Want to know how to shadow a doctor as a pre-med?
For some, it might be as easy as asking a family friend or networking with doctors they already know. But for many others, it can be a significant challenge.
How much shadowing will you need to apply to medical school? Where should you start looking for doctors to shadow if you have no connections? Is it even possible to shadow amid the COVID-19 pandemic?
You probably have many questions about shadowing as a pre-med, and we’re here to answer all of them and give you the foundational knowledge you’ll need for this aspect of your medical school application.
Here are the five most reliable strategies for finding a doctor to shadow as a pre-med. They are ranked in order to convenience, with 1 being the easiest and 5 being the hardest, but they all can work with enough effort and right approach:
1. Ask the People in Your Social Network
Even if you don’t have any direct connections, you hopefully know someone who does. Ask your family, friends, or teachers if they have any personal contacts in the medical field who might be open to observers. Pre-health advisors can also be a great resource. It’s likely that there are several medical professionals in your social network, so ask around to find out!
2. Approach Your Own Doctor
Almost everybody spends time in the clinic for our own medical care, so take advantage of these visits to connect with the professionals in these hospital settings. Your doctor might let you shadow them, or they might have colleagues who will take on student observers. Next time you see them, mention that you’re interested in a medical career and guide the conversation toward shadowing. They might say no, but you won’t know until you ask!
3. Utilize a Formal Shadowing Program
Some student groups and hospitals have their own shadowing programs to match pre-health students with doctors (we’ll highlight a few of these later in this article). These are a great option because a lot of the work is done for you already. Please note that an application is almost always required for these programs, so this might not be the quickest way to begin shadowing. Additionally, you may not be able to choose exactly which role or specialty you shadow. Regardless, you should definitely take advantage of these formal shadowing programs, especially if you’re struggling to find shadowing hours through other means.
4. Get Involved to Build More Connections
Getting involved with research or volunteering can quickly expand and enhance your network of health professionals. Look for volunteering opportunities that put you in close contact with medical staff. Some volunteering outfits will even encourage pre-meds to shadow while they’re there. Research can also be a good way to meet medical professionals, since many biomedical or clinical research teams include clinicians and doctors. Don’t volunteer or perform research if you’re only doing it for the shadowing hours! But view the shadowing as a nice fringe benefit.
5. Send Some Cold Emails
If all else fails, try directly contacting local doctors about shadowing. Write a brief, professional email introducing yourself and stating your desire to observe them (see below for an example). Draw some connection between you and them, such as an interest in their specialty or some shared experience (alma mater, hometown, gender/ethnicity, etc).
Be prepared for them to not respond or to say no. Don’t be discouraged. If you reach out to enough doctors, there’s a high likelihood that at least one will let you shadow.
Whether you’re asking in-person or over email, here are some general scripts you can follow when asking a doctor if you can shadow them:
Initial Shadow Request:
Whenever there are blanks, fill in the appropriate information that’s specific to the person you’re contacting. Feel free to personalize the language, but keep it professional. Read over the text once before you send the email or make the in-person request to ensure there aren’t any typos and that you haven’t left out any important information.
Dear Dr. __________,
My name is __________, and I’m currently a [year in school] at the [name of university/college]. I’m in the process of exploring healthcare careers and am very interested in the field of [e.g. pediatric oncology, etc]. I am in the process of seeking out opportunities for shadowing to better understand what it’s like to be a __________. I obtained your email from [the __________ website OR your colleague, __________]. If you’re willing and your [hospital/clinic/office] allows students to shadow, I would welcome an opportunity to observe you work. I would also value the opportunity to have a short conversation over coffee or tea (my treat!) to hear more about your experiences and get your advice on how to prepare for a career in __________. I realize that you’re busy and that your time is valuable. If you have any questions or concerns, you can reach me by email or phone (###-###-####). Thank you for your help.
If the Answer is “No”:
Chances are, you will probably get turned down several times before someone says yes. Don’t get discouraged—this is a normal part of the process. There are ways to leverage a “no” into other opportunities.
Consider using this email template to expand your network or line up another opportunity. As a general rule, it’s always a good idea to thank a professional for responding, even if you don’t get the answer you were hoping for. This keeps the relationship going, which might open up other opportunities down the line.
Dear Dr. __________,
Thank you for taking the time to respond to my email. I understand that it’s not possible to shadow you at this time, but I appreciate that you followed up with me about my request. I would still welcome the opportunity to talk with you about your experiences as a __________ if that’s possible. I also wanted to ask if you would be willing to put me in touch with a colleague or two that might be willing and available to shadow. Thank you again for all of your help.
