Clinical volunteer work is an absolute must on the medical school application. This is a given. Without substantial clinical experience in some facet of medicine, your application will be incomplete and you will be at a significant disadvantage.
How you choose to spend that clinical volunteer time is flexible though, as you have multiple options. One great option, which should likely be explored by all prospective medical school applicants at some point, is shadowing a doctor.
Physician shadowing is certainly a positive experience for a number of reasons. At the same time though, shadowing can have its pitfalls. In order to maximize the value you derive from shadowing, you should look to achieve a few specific things. Additionally, understanding the limitations of shadowing will allow you to target the experience toward what it can effectively provide. Here is a guide for what you should look to achieve through a shadowing experience.
1 | Explore Medicine – Is it Right for You?
The first and most basic goal of shadowing is to gain exposure to what medical practice actually looks like. Sure, shadowing gives you a small amount of education about medicine itself simply by diffusion — the movement of knowledge from an area of higher concentration (physician) to an area of lower concentration (student). Yet the small amount of medical knowledge you might gain from the experience is trivial and essentially meaningless in the big picture of your path towards medicine. You will learn so much more in the thousands of hours of medical school and residency, so do not worry about actually picking up medical knowledge when shadowing.
…shadowing gives you a small amount of education about medicine itself simply by diffusion — the movement of knowledge from an area of higher concentration (physician) to an area of lower concentration (student).
Instead, observe as closely as you can what it actually looks like to be a physician. See what the doctor’s job looks like, from their daily routine, to how they interact with patients, to how much time they spend in the operating room versus the clinic, etc. This is the true learning opportunity of shadowing. All the while, ask yourself the following questions:
Is this work exciting and engaging to me?
What aspects of the physician’s job do I particularly like or dislike?
Can I see myself doing this for my career?
Answering these important questions will allow you to decide whether medicine is truly a good fit for you, which is the most basic (and possibly the most important) purpose of shadowing.
2 | Strengthen Your Application
There is no doubt that shadowing can be a strong clinical experience to list on your medical school application. Continuity with the experience is key, so try to put in hours longitudinally over the course of weeks to months.
At the same time, I would caution you with the following: don’t allow shadowing to be your only clinical experience. At its essence, shadowing is a passive endeavor. It allows for learning through observation but not through action. Some portion of your clinical experience should be more active, allowing you to have some direct responsibilities (for example cleaning patient rooms) or direct patient contact (for example patient transport in the hospital). Seek out these active roles as well to complement your shadowing experience.
3 | Obtain a Letter of Recommendation
One of the most beneficial and likely the most tangible output of a shadowing experience is a letter of recommendation. Shadowing is a unique opportunity to work one-on-one and build a relationship with a physician. If, as recommended above, you spend a substantial amount of time in a clinic or with a single doctor, you will likely develop a relationship with them.
Show initiative by being an active observer and asking questions when appropriate. Don’t overdo it though. Be mindful of the physician’s time and workflow, but when time allows, show your interest and enthusiasm by asking questions and engaging in dialogue.
One of the questions you may ask, after spending a good amount of time with the physician and gaining their trust, is whether they would be willing to write you a strong letter of recommendation. Shadowing, like research, is one of the unique times when you have a great opportunity to work closely with a mentor; this relationship can later lead to a letter of recommendation.
4 | Seek Advice About the Process of Becoming a Doctor
Along the lines of actively asking questions, it is great idea to seek the advice of the physicians you work with. Do they have specific recommendations or strategies to help with becoming a physician? Do they have perspective on the particular specialty they work in and is this of any interest to you? Seek the physician’s advice on their experience and what lead them to where they are today. Learning how someone else achieved what you hope to one day achieve will only better your understanding of what it takes to get there.
Learning how someone else achieved what you hope to one day achieve will only better your understanding of what it takes to get there.
5 | Be Creative and Seek Opportunities
Finally, think outside the box when shadowing. What I mean by this is understand that shadowing and thereby building a relationship with one or more physicians can lead to other great opportunities.
For example, if your preceptor does clinical research projects with patients, maybe you can help them collect this data. If they are interested in quality improvement projects which use chart review, perhaps you can help them organize or collect that data.
Be aware that the shadowing experience may open up other doors. Keep your eye out for these chances, and if they arise be proactive in seizing the opportunity by showing your genuine interest and your enthusiasm to help.
With that you have a tangible framework of 5 discrete goals to keep in mind when shadowing. This framework will allow you to maximize the benefit of your shadowing experience, both by bettering your understanding of medicine as a whole and by strengthening your future medical school application.
If you would like any further guidance on physician shadowing, extracurricular activities, or any other component of the medical school application process, the Med School Insiders team is always excited and ready to provide you whatever advice or support you need.