If you are reading this article, you probably already know that shadowing before med school is pretty important. This premed shadowing guide is primarily meant for students who want to start shadowing but have no clue what to do. However, if you are someone who has shadowed before but wants to get more out of your next experience, there is a lot you can benefit from this guide.
So grab that pen, take some notes, and learn about everything a premed student needs to know about shadowing before med school!
Why Shadowing Is Important
The first step to shadowing a physician is understanding why it’s important to med schools in the first place.
Becoming a physician is a huge ordeal that requires many years of training and a large financial contribution. Because of this, med schools want to see that you have a real understanding of what a career as a physician is like. Shadowing gives you an important insight into the day in a life of a physician making it a very valuable experience for med schools.
You can research what a career as a doctor is like. This might give you some insight but it’s nothing compared to being there in person and observing entire work days.
When you shadow someone, you aren’t only gaining perspective on the benefits of this career but also the cons. Shadowing reinforces your desire to go into medicine or steers you clear of it.
Either way, it’s best to know early on whether or not a career as a physician is right for you.
Further Reading: When Should You Start Shadowing A Physician?
Do Medical Schools Require Shadowing Experience?
We wrote extensively on this topic in our article “Can you get into med schools without shadowing experience?” which is actually a pretty common question.
The short answer is no, med schools do not “require” shadowing experience. Emphasis on that “require” though. Although it’s not a technical requirement (for most schools) it is almost always strongly urged. This basically means, do it unless you have some other experience that overlaps with shadowing (scribing for example).
Unless you are applying tomorrow and there is no time to get shadowing experience, there really is no reason not to get shadowing experience. If you are worried about it being difficult to set up a shadowing gig, don’t. It’s much easier than you think.
Keep reading and we will explain how exactly to find a physician to shadow and set everything up.
How Many Hours Of Shadowing Do You Need For Med School?
In the previous section, we explained that there was not a specific med school requirement for shadowing. That being said, we recommend you get around 100 shadowing hours.
There are a lot of different opinions on this and there really isn’t a right answer. However, we believe 100 hours is enough time to shadow 3 different specialties for a full work week. Alternatively, you can shadow one person for 100 hours and get a really solid deep dive into that particular position.
Step 1: Finding A Physician To Shadow
Finding a physician to shadow is much easier than you think. Honestly, when I needed to shadow someone I just chose the specialty I was interested in, googled doctors near me, and called 3 offices before one said they would let me shadow them.
But there are even easier ways to find shadowing opportunities (some of which don’t involve awkward cold calls).
How To Find A Physician To Shadow
You might want to check out our article on tips for finding a physician to shadow, but I’ll list the best methods here starting with the easiest/most consistent methods:
- Shadow a distant family member or friend: The easiest way to find a physician for shadowing is by asking family members (they need to be pretty far removed, family members like parents don’t count) or family friends. If you can’t think of anyone, skip to the next tip. You can even shadow your own PCP!
- Ask your premed advisor about shadowing opportunities through your university: Lots of schools have programs that put premed students together with physicians at local hospitals for shadowing experience. Even if your school doesn’t have an official program like this, your premed advisor should be able to use their network to hook you up.
- Look at volunteer/shadowing programs in your city: A quick google search should provide you with options for shadowing programs in your city. Often, these programs will be tied to a volunteer opportunity.
- Cold call or cold email: There is nothing wrong with a good ol’ cold call/email to a doctor you are interested in shadowing. This is sometimes the best option for students looking to shadow a particular specialty. Don’t be scared of the cold call, doctors are surprisingly helpful to prospective med students.
Identify Specialties That Interest You
As a pre-med student, you’ve probably thought about different types of doctors and what might appeal to you. Sure it’s too early to know for sure, but if there’s something that you are particularly interested in, try finding a doctor in that specialty.
This will make your shadowing experience more enjoyable. The more fun you have while shadowing, the more you will get out of it!
The Importance Of Primary Care Experience
Now I know I said that it’s a good idea to shadow specialties that interest you, but you should also keep in mind the importance of shadowing primary care physicians.
Why is this important? Because most med schools value primary care experience over specialized experience. And the reasoning is simple, they don’t want students going into medicine to chase the high-paying/glamourous professions. They want students interested in primary care because these are the most needed physicians out there.
Don’t worry, you can still have dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon. You just need to also convince schools that you are seriously considering primary care.
For those who don’t know, primary care is your family doctors, pediatricians, OB/GYNs, and internists. These are doctors you go to for general wellness in addition to illnesses you developed. AKA the first line of doctors before a specialist is required.
Step 2: How To Ask To Shadow A Doctor
If you aren’t able to shadow a family friend or join some kind of shadowing program, your next best bet is to cold call or email.
Sure this can be nerve-racking, especially if you are introverted. This next section will help you with the process of asking to shadow a doctor whom you have never met before.
Let me start off by saying that you should not overthink it. Doctors tend to be pretty friendly people and most of them are happy to help premed students out.
