Many applicants wonder how many shadowing hours for medical school are required. While most schools have specific thresholds for quantitative metrics like GPA and , 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.
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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 and then figure out vs shadowing hours you need.
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 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 ?" This may seem like a simple question but, as with other less concrete application criteria, the answer is a bit complex.
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 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 , 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.
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 , , autobiographical sketch, personal statement, and/or , 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 . 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.
“Virtual” shadowing experience is becoming increasingly popular. It’s a lot more convenient than in-person shadowing and the “virtual” format does not necessarily compromise the overall value of the activity. Since shadowing is a passive activity where you mostly just observe and take notes, from a logistical point of view, it’s easy to get virtual shadowing experience that is both meaningful and useful. Not all medical school extracurricular activities translate so well to an online format!
For many students, especially those with extremely busy schedules, virtual shadowing is a boon that helps them avoid long commutes, public transport fees, gas money, and other logistical financial costs. Virtual shadowing is especially useful for students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds or with specific health conditions, who often find it difficult to meet the typical list of medical school requirements. Consider a student who has very little time to spare for shadowing, because they have to work multiple jobs due to their economic circumstances; or a disabled student who is unable to find a wheelchair accessible medical centre near them, to shadow a doctor in-person. For such students, the traditional “in-person” shadowing experience might not be easy to obtain, and this puts them at an unfair disadvantage compared to their peers. Virtual shadowing allows them to gain viable experience that suits their needs.
Remember, no matter what kind of experience you have, how you talk about it in your medical school application makes a difference. Whether it’s in-person or virtual, the purpose of completing shadowing hours for medical school is the same. You should be able to discuss your shadowing experiences in your and essays to build a compelling narrative of and what makes you suitable for it. You also need to describe your shadowing hours in your AMCAS Work and Activities section, succinctly explaining what you did and what value you derived from it.
That’s why it’s important to do your research about the available options, and only select legitimate, useful virtual shadowing experiences, that will actually help you get into medical school.
Virtual shadowing opportunities
There are many different types of shadowing opportunities. Some are very basic, involving a physician simply lecturing about their profession, their specialty, and their duties, without any specific patient examples. You’ll find many such opportunities offered via online sessions conducted by practicing physicians, or organized by medical centres and clinics, in conjunction with universities. Their goal is to help pre-med students improve their knowledge of what their future profession involves. While this kind of experience might be generally interesting, it doesn’t really help to shore up the “shadowing” requirement for medical schools.
Some physicians or clinical centres put up pre-recorded videos of actual patient interactions. These offer a more “real-world” insight into how diagnosis and treatments work. However, make sure you find out how interactive the sessions are and if you will get the opportunity to actually ask questions. If all you’re doing is watching a video, you might find it difficult to explain the value and impact of this experience in your application.
The most useful virtual shadowing experiences are interactive sessions where a physician actually discusses case studies from their own practice. Ideally, they should explain, with specific examples, how they complete their physician duties, and also answer questions from students. The inclusion of a “submission” component i.e., an essay or quiz to analyze the students’ understanding, is a bonus.
If you’re looking for such an opportunity, BeMo Academic Consulting offers an excellent virtual shadowing program. Created in conjunction with experienced physicians, the purpose of this program is not only to help you get the “required” shadowing hours for medical school, but also to help you gain an insight into healthcare practice.
Our program includes interactive sessions of 1 to 1.5 hours, conducted over Zoom by a qualified and experienced physician. In each session, they systematically present a patient case study that could be related to a variety of medical school specialties – psychiatry, internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, and so on. At the end, there is a 15-minute period dedicated to an interactive question and answer session. You also have to complete a homework assignment and quiz to assess your observation and understanding of the case study.
This kind of virtual shadowing experience allows you to understand what a physician does, how they diagnose and treat patients, and how they interact with a student, all from the comfort of your home. By understanding a physician’s critical duties, you can analyze how well-suited you are to that type of work.
At the end of the program, you receive a certificate of completion that includes critical details such as your name, date, and the number of shadowing hours. This is a great addition to your application to help present your virtual shadowing experience in the right context.
Is virtual shadowing experience legitimate?
In a changing world with rapidly evolving technologies and new challenges, the medical profession is constantly evolving, and this impacts medical school admissions requirements as well. A couple of decades ago, virtual shadowing might have been too “out there” – but now, it is a commonly listed medical school extracurricular. Most medical schools accept it and consider it no different to in-person shadowing. Some schools even specify this on their admissions website. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to confirm with the medical schools you’re applying to about their policies regarding virtual shadowing experiences.
However, even if it isn’t counted towards the specific , remember, you can still consider virtual shadowing experience as a general healthcare related extracurricular and list it as such in your application and/or refer to it in your essays.
As we mentioned earlier, how you discuss your experiences in your application is as important as the experiences themselves. The depth of your insights and reflections about the shadowing hours is a critical factor for admissions committees. With virtual shadowing hours, it’s even more important to be clear, precise, and specific. Provide all the required details including the name and credentials of the physician you shadowed. Focus on the specifics of what you observed, what you learned, and how it contributed to your understanding of and passion about the medical profession. Include information about the number of hours you completed, the technology used to access the experience, and your own role in the process (even if it was a passive one).
Another aspect to consider is that with the greater push towards , many programs are expanding their medical school requirements to allow virtual shadowing. If you had specific circumstances that directly influenced your decision to seek out virtual experiences over in-person experiences, make sure you include this information in your application. The ideal place to discuss this topic in detail would be your , but you can also refer to it in other written components, such as your personal statement, other , activity descriptions, accommodation essays, etc. When discussing your circumstances, remember to avoid an overtly negative tone and don’t make excuses; instead focus on the obstacles you faced, how you overcame them, what you learned along the way, and how you grew from the experience.
If, try as you might, you simply cannot arrange any shadowing experiences during your busy premed years, don't panic! According to an 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:
Many 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.
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.
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 () 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 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.
Make sure you find a suitable virtual shadowing experience that provides you with valuable, interactive sessions with a qualified physician, and allows you to observe or learn about actual patient cases. Many universities, clinical centres, and physicians offer such opportunities, and you can reach out to them to find out more. BeMo Academic Consulting also offers a convenient, high-quality virtual shadowing program that you can consider.