Many medical schools do not require applicants to gain shadowing experience. While some mention that it’s recommended, many don’t even put it in the description of requirements. This is misleading. Shadowing is always strongly recommended.
There is no clear-cut number of hours, and most schools will simply require or recommend shadowing without a number attached. However, some schools will have specific shadowing requirements (e.g. 12-24, 50 or more, 120, etc.), so it’s imperative that you check the particular requirements of the schools. Figure out the top number of required hours and aim for that as a minimum.
If none of your schools have specific requirements, then the best course of action is do as much as you can within reason. You’ll also want to ensure that you get some more active clinical experience alongside your passive shadowing experiences. But never take on so much that other aspects of your academic and social life suffer. Thousands of shadowing hours would effectively be worthless if your GPA or MCAT tanks as a result.
If you want to put a number on it, around 100-120 hours is a good ideal range. Shadowing one doctor for one day will be approximately 10 hours, so if you can shadow multiple doctors for a total of 10 days spread over time, (even over a year or so if you start early), then you can easily hit your target.
Try to shadow a range of specialties. Responsibilities vary between different doctors and specialties, so shadowing a decent variety will help you understand different kinds of workdays. However, you don’t need to shadow a different specialty on every occasion, and it’s fine to shadow one or more doctors in a single specialization for several days.
No. Shadowing and clinical experiences are viewed differently by medical schools, so it’s important to understand their differences.
In clinical experiences, you’ll often actively participate as part of a medical team and directly interact with patients. This is a huge part of your development as a pre-med. The intensity of performing and assisting with procedures in an active clinical setting is a singular experience, and you should strive to maximize your exposure to this type of work environment.
Shadowing is a passive activity, where you follow a doctor through an entire shift or multiple shifts, from the time they arrive to the time they leave. While there isn’t usually much direct patient interaction, shadowing will help you gain a more complete understanding of what an average day looks like for a practicing physician.
Shadowing and clinical experiences are treated as separate categories, so the technical answer here is still “no.”
In light of COVID-19, hospitals and clinics have mostly banned pre-med students from shadowing and volunteering, but medical school admissions committees continue to REQUIRE hundreds of clinical hours (~300 total, 100 shadowing) in order to get in.
COVID-19 has had unprecedented impacts on all sectors of society, and MEDICAL SCHOOL ADMISSIONS IS NO DIFFERENT. Overall, it will be difficult for medical schools to claim equity in their selection processes without adapting to the pandemic and more liberally accommodating students’ efforts to meet requirements.
To approach this question logically, let’s consider why medical schools require shadowing and clinical hours in the first place:
With these criteria in mind, the question becomes - can these skills and exposure be replicated on a virtual platform?
Maybe. We think it depends on what’s actually happens during these virtual experiences.
Medical school admissions is a “zero-sum game” (one person’s acceptance is another’s rejection). Or in other words, medical school admissions is scaled - if everyone is deprived of certain opportunities, like shadowing and clinical opportunities, your reactive choices as an applicant will be considered and compared to others in your same position.
So, if you can’t access shadowing or clinical hours in-person, then medical schools will value the next best thing.
This means there will be a HUGE emphasis on what actually happens on these virtual shadowing and clinical platforms.
It MATTERS WHAT YOU DO, not just the accumulation of hours. This applies to in-person clinical experiences as well, of course - are you just answering phones, or are you playing some kind of active, patient-focused role?
The litmus test for whether the virtual shadowing is meaningful: can you write a compelling essay about the experience?
And what makes a compelling essay? Usually, that relies on you having an active role and learning in a hands-on way, whether that’s technical or interpersonal skills.
Thankfully, some virtual platforms allow you to be MORE active than traditional shadowing, if they’re conducted well.
During traditional shadowing, you usually can’t interact with patients, the doctors don’t have time to teach you very much, and you can’t push pause to educate yourself about a case and its underlying factors.
Virtual shadowing could potentially offer all these missing criteria, but it will be important for you to seek the right platforms that will maximize your virtual experience.
Just like telemedicine overall, we believe that virtual shadowing is here to stay, even after the COVID pandemic is over. This has parallels to online education in general - as a society, we’re slowly going to do more training, activities, and learning virtually.
And medical schools will be forced to adapt, just like everyone else.
If you have the opportunity to shadow a doctor while you’re in high school, go for it! It could potentially help clarify whether you should go pre-med in college or not. And there’s no such thing as too early when it comes to obtaining clinical exposure.
