If you’re planning on applying to medical school, you may already be aware that admissions officers look for not only high grades and an impressive MCAT score, but also a range of medically relevant experiences. Participating in such activities—especially in research, clinical experience, and shadowing—will strengthen your candidacy for medical school, plus it’ll help confirm your interest in pursuing a career as a physician and allow you to explore different specialty areas.

We usually recommend that clients applying to med school participate extensively in both clinical experience, in which they have direct contact with patients, and shadowing, in which they observe physicians at work. (Many settings, like hospitals, offer opportunities to do both.) Conducting research also plays an important role; for more information on the role of research in med school candidacy, see our previous blog post, here. To learn about clinical experience and shadowing, read on!

What is clinical experience, and how do I get it?

As far as pre-med activities go, clinical experience—which, again, means working directly with patients—is the most important, both for your resume and for your own personal and professional development. Working in a variety of settings, and with diverse populations, will allow you to try on a variety of specialty areas and see how they fit, as well as to begin to understand different demographics’ needs.

The kinds of clinical experience you’re able to pursue will, of course, depend on how much room you have in your schedule. During the school year, when you’re also attending classes, you might pursue volunteer work in a hospital, hospice, clinic, or nursing home, or work part-time as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) or scribe. You could also volunteer at a crisis hotline, where you’ll be required to undergo training that should prove useful throughout your career, and will have the chance to interact directly with patients in intense psychological need.

During the summer or a gap year, when you have more time, you could explore more involved clinical opportunities, like Physician’s Assistant, that would be difficult or impossible during the school year, or work full-time as an EMT or scribe. You can either apply to formal volunteer and internship programs, which usually offer more regimented clinical experiences, or create your own clinical internship by contacting practitioners and organizations directly. (The latter will likely demand more initiative, but might offer more control over the content of your internship.)

If you’ve already identified your ideal specialty area, you can do clinical work exclusively in that field. For example, if you know you want to become a pediatrician, you could volunteer in a pediatric hospital, pediatric clinic within a hospital, or summer program for children with serious medical issues. If you’re interested in eldercare, you could volunteer at a nursing home or hospice center. But if you haven’t narrowed down your area of interest yet, that’s completely fine—it’s early! Use your clinical experience as a way to explore.

What is shadowing, and how do I do it?

Whereas clinical experience is hands-on, shadowing involves observing physicians at work. Doing a combination of both is a great way to get exposure to the medical world from multiple angles. Shadowing physicians across specialty areas provides a window into different fields’ responsibilities and how specialty areas influence doctors’ lifestyles. (Surgery, for example, demands much more of a doctor’s schedule than does dermatology or allergy, and is more prone to emergencies.) Think of shadowing as a chance to imagine yourself into different medical lives. A good rule of thumb for shadowing hours, as far as applying to medical school is concerned, is somewhere between 60 and 100.

As with clinical experience, there are a few pathways toward lining up shadowing opportunities. If you’re volunteering at a hospital, clinic, or nursing home, it’s likely you can shadow professionals there. Many colleges have student premedical groups affiliated with organized shadowing programs, so explore the opportunities at your university. You can also ask friends, relatives, professors, and even your own doctors to hook you up. And you can always send cold emails—with your resume, transcript, and information about relevant experiences—to physicians you want to work with.

As demanding as medical school applications are, there’s a reason behind their requirements. The more you throw yourself into these activities before you apply, the better prepared you’ll be for med school’s rigors, and the more you’ll understand the kind of physician you want to become. If you would like guidance on any aspect of your pre-med preparation or med school application process, contact Collegiate Gateway. As always, we’re happy to help!