Many applicants wonder how many shadowing hours for medical school are required. While most schools have specific thresholds for quantitative metrics like GPA and MCAT scores, the ideal amount and type of shadowing experience is less defined but just as important in making you a competitive candidate. In this blog you will learn how many shadowing hours you should gain before you apply to medical school. 

Shadowing vs Clinical Experience

If you’re planning to apply to medical school, then you probably already know that having both active clinical experience and experience shadowing a doctor or multiple doctors is a good idea. However, shadowing and clinical experiences are viewed differently by medical school admissions boards, so it’s important to understand their differences.

Clinical Experience

In clinical experiences, you’ll often get the opportunity to actively participate as part of a medical team, interact with patients, and gain valuable exposure to the world of medicine. This is obviously crucial, and a huge part of your development as a premed student. 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 and environment without letting any of your other responsibilities suffer. We’ll discuss some specific activities that count as clinical experience later on in the “Alternatives to Shadowing Experience” section, but it suffices now to generally distinguish clinical experiences as active, hands-on experiences that put you “into the mix.”

Want to learn how to gain clinical experience? Check out our infographic below:

Shadowing Experience

Shadowing is a passive activity– you will follow a doctor through an entire shift or multiple shifts, from the time they arrive to the time they leave their workplace. While there isn’t usually much direct patient interaction, these shadowing experiences will help you gain a more complete understanding of what an average day looks like for a practicing physician. This knowledge of day-to-day details is crucial, as you not only need to prepare for the realities of being a medical practitioner but, crucially, have some way of showing this to the schools to which you’re applying. As well, physicians with different specializations have very different routines and responsibilities, so shadowing multiple doctors in multiple specializations that interest you is key.

That, however, brings us to the common question, “How many shadowing hours do I actually NEED to get into medical school?" This may seem like a simple question but, as with other less concrete application criteria, the answer is a bit complex.

Is there a specific shadowing requirement?

To put it plainly, 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 medical school requirements of the schools to which you’re applying. If there are schools in which you’re interested that do have shadowing requirements, figure out what the top number of hours required would be, and aim for that as a minimum. With shadowing, it’s always better to aim for the high end of what’s required of you. If, for example, you’re applying to five different schools and one has a requirement of 120 hours, another has a minimum of 50 hours, and the other three have no specific requirement, then aim for a minimum of 120 hours.

If none of the schools you’re applying to have specific requirements, then the best course of action is do as much as you can within reason. No school will ask for thousands of hours, and you must keep in mind that your other responsibilities like coursework must be impeccably maintained. You’ll also want to ensure that you get some more active clinical experience alongside your passive shadowing experiences. Having a good mix of both is best, and finding a way to balance all of this with your other educational and volunteer responsibilities, as well as extracurriculars for medical school, is essential. 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 tanks, or if you significantly reduce time spent studying for the MCAT. In short: do as much as you can without upsetting the balance of the rest of your academic life.

How many shadowing hours for medical school should I aim for? 

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. As noted above, you should ensure you’re shadowing in a range of specialties if possible.  There are limits here too though – you don’t need to shadow with a different doctor/specialty on every occasion, and if you’re particularly interested in one area, then it’s fine to shadow one or more doctors in a single specialization for several days. But do try to get exposure to a few different areas that you think you may want to pursue. Responsibilities vary between different doctors and specialties, and so shadowing with a decent variety will help you gain understanding of different kinds of workdays. For instance, a day for a family medicine specialist differs wildly from a day in emergency medicine, cardiology differs from neurosurgery, and so on. 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. 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.

How to Reach Out to Physicians to Gain Shadowing Experience 

Shadowing is a very common practice in the United States. Most physicians are open to it and are glad to accept premed students. If you’re wondering how to begin your search, start by asking your personal physician, as well as doctors with whom you have volunteered and worked. They may allow you to shadow them or recommend physicians who typically take on students. Otherwise, look for physicians in your area and call or email their office to ask if they take on students. Before you do this, you might want to learn how to ask to shadow a physician. When you call or email the physician, explain that you are a premed student and express your interest in their specialty. Briefly explain your medical experience and your aspirations in the medical field. Arrange a schedule that fits both of your needs and responsibilities. 

Alternatives to Shadowing Experience 

If, try as you might, you simply cannot arrange any shadowing experiences during your busy premed years, don't panic! According to an AAMC survey of medical school admissions officers, 87% of those surveyed stated that alternative activities were acceptable in place of shadowing. 

In addition to purely academic activities like research or teaching assistantships, these include: 

What if a school doesn't have a shadowing requirement at all? 

Many medical schools in the United States do not require applicants to gain shadowing experience. While some may mention that it is a recommended activity, many simply do not even put it in the description of admissions requirements. This is misleading. Having shadowing experience is always strongly recommended, even if you apply to schools that technically do not have a shadowing requirement.  If this is your situation, you’ll still want to demonstrate some active and passive clinical experience, whether that be shadowing or the alternative clinical activities mentioned above. However, we recommend that you gain both shadowing and active clinical experiences to bolster your application and test run your career choice.  

