How To Get Shadowing Experience: 7 expert strategies for premed students
Updated: May 17, 2022
The Importance of Shadowing in the Medical School Admissions Process
Joe was a premedical student who contacted me several years ago. Unfortunately, he had applied to medical school but hadn't gotten in. In evaluating his application, I noted one important factor: although Joe had a good GPA, a competitive MCAT score, and strong extracurricular activities, he lacked shadowing experience.
Shadowing Experiences Can be Hard to Locate
I asked Joe why he hadn't spent any time shadowing. He told me that he had tried, but he just hadn't been able to land any shadowing opportunities. Unfortunately, this isn't unusual.
While some applicants are readily able to participate in shadowing experiences, others struggle to do so. Spend some time on premedical discussion forums, and you'll see how often this issue comes up.
In Joe's case, I explained that locating opportunities to shadow was critical before he applied again to medical school. (For more on why shadowing experience is so important to the medical school admissions process, please see this post.)
Despite the obstacles, however, I've worked with many applicants to help them design a strategy to locate shadowing opportunities.
In the modern era, with HIPPA regulations in place that protect patient privacy, you may have more challenges than previous groups of students. Despite these challenges, there are still multiple approaches and strategies to locate and land opportunities to shadow.
In this post, I'm going to outline 7 of those strategies.
How to Get Shadowing Experience:
7 Main Strategies
Strategy #1: Ask Your Own Physician
I call this the path of least resistance. You can simply start by asking your own family physician or doctor. One benefit of this approach is that you have an established relationship.
If your doctor isn't allowed to have students shadow, which is often the case, you can then ask him or her for the names of colleagues who aren't bound by such policies. You can then contact this physician. "I'm a premedical student at the University of Houston, and my physician Dr. Desai suggested that I contact you."
In Joe's case, it wasn't going to be that simple. He lived in a college town 1000 miles from where he grew up. During college, he had never needed to see a doctor. So clearly reaching out to his personal physician wasn't going to work.
Strategy #2: Ask family members and friends
Your mother, father, siblings, and other family members may be able to reach out to their own physicians. They may also have friends who are physicians. In fact, just about anyone in your network may be connected to a physician who might be open to having students shadow them.
Strategy #3: Ask your classmates
Upperclassmen are a rich source of information and can often point you in the right direction. Were they able to shadow a particular physician? Do they have any suggestions on who you might be able to ask? You should also consider reaching out to students who have graduated from your college and are now in medical school.
Joe happened to attend a very small college. Every year there were just a few students who went on to medical school. Unfortunately, he had no direct connection to these students. Having said that, if his other strategies weren't successful, he would consider reaching out to them, using their alumni status as a point of connection.
Strategy #4: Talk to your premedical adviser
Every premedical department will have had students who have succeeded in locating shadowing opportunities, so you should definitely talk to your premedical adviser. Some advisors will keep a list of doctors who accept students for shadowing.
Strategy #5: Join your college premedical society
Shadowing experiences can also be arranged through your college's premedical society. These societies have often been in existence for quite some time, and may have well-established shadowing programs. Even if they don't, joining the society will allow you to network and learn who other premedical students have shadowed.
Joe's premedical adviser was new to his position, and unfortunately wasn't very knowledgeable about shadowing opportunities. He also noted that his college did not have premedical organizations on campus.
I then asked Joe about his hospital volunteer work.
Volunteer in a hospital, at a charity clinic, or for a medical non-profit
Working in a hospital, clinic, or for a medical non-profit often puts you into close contact with all types of physicians.
Unfortunately, the nature of most volunteer positions is such that you often won't be directly working with the doctors that you encounter. They will obviously be very busy, so it can be difficult to find the right time to approach them.
Therefore, it’s often more feasible to speak with other healthcare professionals to reach the doctor.
For example, if you're volunteering on a hospital floor working with nurses or nurses’ aides, ask them about doctors who might be open to students seeking shadowing opportunities. Once you've identified a doctor, ask the nurse to arrange an introduction.
Strategy #7: Reach out directly to physicians
If you can't locate shadowing opportunities through friends, family, fellow students, pre advisors, premedical societies or your volunteer work, it's time to take it to the next level.
These next steps require you to take even more initiative.
