Shadowing Hours for Medical School
If you’re planning to apply to medical school, you likely know that it is a good idea to have some experience shadowing a doctor (or multiple doctors). Shadowing is different from clinical experiences. In clinical experiences, you’ll often get the opportunity to participate as part of a medical team, interact with patients, and gain valuable exposure to the world of medicine. Shadowing is more passive – you will follow a doctor through an entire shift (or multiple shifts), from the time they walk in to the time they leave for the day. While there isn’t generally much patient interaction, you walk away from such experiences with a much more complete picture of what the average day looks like for a practicing physician. This knowledge of the day-to-day ins-and-outs is crucial, as you need to be fully prepared for the realities of this vocation, which includes both excitement and tedium (as with most occupations). As well, physicians with different specializations have very different routines and responsibilities, so shadowing multiple doctors in multiple specializations that interest you is key, if at all possible.
That, however, brings us to the very common question, “How many shadowing hours to I actually NEED to get into medical school?" It seems a very simple question; but, alas, the answer isn’t so simple.
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To put it plainly: There is no clear-cut number. Some schools will have specific medical school requirements (e.g., 12-24, 50 or more, 120, etc.), so it is imperative that you check the particular requirements of the schools to which you’re applying. If there are schools you’re interested in attending that do have shadowing requirements, figure out what the top number of hours required would be, and aim for that as a minimum; that way, you’ll have smaller requirements covered. If, for example, you’re applying to five different schools and one has a requirement of 50 hours, another has a minimum of 20 hours, and the other three have no specific requirement, then aim for 50, at the minimum.
Well, In the absence of a specific requirement at any of your schools, then the best answer is: Do as much as you can, within reason. You don’t need thousands of hours, and you absolutely must ensure you’re handling your course load (and other responsibilities) effectively. As well, you’ll want to ensure you get some clinical experience (which, as noted above, is more active and partial) alongside shadowing experiences (which are passive but more comprehensive) – having some of both is best, and finding a way to balance all of this with your other educational, volunteer, and extracurriculars for medical school is essential. Never take on so much that other areas suffer. Hundreds or thousands of shadowing hours won’t mean much if your GPA takes a hit because of it, or if it cuts into your time studying for the MCAT.
If you feel like you have to put a number on it, around 100-120 hours is a good solid referent. Shadowing one doctor for one day will be approximately 10 hours, so if you can shadow a range of doctors for a total of 10 days (spread over time, of course – even over a year or so, if you get started early), then you’ll easily hit that target. As briefly noted above, you should ensure you’re shadowing in a range of specialties, if possible. You don’t need to do a different specialty/different doctor on every shadowing occasion – and if you’re particularly interested in one area, then it’s fine to shadow one doctor, or multiple doctors in one specialization, for several days (again, often spread out over time). But do try to get exposure to a few different areas that you think you may want to pursue – different kinds of doctors have different kinds of responsibilities, and thus different kinds of work days. Family medicine and emergency medicine are very different from one another. Cardiology is different from gynecology is different from neurosurgery is different from radiology. Create a short list of specializations that interest you and see if you can get shadowing experience for at least three of these.
Want to know how to ask to shadow a doctor? Check out this video!
Ultimately, what you get – and how well you articulate what you get – from shadowing experiences is far more important than the specific number of hours (unless, again, any schools to which you’re applying do have specific hours requirements). Use your shadowing experience in your AMCAS work and activities, AMCAS most meaningful experiences, autobiographical sketch, personal statement, and/or medical school secondary essays, as a way of highlighting your curiosity and investment into medicine as a career. Reflect on your experience as a way of demonstrating some key qualities about yourself. Take note of particularly meaningful events or interactions you witnessed, and draw on these as inspiration for why you want to live the kind of life you had the privilege of observing.
All this said, if none of the schools to which you are applying have specific shadowing requirements, and you find yourself unable to get shadowing experience, this isn’t necessarily cause for panic. While shadowing is a unique experience with its own merits, there are a number of other ways of gaining experience in the world of medicine. Clinical experience is valuable, and there are many volunteer and paid positions that can help you see some of the ins-and-outs of a career in medicine. See if you can gain some volunteer hours for medical school by donating your time at a local hospital or hospice/palliative care facility -- these are both valuable and viable options for meaningful experiences. Try working as a volunteer EMT, if you want a very active and hands-on experience. You could also look into getting a job as a scribe, which is usually a paid position that still entails following a physician around – usually in an emergency room setting, helping the doctor by taking notes, gathering information, and making documentation.
In the end, shadowing can provide valuable experience and insight into the day-to-day life of a practicing physician, and gaining this exposure is important to both your application and to your understanding of the path you’re attempting to travel. Having some shadowing experience is generally better than having none; but, if you cannot get a shadowing opportunity, that’s not necessarily the death knell for your application to medical school. Remember, you’ll be reviewed holistically, meaning the admissions committee will consider your application overall, as a whole. Gaps in shadowing experience can often be filled with other kinds of experience, unless the school(s) to which you’re applying has shadowing as a requirement.
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