Most medical school students wonder how to prepare for clinical rotations, as they are part of a student’s medical school requirements need to complete a medical degree. They are also a key part of developing a student’s skills as a physician and applying their learning. To prepare for the ins and outs of clinical rotations, students need to get ready in advance and show up ready to learn. Our comprehensive guide will show students why it’s important to prepare for clinical rotations, how to prepare for clinical rotations, and how to get the most out of their clinical rotation experiences.

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Article Contents
7 min read

Why clinical rotations need advanced preparation What you learn in clinical rotations Preparing for clinical rotations Getting the most out of your clinical rotations How to study in rotations Conclusion FAQs

Why clinical rotations need advanced preparation

The key reason why it’s important to prepare in advance of your clinical rotations is that this experience will be a far greater test of your medical knowledge and experience than any you’ve faced so far in medical school. You’ll be moving from the traditional classroom setting directly into a functioning hospital, so clinical rotations are your first “real world” experience as a physician.

Clinical rotations will test your medical knowledge, your ability to learn and help treat patients, but the experience will also test you on your professional and interpersonal skills. Since you’ll be working with other physicians, real patients, and hospital staff, you will have to demonstrate that you are able to learn and retain information in a clinical setting, but also that you have the necessary interpersonal skills and professional decorum required of a doctor.

Furthermore, your practical experience with patients and cases will help you prepare for the USMLE Step 2 CK and USMLE Step 3, as these board exams require you to apply your theoretical knowledge to hypothetical cases. This is why getting ready for your clinical rotations early is key!

Not sure where to start with preparing for residency applications? This infographic should help:

What you learn in clinical rotations

Clinical rotations introduce students to the nitty gritty work of a doctor in a health care institution. They allow students to apply the medical knowledge they’ve learned in real life, clinical settings. While the hospital or clinical setting might vary depending on which clinical rotation you’re starting, you can expect to be thrown right into the thick of things.

Students will help care for patients, either individually or in a group, under supervision. Patient interviews and examinations, lab data reviews and team learning discussions are common practice.

Clinical rotations include seven core specialties of medicine for a well-rounded, holistic experience of being a practicing doctor. These core specialties are required of all med students, and include internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry, neurology, general surgery and obstetrics and gynecology.

Experiencing a clinical rotation in each of these areas helps students to learn what specialties they do and do not connect with. These rotations provide students with first-hand experience with each specialty and what kind of work they can expect in each one. As students will soon be applying to residencies and will need to choose a specialty, clinical rotations can be helpful in making the choice.

Students might also be thinking of how to choose their medical school electives, and clinical rotations also offer elective options once the core 7 are completed. Once students finish their core rotations, they can look at taking elective rotations in other areas of interest.

Preparing for clinical rotations

To prepare yourself for this next evaluation of your skills and evolution of your medical learning, there are some key steps to take. The main idea is to give yourself as much help as you possibly can, by being organized and prepared ahead of time, so when you actually start your rotation, you’ll only have to worry about showing up to learn.

Getting the most out of your clinical rotations

You might already know why you want to be a doctor, but clinical rotations are a prime opportunity to learn what it really takes to be a doctor. It’s the chance to gain the experience you just can’t get in a classroom. So the first way to get the most out of your clinical rotations for your own benefit is to show up and commit.

Doing well in your clinical rotations is important for getting into the residency program of your choice. Your evaluated performance in your rotations will appear on your MSPE, and the most competitive residencies will take your scores and performance evaluations into account when you apply.

Clinical rotations are long work hours that include intense studying. They require endurance and perseverance. To prepare yourself and get the most out of the experiences, there are some things you can do, which we’ll explore more below.

Make notes and use them

During rotations, always keep a notepad or notecards with you, so you can write down questions and key information. Some hospitals will have notecards with patient information you can take with you. Record all the patient information and keep it updated as you move through your rotations. Be sure to ask questions if there is something you don’t understand. Stand in the front of the group, and listen to what is being discussed, even if you’re in your psychiatry rotation and you already know you’re not interested in being a psychiatrist. Being actively involved in your clinical rotations will ensure you not only actively learn the material but retain it better than if you were a passive observer only.

Once you’re back at home or in your favorite study spot, take out your notes and review them. Add anything you might have missed or new questions that pop up.

Develop your doctor identity

Remember that clinical rotations are also a good time to form your future identity as a doctor and practice your bedside manner. Since you’ll be working closely with actual patients, take the time to get to know them, ask them questions and learn their stories. Through connecting with these patients, you can get a better feel for what kind of doctor you want to be, and how to exercise those soft skills in a clinical setting, such as empathy and compassion. Talking directly with the patients will also help you retain the information you are learning, since you’ll be able to connect concepts with actual patient stories and situations.