Start by making a list of practicing physicians in different specialties in your area. You can easily do this with the power of the internet.
One approach is to now email these practices. As you do so, keep in mind that your email is the first impression you're making on a physician whom you don't know.
What should I say to a physician when I'm reaching out for a shadowing opportunity?
Two things are important here.
Your email must have the right content, and it must look professional.
In terms of content, it must be clear who you are, where you study, what you're seeking, why you're seeking it, and how you've come across their name.
What should I say in my email?
Here's one example of an email script
Dear Dr. Chen,
My name is Joe Robertson, and I am currently a graduate student in the Department of Biochemistry at Texas University. I am very interested in pursuing a career in medicine and would love to explore the profession further.
Up to this point, I have volunteered in the emergency room at Mercy Hospital. I am now searching for opportunities to shadow physicians so that I can be more informed about a career in medicine. I came across your name and contact information from your practice's website. If your clinic permits students to shadow, I would be honored to be able to come and observe.
I know you that you have a very busy practice, so I greatly appreciate your consideration. You are welcome to contact me by email or phone. Thank you so much.
Why You Need to Contact Multiple Physicians
After you create your email, you'll need to send it to multiple physicians. And then you wait.
Patience is important at this point. Expect that you will never hear back from most of the physicians. Don't take it personally--but do plan for it.
Why should you email multiple doctors? Many students will send an email to a few doctors and then give up when they don't hear back. Trust me on this. You may need to email multiple physicians before you hear back from one.
Doctors of course are busy people. Some are better than others at responding to shadowing requests in a timely fashion. So send your emails far and wide in your local area.
Another Option to Locate Shadowing Opportunities is to Call or Visit the Physician's Office
You can certainly call a practice. A lot of your success with this approach will depend upon the person answering the phone, but you can leave your contact information and background.
Once the pandemic subsides, you may also consider visiting a physician's office in person. This certainly takes more initiative, but if done well, this approach can be very effective. It also offers you one major advantage. You'll often receive an answer, sometimes right away (as opposed to email, which can take days to weeks to get a response.)
What exactly do you do if you decide to visit doctors in person?
First, you need to look the part. Don't even think about walking into a doctor's office looking for a shadowing experience without having a professional look.
Once you have your professional attire down, take the email script that I gave you, and turn it into a professional printed letter. Take it with you to doctors' offices.
When you walk in, don't expect to meet the doctor. Instead, you'll likely meet the receptionist. This individual may or may not know whether the doctor accepts students for shadowing.
Therefore, the best approach is to introduce yourself as a student who is interested in going to medical school. Then explain that you would love to observe the doctor and ask if it would be possible to meet with the clinic manager.
The clinic manager will typically be able to tell you if the doctor has had students in the past as observers, and whether he or she can accept new students for shadowing now.
Don't expect a decision right then and there, because the manager will have to speak with the doctor.
Before you leave, don't forget to leave your professionally printed letter with the clinic manager. And remember to ask for the clinic manager's contact information so that you can follow up with them.
What happens next? Hopefully, the clinic manager will communicate your interest to the doctor. He or she will hopefully explain that "we had this very nice, mature, and personable young premedical student stop by the office to inquire about shadowing experiences."
If the physician is willing, then the clinic manager will then follow up with you to schedule a time for shadowing.
Success: How Joe located 3 shadowing experiences
Joe ultimately decided to visit doctors' offices in person. He visited 10 offices and secured shadowing experiences with three of them, which is actually an impressive rate of success.
What ultimately happened to Joe? He reapplied to medical school, and this time he was accepted. He's now well on his way to becoming a physician.
Dr. Rajani Katta is the creator of Medical School Interviewing 101, the course that teaches students how to ace their interviews. She is also the author of the Multiple Mini Interview: Winning Strategies from Admissions Faculty, the Casper Test Prep Guide, and The Medical School Interview. Dr. Katta is a practicing dermatologist and served as a Professor of Dermatology at the Baylor College of Medicine for over 17 years.
Dr. Samir Desai is the author of The Clinician's Guide to Laboratory Medicine, The Medical School Interview, and Multiple Mini Interview: Winning Strategies from Admissions Faculty. He is an Internist, on faculty at the Baylor College of Medicine, and has served on the medical school admissions and residency selection committees at the Baylor College of Medicine and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.