shadowing hours for medical school applications pre-med shadowing med school apps

Shadowing Hours For Medical School Applications

One of the best ways to demonstrate your commitment to medicine in your application to medical school is by shadowing a doctor as a part of your clinical experience. Although it’s not a requirement, shadowing will indicate that you’ve done the research to determine that a career in medicine is right for you. You’ll get an inside look at the day-to-day in the life of a physician, gain insight into what specialties might interest you down the road, and gain valuable connections that could help you get into medical school and, potentially, even get a job when you’ve finished your medical training. 

When should I start shadowing?

Start your search early, much earlier than when you’d like to start your physician shadowing. It’s unlikely you’ll search, contact, and connect with a willing physician right away. Even after you do, your schedules may not line up for several weeks. So don’t expect to cram your pre-med shadowing hours into a few weeks before you start your primary application. Some schools offer a formal shadowing program with hour requirements, organized through an advising office. If that’s the case for you, stay on top of those deadlines. Still a freshman? Focus on your core science grades and building good study habits; you’ll have plenty of time for pre-med shadowing experiences later in college.

Find a Doctor to Shadow

Make a list of medical specialties that you’d like to know more about. If you’re really at a loss, start with the basics: internal medicine, family medicine, or pediatrics.

Know that it can behoove you to learn about multiple medical fields by shadowing doctors with different specializations. Admissions committees like to know that you’ve seen a wide range of medical specialties by the time you apply to their program.

But before you get too far, here’s, a quick “don’t” for physician shadowing: Don’t shadow a family member. Admissions committees frown on it, and you won’t get to practice some of the softer skills of shadowing like building relationships. Do leverage your network, including professors, your pre-health advising office, and classmates for leads on physicians or shadowing programs. Your advisor in particular can point you to medical practices or practitioners with whom others had a good experience previously. Seek out students who have already been accepted to medical school or are farther along in their journey and ask for leads. If you don’t know anyone who can serve as a reference, that’s ok. You can start with your own physician, even if it’s to ask for a referral for another doctor or practice. Or, you can hit Google and look up doctors practicing in the fields you’d like to explore, and email them or cold-call their office directly. You can also do this if there’s a particular type of medicine you’d like to observe. Doctors at teaching hospitals and those affiliated with universities will usually have their contact information available somewhere. Be resourceful.

How to Start Medical Shadowing

Whether you’re reaching out to a physician who has worked with other students in your school or cold-calling, you’ll want to reach out with the same professionalism you’d use when contacting a future employer. Take the time to personalize each email, and include who you are, why you’re reaching out, whether anyone referred, and what you’re looking to gain from a shadowing opportunity. You can also attach your resume. Keep it brief — doctors are busy — and make sure you’re requesting, not demanding, this opportunity.  Even doctors who are generous with their time and teaching will bristle at your demanding their time. Close by offering your availability and asking when a good time and date would work with their schedule. 

Start by contacting a few doctors and wait for responses before moving down your list.. Don’t give up if you don’t hear back from everyone you reached out to, or don’t hear back right away. Politely follow up after a week or so if you haven’t heard anything, and move on if you don’t get a reply. Starting your search early will give you flexibility, even if you get a low response rate. If you’re calling a practice, you may speak to the practice administrator, or hospital volunteer or community relations staff. Use the same business etiquette you would if you were inquiring about a job.

What to Expect From Pre-Med Shadowing

Most likely, you’re not going to be an integral part of the medical practice while shadowing as an undergrad pre-med student. You’ll mostly be a silent observer in the office, learning from an attending physician and watching as she conducts her practice. You will be introduced to patients and the patients will likely be asked whether it’s ok for you to be there to observe.

As a prospective medical student, you may also be asked to participate in patient care. If so, ask for permission before you touch a patient, move them, etc. You will also have to follow hygiene protocols like using gloves, for example, or the hand sanitizer. Your number one concern is the patient in front of you. As such, make sure that everything you say and do in the patient’s space keeps them comfortable. If you have questions, save them for later. You don’t want to accidentally alarm a patient by asking something the doctor hasn’t covered.

Politely—and only when the time is right—ask good questions. Read up on the cases that you see during your time shadowing and bring questions from your readings. Express interest in the field even if you have none (it’ll be good practice for rotations during your third and fourth year as a medical student). Offer to be helpful in any way you can. Many shadowing and clinical experiences turn into opportunities to get letters of recommendation

Shadowing Tips

  • Make sure you have all your documents in order.

    For some shadowing opportunities, you might not have to do much more than show up at the designated time. Larger hospitals, certain clinical settings, or more “official” shadowing programs may have you fill out paperwork, release forms, or have you bring in proof of immunizations, etc. Inquire early so you know what documents and forms of identification to bring on your first day of shadowing.

  • Be on time.

    A doctor’s time is valuable, they’re doing you a big favor by letting you shadow them. Be aware of that, and respectful of their time. Show up a few minutes early to go through any final paperwork check or security protocol, but avoid showing up too early and before the doctor is ready for you.

  • Dress professionally.

    If you’re not sure what the dress code is in the clinical setting where you’ll be doing your physician shadowing, just ask. Plan on dressing business casual, at least. Some hospitals or clinics may have rules, such as keeping visible tattoos covered, or wearing closed-toe shoes. You might spend a lot of the day on your feet, so plan on wearing professional but comfortable shoes.

  • Don’t use your phone.

    Keep your phone off, or on silent mode, throughout your shadowing hours. Most hospitals have rules about cell phone usage on patient floors. Not only that, you want to pay attention and be engaged in the present. You should also avoid taking photos where patients might be, and posting about patients on social media. This may run afoul of hospital and clinic rules.