Clinical rotations not only expose you to working with patients but to working with other doctors and hospital staff. This creates a rich field for developing your interpersonal relationship building skills and conflict management skills. Disagreements may arise between you and one of your peers, or a certain resident may not like a question you asked. You’ll meet many different personalities in a professional setting, and it’s not possible to get along with everyone all the time. But this will be your first chance to practice your interpersonal skills and build up your professionalism, especially if you struggle in these areas. It’s not enough to be the smartest doctor in the room if you have trouble connecting with patients on a personal level or if you openly disagree with a resident during rotations. Take opportunities to be part of the team and don’t worry about showing off. Think about how you can contribute to the care of the patients and don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do all the time. Being a physician requires a balance of interpersonal and professional skills, and your clinical rotations are a great chance to grow them.

Are you wondering which residencies are the most and least competitive? Check out this video:

Be active during the rotations

Clinical rotations serve as you learn how to prepare for residency applications and an inside look at what life will be like once you’re a resident. It’s important to show your commitment during rotations by managing your time well and being actively engaged in the process. This means showing up early, asking for feedback or a performance review from your supervisor or attending, and asking for more responsibility to demonstrate your willingness to learn and actively take part in the experience. Ask your supervisor if they can demonstrate how to perform procedures, or if they can coach you through simple maneuvers so you can practice. Always be ready to learn and be coachable in your interactions. The students who show they are hungry to learn will be taught more and given a better performance review.

Making a good impression on your attending or supervisor during your rotations can also mean you’ll have an excellent source for an ERAS letter of recommendation or CaRMS reference letter when you’re applying for residencies in the future. Letters of recommendation or reference letters are important elements for your residency CV. If you’re a Canadian student, clinical rotations are a great place to look for CaRMS reference letter writers to boost your residency applications. Reading some CaRMS reference letter examples can help you choose the best referees for your application.

How to study in rotations

The final way to prepare yourself for excelling in clinical rotations is to plan how you will study. Making a study plan ahead of time will reduce the stress associated with your clinical rotations. Studying during clinical rotations, you’ll use the same tips and tricks as you would if you were wondering how to study in medical school during the first two years. But when you’re also participating in clinical rotations, you’ll need not only some high yield study techniques for medical school to get by, you’ll need superior time management skills and multiple learning sources.


Clinical rotations are sure to inspire some anxiety in premed and med students, but it is possible and highly recommended to prepare for them in advance. Using this guide, you can be sure you’ll be well prepared for the challenges, and exciting opportunities, clinical rotations will bring you.


1. Why do I need to prepare for clinical rotations?

Clinical rotations will be the first “real world” evaluation of your skills and knowledge as a physician. You’ll be expected to put in a full day’s work in a clinical setting while juggling your studies in medical school on top of it.

2. How can I prepare for clinical rotations?

Prepare yourself in advance by creating and keeping a detailed schedule, research your clinical rotations so you know what to expect, write down what material you’ll be learning and asking your peers or mentors for their advice, and showing up ready to learn.

3. How many clinical rotations are there?

There are seven core clinical rotations, each comprising a 9-week period, or a set of 5 rotations per year. Clinical rotations include internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry, neurology, general surgery and obstetrics and gynecology. Students can also choose to pursue elective clinical rotations if they have more specialized interests outside the core rotations.

4. How long are clinical rotations?

Rotations are broken up into 9-week periods for each specialty. There are typically 5 rotations per year.

5. What are clinical rotations?

Clinical rotations involve scheduled shifts at a designated health care facility. Students work in supervised teams or individually to help care for patients. Essentially, students learn the nitty gritty work of being a doctor in a clinical setting.

6. How can I succeed in clinical rotations?

To get the most of your clinical settings, commit to showing up for each rotation and actively learning from the experience. Stand at the front, ask questions, and take excellent notes. Review and study your notes. Most importantly, connect with the patients you meet and develop your interpersonal skills.

7. What will I learn in clinical rotations?

Students will learn the everyday work of a physician in core medical specialties. They will help treat patients under the supervision of other physicians. Clinical rotations are also a chance for students to learn the specialties they do and do not like, and help them in narrowing down a specialty if they so choose.

8. Will I need to study during clinical rotations?

Yes. Clinical rotations can be especially stressful because of long workdays on top of studying for medical school exams. Making time to study during your clinical rotations will be key to your success.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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