One of the most important parts of putting together a strong application for medical school is to take theory and put it into practice. When students first ask us how a medical school application consultant can assist them in preparing for the admissions process, I say that this medical school admissions advisor can help you secure unique and compelling experiences in the specialty you are interested in pursuing.
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One way to gain valuable experience in a medical setting is to take the time to shadow a doctor. The key here is to not just have an experience following a doctor around but to have a deep, nuanced experience that provides a learning outcome that makes you stand out. If you simply volunteer in the ER or at a doctor’s office, this is not especially unique.
Where To Volunteer
When considering where to volunteer, the best options are experiences in rural medicine, Native American reservations, anything that provides a unique experience that is demographically, geographically, and experientially diverse.
The first step towards finding a viable opportunity is to conduct an environmental scan of your opportunities in your city, state, or region. First, begin by making a list of the organizations, businesses, medical offices, and hospitals in your area. Determine if there is anyone you know or people in your network who might be able to make introductions to physicians and medical administrators in an area or a specialty you are interested in studying.
A good place to start is by asking your parents and former faculty at your undergraduate institution to provide you a name(s) of someone you could reach out to that would be willing to let you shadow them. In addition, you might want to consider reaching out to your own family physician.
Suppose you have had significant health issues that have required a specialist or surgery for you or a member of your family. In that case, you have a natural connection to someone likely to take your unsolicited call.
Just like internships and work experiences in college can result in job offers following graduation, having experience shadowing a doctor can provide an excellent opportunity to identify the specialization pathway once you are admitted to a medical school. It also provides insight and possible mentorship that can lead to an effusive letter of recommendation to college and recommendations on the best colleges to apply to based on your chosen specialty.
How To Ask For A “Stand Out” Opportunity
Standing out in the admissions process involves securing an extracurricular activity that allows you to, as one Reddit contributor on a thread shared, “write thoughtful essays that focus on what you learned from your experiences rather than what you did.” In order to have a stand-out experience that you can write about in your essays, consider the type of impact you want to have and identify a person you want to approach who has had a significant impact in the community.
Read the local paper looking for articles on physicians who have won awards, who have accomplished noteworthy achievements, or doctors engaged in highly visible community service to address community health needs. For instance, if you are from Washington State and you are interested in pursuing the field of Pediatrics, a quick scan of the Seattle Times will tell you the story of the former Medical Director of the Odessa Brown Clinic, a pediatric clinic in Seattle’s Central District which serves primarily low-income people of color.
This physician is notable about his advocacy for his patients, a voice in the community for accessible health care for BIPOC communities, and has been lauded for taking a stance against racism. Look for the trailblazers like this doctor, the doctors who are fearless in their pursuit of equitable health care outcomes or who have worked in some of the most challenging communities.
Not only can this provide you a valuable experience to engage with a true leader in the field, but you also get the opportunity to see a real side of the medical profession. These experiences are invaluable in providing you a stand-out opportunity to observe health disparities, contemplate how you would be an advocate for change once you become a doctor, and make the connection with a potential mentor who is modeling the type of impact you want to have in the future.
Once you have identified 5-10 “rock star” physicians who you would like to shadow, email, call or show up at their office hours in order to ask for an informational interview. If you feel stuck, don’t be afraid to “cold call” a physician to get some practice asking for an opportunity to shadow. We know it can be a little intimidating, but trust that it might take some time talking to doctors and asking for an opportunity to shadow before you get the hang of it and start to feel comfortable asking for an opportunity.
Indicate to them that you are a student interested in learning more about the medical specialty they practice. This is where praise and doing your homework can go a long way to secure you some time. Ask for a minimum amount of time (remember these folks are very busy!), perhaps no more than 15-20 minutes.
Here is an email script for how to reach out to a physician you have a personal connection to:
Dear Dr. [Name], I hope this note finds you well. Since we last saw each other for my last check-up, I started college at the University of Washington, where I’ve been majoring in Biology and am pre-med. I am particularly interested in pediatrics, child psychiatry, and family medicine. I am hoping to arrange some shadowing opportunities in order to learn more about the day-to-day of being a doctor, and I’m wondering if you’d be open to me spending some time in your office over my fall break, spring break, or summer, when I will be back in Yakima. I’d be so grateful for your time. Please let me know. I would be happy to discuss what dates would be convenient for you via email or over the phone. Many thanks and my best, [First and Last Name] [Phone Number]
How To Get The Most Out Of The Experience
Once you have secured some time to meet with this potential mentor, start to dive deep into preparing for the meeting. Scan their LinkedIn profile, clinic bios, information available on the web, and any other available information which would give you a sense of what makes them tick.
Remember, people love to talk about themselves, and they especially want to know that you have done your homework and know why you want to meet with them and potentially shadow them.
Did they teach a class at the medical school in your community?
Are they active contributors to medical journals or highly visible thought leaders in their professional associations?
