (i.e., a department that offers an undergraduate major), you are kind of on your own on that.

Before you contact the faculty, please make sure that you already checked out their lab topics and read a few of their publications. Then, as you write the email(s), be specific, i.e., include why you want to be a part of their team and ask if they are recruiting.

Remember that when you choose a lab, you are NOT married to that topic for life. Interests do change over time. As a result, as an undergraduate, you should focus on developing your skills as a researcher. Obviously, please do not contact labs that you have no interest in. That will be a waste of time for all parties involved.

However, be flexible in your interests because principle investigators (PIs) run projects that are of interest to them, not you, so you cannot ask for a 100% match.

Many students also start out as a work-study student working as a tech in a lab, and then work their way up into a research position.

For an extensive list of programs available, please visit UCLA Undergraduate Research Center - Sciences

You should look through them and get an idea because some programs start early/late or might even have specific deadline applications, for example:

You should also look into other places for summer programs if those also interest you. Amgen Scholars, for example, is offered at many institutions around the country (i.e., not just at UCLA). However, be sure to weigh the pros and cons between trying something new vs. spending the summer time with your current lab to finish/push forward your project.

Other than the clear option to get an M.D. and a Ph.D. separately, you should also check out the following programs:

  • M.D./Ph.D. (e.g., UCLA MSTP) is an 8-year, often fully funded, program where you will do 2 years of medical schools, then 4 years of Ph.D., before finishing up with 2 years of clerkships. It is nice because everything is paid for (and you get a stipend on top of it). However, your clinical interest is not usually formed until after clinical rotations, so there is a chance that your research and clinical interest might not align post-medical school. Also, coming back to the clinical side after spending 4 years in Ph.D. can be brutal because you might forget a lot of things.
  • STAR (e.g., UCLA STAR Program) is strictly for fellowship (i.e., post-residency, with perhaps the only exception being Anesthesiology). They allow you to pursue research during the fellowship and get a doctoral degree in the process (with extra time added to your training, such as +3 instead of a +4 for a Ph.D.). It is nice because at that point, you have an idea of what your clinical interest is, and you can tailor your research accordingly. With this option, there is no gap during your M.D. training. However, you have to pay for medical school. And few institutions offer STAR, or STAR-equivalent.

While there is no clear cut on which program is “better” than the other, one of my old PIs recommend that one should choose one program over the other depending on when they are ready to get more scientific training. If the student believes that they want to get the training right away, do the M.D./Ph.D. If they believe that they want more time and would rather not do 2 things at once (given that both an M.D. and a Ph.D. are incredibly intensive endeavors in their own rights), maybe the STAR program is more beneficial.

The answer depends on your topic of interest and how involved you are. You might not need a Ph.D. if:

  • You are only interested in clinical studies, or
  • You have no interest in running your own lab, or
  • You partner with someone with a Ph.D. for your basic science/translational research

Of course, if you do really good work, a Ph.D. is not a requirement. However, I have been informed that research grants are more and more looking for someone with a Ph.D. because having Ph.D. signifies that that person has received formal, rigorous training (which is also a huge plus). And when someone starts out, having a Ph.D. may help with securing some of the grants aimed at aiding young faculties.