School is finally out for the summer. So what’s next for pre-med students charting their path to a physician’s white coat? Before staking out a chair by the pool or a desk at the library, consider this: The summer break is a huge opportunity to gain valuable experience that can help you shape your future medical career. How should students make the most of those finite resources, time and opportunity?

As an associate dean for admissions, I read every medical student application. One key takeaway is that while all applicants need solid test scores and grades, students are much more than just numbers on a page. Activities outside the classroom go a long way to round out an application. They also can provide direct experience with medicine, which is always the first thing I look for in an application. Meaningful exposure to medicine can help clarify if it’s really the right career for students, who are often so focused on getting into medical school that they forget to evaluate if the work of a doctor is the right fit.

Applicants stand out by making a point of immersing themselves in medical care, for example by shadowing in a doctor’s office or assisting in a clinical research project. So before applying to medical school, follow these steps to get the ball rolling:

What you need

If your resume is outdated–or if you don’t have one–now is the time to create or update your CV with new experience and skills. You will also need references, so start reaching out to your professors, employers, organization leaders and the community members that know you well. Armed with a CV and two or three references, you’ll be ready to make a great first impression.

Where to look

Students often complain of the catch-22 that you need experience in order to get experience. Volunteering is a great way to break that cycle and get through the door. Go to a local hospital or university medical center employment office and ask about the opportunities to volunteer. In some places, there may even be organizations dedicated to placing volunteers, like the Clinical Care Extender program in California. In either case, be ready with your CV and letters of recommendation so that you can begin the process right away.

Volunteering will also help develop the empathy that is so crucial to success as a doctor. Medicine is a relational career path. The experience and interpersonal skills that you gain as a volunteer will serve you well in life and especially in a career in medicine.

What else to do?

There is always research going on at university medical centers and teaching hospitals in your area – and always a need for assistance. Speak with someone at the office of graduate medical education, draft a short mission statement and drop it off with a copy of your CV. If you’re not near a teaching hospital, consider volunteering as a scribe in an emergency room.  If local hospitals are not an option, then reach out to a department head at your university. Whether they work in molecular genetics, cell biology or any of the core medically related sciences, this work will be an excellent alternative to clinical studies. Joining a research team will build both teamwork and critical thinking – skills that are indispensable as a medical student.

What does your school look for?

Once you’ve identified your top choices for medical school, make strategic connections between the opportunities at those schools and your choice of summer activities. Pausing to map out a path to your specific target schools will make both your summer and year-round activities more strategic and goal-oriented. It may even reveal gaps in your resume that are unique to an individual school’s values and opportunities.

Don’t let this summer pass you by. In a few months, when you measure progress in becoming a standout medical school applicant, remember that a tan fades and even MCAT prep may have a point of diminishing returns. Get up and venture into the medical community – CV and references in hand. In addition to extra application points, if you’re lucky, you could receive your first lessons in patient care as well.

Carey James, Associate Dean of Operations, Analysis, and Admissions, has served Ross University School of Medicine (RUSM) in a wide variety of roles for more than a decade. Dean James joined RUSM in 2004 as an Assistant Professor in the Biochemistry Department. In 2007, he joined the Admissions Department, where he has served in numerous capacities.