These are all key components that can act as anchors in a brief conversation that can break the ice with a busy professional. If you are a big fan of their work and want to emulate their impact on the medical community, contributions they have made to science, or leadership they have shown, be sure to say so.
Flattery can go a very long way if it is genuine! Ensure that you also provide a strong resume, cover letter, and possibly a copy of your transcript, depending on the rigor of your curriculum. If you have strong MCAT scores, it might also be good to share, so that the physician knows that you are serious and that their time is well spent with a candidate that has viability in a competitive medical school process.
Once you have a time set up to meet with them, it is a good idea for you to have a list of questions you wish to ask them. Be prepared to share some information about yourself too. When you first meet in person, remember to remind them of who you are, give a brief biography of who you are, where you grew up, where you attend school, and how far along you are in your education.
You want to be able to quickly give them an outline of your career goals and interest in medicine in order to ask them the same questions about their career trajectory. This is also a really good opportunity for you to remind them how you learned about this particular doctor and why you thought they would be a good person for you to shadow, and what you hope to get out of the experience.
It helps if you have also been explicit in your original request to shadow that you include this information as well when scheduling the meeting. It is always a good rule of thumb to tell them why you want to shadow over email, tell them again why you are there to shadow, and remind them that you illustrated this in your email.
These are busy physicians, and you likely are not the only college student who might be reaching out to them to shadow. Unless you have a personal connection with this person, you want to make sure that they know you are serious and that it will be time well spent.
Questions to ask them can include: asking about when they first knew they wanted to pursue medical school, and the specialty they work in. What was it like attending X Medical school? Can you share with me some of the career goals you had when you first completed medical school, and how has that changed over the years? Mention something specific to indicate that you have done your research on the physician’s work, such as, “I read the recent journal article you contributed in X medical journal, can you tell me a little bit more about how that research continues?”
Finally, once you have had a few questions answered, ask them, “Would you mind if I scheduled a time to shadow you in the hospital, clinic, etc.…”
How Long To Shadow A Doctor
A valuable experience shadowing a doctor is not about the length of time but the quality of the experience. While having a few hours or a full day observing a physician on a shift can be a valuable experience, you might also have the option of observing a physician over a longer period of time, such as weeks or months.
Consider yourself incredibly lucky if you have the ability to observe one or more physicians throughout all four years of your undergraduate experience. If the physician operates their own practice, can you ask to come in once or twice a week to observe? Can you observe for a week over winter or spring break?
Could the practice use the assistance of an extra hand over the summer where you get to shadow and serve as a medical records clerk or answer the phones? These unique opportunities can have the benefit of showing the doctor that you are serious and not afraid to get your hands dirty.
It is about getting the full experience and the longer you know and work with this physician, the more they will get to know you and have the ability to write a more effusive letter of recommendation.
Remember to be punctual, dress professionally (wear scrubs if allowed or professional dress if appropriate), be mindful of policies regarding personal protective equipment and hand washing as well as ask the doctor if there is anything special that you should prepare for, especially in light of new COVID restrictions.
For the protection of the patients and yourself, you are going to want to ensure you come prepared (bring your own new N95 mask, sanitized face shield, etc..), take every precaution (make sure you have received your current vaccines such as COVID-19, flu, etc.…) and that you sign any indemnity releases in case you were to get sick or be exposed to an infectious disease.
It is important that you take an abundance of caution, considering the uniqueness of trying to shadow a health professional during a pandemic. Last but not least, be sure to send a heartfelt thank you note! Hand-written thank you notes on good stationery (my favorite are made by a company called Crane) are always a nice touch and go the extra mile in making a good impression.
Summer Programs for High School Students
It is never too early to start preparing for your future in medicine. If you are a high school student interested in the medical profession, there are many pre-medical, STEM-based experiences that you can apply to during the summer to get hands-on experience, time in a lab setting, and learn from college students and professors what it is really like to be pre-med.
There are a number of pre-med programs that are available that allow students the opportunity to immerse themselves in the world of medicine, explore health professions and provide both residential experiences as well as virtual learning for a wide range of ages.
While some of these programs provide rich learning experiences, it is best to apply to those that offer a strong curriculum, that is demanding, provide opportunities for research to deepen your understanding of the sciences, and can help develop your personal qualities such as bedside manner and adaptability that will be important as you advance in your career.
They range greatly in terms of price, too, with some being several thousand dollars (pay to play), some are extremely competitive, and others are no cost but focused on providing a pipeline for students who are first-generation, low-income, or historically underrepresented in med school.
Find the one that is competitive, meets your family’s budget, and that is not just a way to pad your resume or a glorified day camp for rich kids. Quality matters here, and it is not just about saying you went to a summer med program at Harvard, Stanford, or UCLA. Early medical school consulting and advice can help you separate the good programs from the truly great ones!