After you find the physician or physicians, you are interested in shadowing, here is how you should approach it:
- Introduce yourself, tell them what school you go to, and where you are in your program.
- Explain your career goals, why their specific specialty of medicine interests you, and where you discovered them.
- Directly ask if they would be open to letting you shadow them for X days.
Here’s an example:
Hi Dr. _____. My name is Paul Zganiacz and I am a premed student at the University of Dallas. I’m currently a sophomore and I’m looking to apply to medical school after my junior year. I’ve been interested in going into medicine for some time and specifically interested in learning more about orthopedic surgery. I found your practice online when researching different sports clinics since athletics has always been a big part of my life. Would you be willing to let me shadow you for 2 weeks so that I can get an inside look into this specific specialty of medicine and see if it’s a good fit for me?
If calling is not your strong suit, you can definitely send out an email. Although this might mean reaching out to more doctors since people tend to ignore emails more than phone calls.
For more advice on emailing potential showing opportunities, check out our article on how to ask a doctor to shadow you via email (template included).
Step 3: How To Prepare For Your First Day Shadowing A Physician
When you shadow a physician, you want to leave a good impression and get the most out of your shadowing experience. It all starts with how you prepare for your first day of shadowing.
By the way, if you are looking for more information on this, check out our guide on how to prepare for your first time shadowing a doctor!
How To Dress When Shadowing
We actually wrote an entire article on this topic that answers every question you might have on this topic. Check out our guide on how to dress when shadowing a physician.
To summarize, the safe bet is business casual. This means:
- Button shirt, tie (optional), sweater (optional)
- Chinos or dress slacks
- Dress shoes and dark socks
- Twinsets, polo/knit shirts, blouses, cardigans, sweaters
- Dress slacks or conservative length skirt
- Closed-toe shoes
Don’t assume that it’s okay to show up in scrubs. A lot of students assume that scrubs are okay because it’s a hospital setting and that’s what doctors wear.
Well, some doctors don’t wear scrubs. Some doctors will think it’s unprofessional for you to show up in scrubs. So unless you were specifically told otherwise, assume business casual the first day.
Once you have started shadowing, it may be appropriate to ask if you can wear scrubs because the rest of the staff is. Just don’t assume from the beginning that you can.
Here’s What You Should Bring To Your First Day Shadowing
Prior to your first-day shadowing, you should reach out to the doctor’s office/practice you are shadowing at to see if there is anything you should bring for credentialing services.
Sometimes, if you are going into a hospital to shadow, you will need to be set up as a student observer with the hospital’s admin. This might require things like verification of identification for background purposes.
Aside from this, which is dependent on location, there are really only 2 things I recommend you bring:
- A pen
- A notebook
- Medical terminology pocketbook
Keep it simple. You don’t really need to bring anything else.
On my first day, I didn’t even bring lunch. I knew that if I needed to get food I could just step out and buy something. My thought process was that I didn’t know if there would be anywhere to store my food plus there was a chance I could score some free lunch if it was offered to me.
Bringing a notebook and pen is super important. You want to be able to take notes. Not only because it’s helpful for learning but also because it gives you something to do in the patient’s room besides awkwardly standing in the corner.
It makes you look more official!
Always Be Punctual And Respect The Staff
Remember, the doctor you are shadowing is doing you a favor. Make sure you are respectful of their time and respectful of the entire staff.
On your first day, show up 20 minutes early so that you have plenty of time to park and get set up. You also want to account for traffic. Maybe you have visited that specific clinic in the past but chances are you haven’t driven there during rush hour.
Step 4: Get The Most Out Of Your Shadowing Experience
Let me make something clear, shadowing is a fun experience. It’s a stress-free environment with lots of opportunities to see cool procedures and learn about medicine.
That being said, here are some tips on how to get the most out of your shadowing experience:
- Go in after hours/stay late: I’m sure you are aware of the fact that physicians often work on call for things like emergencies. If you have the opportunity to go in when your physician goes in, do it. I saw really cool procedures because I was willing to go in after hours.
- Do your research: Prior to shadowing a doctor, you should study that profession. What kind of patients do they see? What procedures do they do? Study the physiology and anatomy of their specialty. This kind of research beforehand will help you understand what the physician is talking about when they diagnose their patients. Ultimately you will learn a lot more about the profession and science!
- Don’t get on your phone: Doctors tend to be kind of old school. Even though you might be doing something productive on your phone, such as looking up a medical term, you’ll most likely give off a negative impression. It’s a good idea to turn off your phone while shadowing.
- Bring a medical terminology pocketbook: This is actually super helpful to have. When I shadowed an OB/Gyn, he actually gave me a pocketbook specifically for OB/Gyn. I was able to look up different terms and concepts that didn’t make sense to me in order to learn more about the profession!
- Ask questions whenever there is downtime: If the physician you are shadowing is very busy, you won’t have much downtime. But occasionally things slow down and you may find yourselves waiting for the next patient. Make use of this time to ask questions! More information on what questions to ask is below.