Conclusion 

In the end, shadowing provides valuable experience and insight into the daily life of a practicing physician, and gaining this exposure is important to both your application and to your personal understanding of the path you want to travel. Having some shadowing experience is of course better than having none, but remember that your application will be viewed holistically – admissions committees will consider your application as a whole, weighting and contextualizing your various metrics and experiences together. As such, even in a worst-case scenario in which you simply cannot organize any shadowing opportunities, you may be able to substitute shadowing other forms of direct medical experience. But if you can hit between 100-120 hours of shadowing experience, then you can rest assured your application will stand out and illustrate your commitment to a life in medicine.   

FAQ

1. How many hours of shadowing experience do I need?

There’s no commonly accepted number among medical schools, and requirements vary from school to school. Always check with your desired medical schools for specific numbers and details. We recommend you have between 100-120 hours, but if that’s not possible you can usually substitute with other relevant activities like those listed in our blog above.  

2. How do I ensure a good shadowing experience?

Aspects of basic professionalism shouldn’t be overlooked, such as showing up on time (i.e., early), dressing appropriately, and having a good understanding of both the doctor you’re shadowing and their specialty. Be as engaged as possible without making yourself the center of attention. The patients’ needs come first, and in a situation involving really sensitive medical matters, you may be asked to leave the room. Be understanding and supportive of both the doctor and the patient, and do what’s asked of you without pushback or needless commentary. Treat it as an experience that you strongly desire for its own merits and not to simply fulfill a requirement for furthering your career. Even if the patient doesn’t notice, the doctor you’re paired with will be aware of your motivations for shadowing, so focus on your intrinsic motivation to help others or make a positive impact in the world. Ideas like that may be cliché in personal statements but they should still be a part of what draws you to medicine.  

3. Why is shadowing a requirement?

Medical schools want to know that medicine is a vocation as opposed to simply an occupation for you. You should feel a motivation toward the profession that transcends concerns like compensation or status. Medical schools want to know that medicine is a vocation as opposed to simply an occupation for you. You should feel a motivation toward the profession that transcends concerns like compensation or status. Admissions committees also want to see that you've taken the necessary steps to see what it's like to be a physician. Assuring them that you understand the everyday responsibilities and activities of a practicing doctor is what shadowing is all about. 

4. How do I learn about my chosen schools' shadowing requirement?

The first place you should check is their website, of course, specifically the sections relating to admissions to their medical program. The AAMC's Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) site is also a great resource. As its name implies, the MSAR is a comprehensive database of admissions requirements for medical schools in the U.S., and has the added benefit of being extremely clear and well-organized.

5. What does shadowing a physician entail?

Shadowing involves following a physician for at least one full day as an observer. You will not be asked to participate in any procedures, although you may be invited to interact with patients to an extremely limited degree. For the most part shadowing means you're exactly that—a passive "shadow" of the physician. On your side of things as the shadower, you should strive to pay very close attention to every detail of the physician's day and workflow. While you're outwardly passive, on the inside you should be studying and attentively soaking up all that you witness. You may have the impulse to take notes throughout the day, but as a matter of politeness you should only do this between patient interactions and not during them.  

6. Is paid clinical experience better than shadowing?

Not necessarily. If a school requires shadowing specifically then that's exactly what they want, and you should do all you can to meet that requirement. Paid clinical experiences can teach you a great deal about how to actively participate in medical environments, but shadowing is about improving your sense of personal context and understanding of the profession beyond technical considerations. Additionally, it's usually quite difficult for premed students to obtain paid clinical work, so shadowing is a more reliably accessible option for gaining early experience.  

7. If I'm a Canadian applicant to U.S. schools, do I need to fulfill this requirement?

Yes! Even though it's often harder to arrange shadowing experiences in Canada, you should try to do so. Admissions committees may be more understanding if you simply cannot fulfill a shadowing requirement as a Canadian student, but unless it's truly impossible for you we recommend at least some shadowing experience. Check out our blog on Canadian-friendly medical schools in the U.S. for more discussion on how to navigate applying to schools South of the border.  

8. How do I ask to shadow a doctor?

Politely! Begin by determining what specializations you're interested in and gather contact information for physicians in those specialties. Ask at least a month ahead of when you’d like to shadow them, make your schedule as amenable to theirs as possible, and be respectful if they decline your request. That said, shadowing is something most working doctors have done as both shadower and shadowee, so don't let your nerves stifle your approach. Shadowing is a common request and you're assuredly not the first person to ask a given doctor. 

9. Can I participate in virtual shadowing? Will it count towards my shadowing hours?

Absolutely! Since shadowing is a passive form of learning, you do not actually have to be present for the doctor-patient interactions. In fact, it might be more convenient for you if you want to shadow a doctor outside of your geographical area. Instead of travelling hundreds or thousands of kilometers, you can connect with physicians all over from the comforts of your home. Because virtual shadowing can help you save time and money, you can afford to shadow a bigger variety of specialists and therefore gain more perspective.

Reaching out to physicians to ask if you can shadow them virtually will not be much different from your traditional email or phone call.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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