Another important question is: should you list your high school shadowing as part of your Work & Activities on the medical school application?
As a general rule of thumb, if you have plenty of shadowing in college, there’s no big value in listing the high school shadowing as well, unless it added something very distinct or unusual to your perspective. Even then, it’s usually frowned upon to list high school experiences on your AMCAS. Maybe bring it up briefly in your personal statement if it was foundational to your motivations in medicine.
Make sure you ask questions at appropriate times. This means waiting until a doctor is finished speaking with a patient. Be mindful of what you ask within earshot of patients so that you don’t make them uncomfortable.
If you think of a question during patient care that you want to ask and don’t want to forget, simply write it down and ask it later.
1. How did you end up in medicine?
2. Why did you choose this specialty?
3. Would you do it again if you had to start all over? If not, what would you do?
4. Tell me about the best day on your job.
5. Tell me about the worst day you’ve had.
6. What do you think is the biggest challenge in healthcare right now?
7. How often do patients surprise you, or how frequently do you come across something you’re unfamiliar with?
8. What do you think the biggest problem(s) will be for the next generation of doctors?
9. Are there things that you wish you knew before pursuing this profession?
10. Any advice on choosing a medical school?
11. What are the three most important qualities that one should have if they are going to pursue medicine?
12. How does your daily work and lifestyle compare to that of other specialties?
13. What is the biggest challenge of being a doctor?
14. Do you enjoy your job?
15. What qualities does a good doctor need?
16. How did you choose your medical school?
17. How many medical schools did you apply to
18. Do you think you made the right choices? If not, what would you change about your decisions?
19. What qualities are the most important in a medical school?
20. How can I increase my likelihood of getting accepted into medical school?
21. What is your typical schedule, inside and outside of the hospital?
22. What is the hardest part of medical school? What is the most fun/rewarding?
23. What do you wish you knew before you went to medical school? Before residency? Before becoming a doctor?
24. Did you have a “lightbulb moment” where you realized being a doctor was the right choice?
25. If you had to start over as a pre-med student, would you do anything differently?
26. Did you always want to be a doctor?
27. If you could change anything about your profession, what would it be?
28. How often are you seeing general patients outside of your specialty?
29. What kind of problems do you deal with?
30. How often are you performing procedures versus seeing patients?
31. Are you part of any research?
32. Are you satisfied financially?
33. How do healthcare policies and insurance companies affect you directly?
34. Is there anything in medicine that goes against your religious and moral beliefs?
35. What do you do if you do not know something or how to treat a patient?
36. Do pharmaceutical companies put a lot of pressure on doctors to prescribe certain drugs?
37. Are you allowed to treat people outside of the clinical setting? Can you specialize and then still do general practice?
38. Why is the patient having these symptoms?
39. Why did you treat the patient this way?
40. Is being a doctor what you imagined?
A lot of these questions may feel awkward to ask. Our advice is to get out of your comfort zone and ask anyway.
Sometimes you might not like the answer you receive. That’s okay. Medicine won’t be everything you imagined. It’s better to know about the drawbacks now instead of later - not to deter you, but rather to prepare you!
Here is a solid list of avenues to obtain in-person shadowing opportunities. We also recommend that you check your own university or college’s website to see what you can find. A lot of pre-health advising pages will have links to affiliated or nearby hospitals!
Volunteering, Shadowing, and Leadership Opportunities - DePaul University
Shadowing, Internships, and Direct Patient Care Experience - University of Tennessee Chattanooga
Volunteering & Shadowing Opportunities - University of Washington
Clinical Opportunities — Reed-Yorke Health Professions - University of Maryland
Volunteer Opportunities for Pre-health Students - Oregon State University
Clinical Volunteering | Involvement | Health Professions - University of South Florida
We’ve ranked our top-5 virtual shadowing opportunities based on the following criteria:
But don’t just take our word for it. You should familiarize yourself with all of these virtual shadowing platforms to decide which one is best for your needs!
#2 - VIRTUALSHADOWING.COM
(works in tandem with PRE-HEALTH VIRTUAL SHADOWING YOUTUBE CHANNEL)
#4 - ESHADOWING
#5 - WEBSHADOWERS
There’s no substitute for the kind of direct observation that good shadowing experiences provide, so cast a wide net and use it to give yourself as complete a sense as possible of your potential career paths.
Ultimately, what you get out of the shadowing experiences and how well you articulate that in your application will be far more important than the specific number of hours (unless any of your schools have specific hour requirements)!
Best of luck in accumulating shadowing hours and getting the most out of your experiences!