Shadowing a surgeon? Check out our 11 tips for shadowing a surgeon!
What You Can Expect From Your Shadowing Experience (Example From My Personal Experience)
Here I’ll explain what you can expect your shadowing experience to be like. I’ll do this by describing how my first experience went as an example.
On day one, I showed up early and parked in the patient visiting section (I did not have a badge at this point to use employee parking).
The OB/Gyn I was shadowing was not there yet so I got to know the staff at the front desk a little bit. When the physician showed up we chatted for a little bit before the nurse gave him a chart for his first patient. He also decided to lend me one of his white coats so that I looked a bit more professional.
The entire morning was spent going between each of the 4 patient rooms he had in his practice. He would introduce me to the patients as a student shadowing and ask if it was fine for me to be there. Everyone was fine with it.
Between patients, there would be an occasional 5 or so minutes to talk and he was pretty good about explaining interesting things about the previous visit.
After all the morning patients, the physician invited me to the doctor’s lounge for some food. After eating, we rounded on his patients that were in labor in the hospital. After an hour or so, we rushed upstairs for more appointments.
He was very busy.
5pm rolled by but he had patients who were in labor and ready to push. I hung around for another 2 hours to watch him deliver a baby which was a pretty cool experience!
The rest of my shadowing visits went similarly to this. Occasionally, this doctor would have scheduled c-sections which I was able to observe in the OR. Sometimes for lunch, we would attend lectures at the hospital so he could receive education credits.
And that was my experience in a nutshell. I had so much fun that summer and ultimately this experience increased my drive for medical school.
Ask Lots Of Questions But Time Them Right
I’ve mentioned that asking questions while shadowing is a good idea. You should only ask questions during appropriate times, such as downtime between patients when the physician is not busy. The last thing you want to do is annoy the doctor you are shadowing by asking questions when he or she is super busy.
What kind of questions should you ask?
You should primarily ask questions about the profession you are observing and the variety of medical topics that go along with it. This will not only leave a lasting impression on the doctor you are shadowing but you will also learn a lot which can benefit your studies later.
That being said, I’m sure there are a ton of questions you want to ask about becoming a doctor in general. We are premed students after all! You should definitely ask these questions, just sprinkle them in periodically.
I recommend you check out our article on “questions to ask while shadowing a physician.” You’ll get a lot of ideas for good questions to ask that will help you learn more about getting into med school and beyond!
How Long Should You Shadow A Physician?
This is going to be largely up to you. What fits in your schedule and how much time can you devote?
Personally, I shadowed one physician for around 200 hours. This is definitely overkill, you don’t need 200 hours. This just happened to work out for me because it was during the summer and I had a very good rapport with the physician.
And I’m happy I shadowed for so long because I got to see pretty much everything there was to see.
We surveyed premeds to see how long they shadowed a physician and the most common answer was about 1 week.
Here are the results of that survey:
We recommend 50 hours of shadowing. This gives you plenty of time to get an understanding of the day-in-a-life of a physician within a reasonable amount of time.
Do what you can when it comes to shadowing. Even if it’s only one day. Any amount of time is helpful!
Step 5: What To Do After Your Shadowing Experience
After you have finished your shadowing experience, there are a few things you want to take care of before too much time has elapsed.
Write A Thank You Note
It’s important you leave a good impression. Medicine is a small world and you never know who will be important for your future employment.
Plus the physician you shadowed did you a huge favor and they deserve a thank you note.
We actually wrote a guide on how to write a thank you letter after shadowing a physician!
Getting A Letter Of Recommendation
Obviously, letters of recommendation are important for med school. It’s easy to get letters from your professors and advisors, they are basically obligated to give you a recommendation.
However, med schools also like to see that you received a letter of recommendation from a physician. If you are applying to a D.O. school, it’s also highly recommended you receive a letter from a D.O. physician specifically.
Shadowing is a perfect opportunity to get a letter from a physician.
We wrote an entire guide on how to get a letter of recommendation from a physician you shadowed which I highly recommend you check out. We answer every question you could possibly have on this topic and we include an example email for the letter request!
To summarize, here are the key points for getting that letter:
- Make sure you are asking lots of good questions, turn off your phone, and be polite while you are shadowing.
- Write that thank you letter after you are finished shadowing but do not mention the letter of recommendation yet.
- Don’t wait too long because physicians have a lot going on and will slowly forget about your shadowing experience.
- Make sure you ask for the letter a few months before you apply to med school because it may take a while for the doctor to write it.
- Politely send reminders if too much time has elapsed since your request.
Writing About Your Shadowing Experience On Your Med School Application
When you apply via the AMCAS or AACOMAS med school application, you’ll have a brief section to write about your shadowing experience and input the number of hours you spent on it.
For the description, you won’t have that much space to write about it so keep it simple and focus on the key things you got out of the experience.
What I recommend is recalling a specific event that you found especially moving or motivating. Then you can finish with a general description of what you did during your shadowing experiences and what you gained from it.