  • Bring something to take notes with.

    Bring a notepad and pens so you can take notes about your experience, jot down questions you might want to ask later, or write down things you want to look up. This will help you stay present and allow you to reflect on your experience later. That being said, be mindful of patients’ comfort when taking notes. Don’t write down sensitive or identifying information, and try to take notes between patients; not in front of them.

  • Obey HIPAA privacy rules.

    The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, rules mean that you can’t discuss a patient’s condition or care with anyone other than the patient’s medical team. That includes your friends and family. If you’re not sure what the exact rules are, ask. You’ll also need to be extra careful when sharing your experience on social media.

  • Send a thank-you note.

    At the end of your shadowing time, whether it was over the course of several months or for just one day, send a thank-you note to the doctor or team of doctors you shadowed. If you wish to continue the shadowing relationship or gain more clinical experience, you can mention it if it feels appropriate. Building a relationship with a physician that demonstrates your professionalism, discretion, empathy, and curiosity is not just a great experience, it can also provide you with strong mentorship and a letter of recommendation you can be proud of.

Shadowing FAQs

HOW DO I BUILD A NETWORK TO SHADOW?

Your network is all around you. Finding physician shadowing experience is a matter of preparation, time, patience, and persistence. If you have access to a pre-med advisor, start there. They can connect you to physicians that have been open to being shadowed in the past. You can also identify physicians in nearby clinics, hospitals, or private practice with an online search and contact their office by phone or email. Ask your classmates and especially seniors who have already applied to medical school who they shadowed — a referral and warm introduction is always good. But even if you’re flying completely solo, plan far enough ahead so you can fit in your shadowing around your other commitments. You’ll likely get several non-answers and a few polite no-thank-yous, but keep trying.

HOW DO I CONTINUE A SHADOWING RELATIONSHIP?

When you first meet with the physician you are going to shadow, you’ll want to establish a mutual agreement on how much time you’ll spend together to make sure this meets your educational needs and is also something the doctor you match up with can commit to. You’re looking to build a relationship over time and you should express that from the get-go. This doesn’t mean you won’t learn anything from a short stint, but if you want to add this experience to your AMCAS list of activities and maybe get a letter of recommendation, look for a longer commitment over several months. Don’t be shy about expressing this need and meeting several physicians before you find the right match.

HOW MANY HOURS DO I NEED TO SHADOW?

It depends. Since this is not a requirement for your medical school application, you’ll want to find a balance between a length of time that shows commitment, 3-6 months for several hours a week, and managing your school workload. Your main focus should be your academics since they’ll play the biggest role in your acceptance to medical school. This means that maintaining your GPA and working toward a great MCAT score should take precedence.

DOES IT LOOK BETTER TO SHADOW A SURGEON IN A HOSPITAL OR A PRIMARY CARE PHYSICIAN?

Don’t worry about impressing admissions committees with names of high-ranking faculty or renowned surgeons. What matters is what role you played, how long of a commitment you were able to make, and what you learned. A prestigious surgeon that barely spent time with you won’t give you the learning experience you’d get from a primary care physician who took you under their wing. This same reasoning applies to letters of recommendation — don’t look for the person with the most clout but rather the person who can speak most passionately on your behalf. One caveat is if you are applying to DO programs: Many DO programs will want you to have specifically shadowed a DO and some will ask for a letter of recommendation from a DO you’ve worked alongside of.

IS PRE-MED PHYSICIAN SHADOWING CONSIDERED CLINICAL EXPERIENCE?

There are several ways that you can gain pre-med clinical experience: You can participate in direct treatment and care of patients or you can be an observer of the doctor-patient relationship. Just because you aren’t directly providing care doesn’t mean that shadowing is a lesser pursuit. Provided you’ll get enough time, exposure, and mentorship, physician shadowing does count as clinical experience.

CAN I SHADOW A PHYSICIAN IN ANOTHER COUNTRY?

Pre-med internships, physician shadowing opportunities, and hands-on experiences overseas are very popular among medical school applicants. These can be enriching, valuable experiences that can broaden your horizons about how medicine is practiced outside your home country, how the healthcare system functions, and how to interact and communicate with people from other cultures. However, you’ll want to follow the same guidelines as shadowing a physician near you. Ask yourself: How much did you commit, how much did you learn, what did you contribute? You will want to be able to speak convincingly about why you chose this path and how that has contributed to your overall understanding of the practice of medicine.

WHAT IF I CAN’T SHADOW A PHYSICIAN AS A PRE-MED?

There are other ways to gain clinical experience beyond shadowing, so if you cannot find a doctor to take you on, you can check out medical scribing opportunities, volunteering as an emergency medical technician, volunteering in another healthcare setting, and volunteering in hospice care. Being able to deal with end-of-life care, including patients and their families, is an invaluable experience that will prepare you for one of the most challenging parts of working as a physician.

HOW DO I ASK THE PHYSICIAN I SHADOWED FOR A LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION?

Toward the end of your time with the physician you shadowed, you’ll want to let them know how much you learned from them and enjoyed their mentorship. If you feel that your relationship had enough depth that the physician can advocate for your medical school candidacy passionately, ask them for a letter of recommendation. When you ask, give them the same tools you’ll give your other recommenders — a copy of your resume, your personal statement draft if you have one, and your goals. And, set a deadline, maybe one that’s a few days before your actual deadline just to be safe. If they respond with enthusiasm, you’ll likely get a great letter. If they’re reluctant, say they’re busy, or ask you to write it yourself, move on. You don’t want a tepid, formulaic letter.