Dos and Don’ts of Shadowing A Doctor

Kayla Kaszyca

Dos and Don’ts of Shadowing A Doctor

During your time as a pre-med student, you’ve probably heard that you should shadow a doctor at some point. This isn’t advice that you should take and run with right away, however. Considering that most medical school applicants pursue the shadowing route, the question is, how can you tailor your experience in a way that helps you stand out? To ensure that you get the most out of your time shadowing a doctor, you need to go into the experience with intention. 

When planned correctly, shadowing can provide you with a look at the real world of medicine and boost your future applications. But if you shadow haphazardly, it could end up being a waste of your precious time. Below, I have listed the dos and don’ts of shadowing a doctor, which will help you take advantage of this opportunity and gain meaningful experience in a medical setting.

DO: Build Relationships with Doctors

One of the biggest benefits of shadowing a doctor is the one-on-one relationships you have the chance to build. This connection, if strong, could prove to be essential when the time comes to ask for letters of recommendation for your applications. You won’t want your letter to just say something like “Kate was great at observing.” Ideally the praise you want to receive is more concrete and anecdotal.

In order to get a recommendation that includes genuine praise about your ability to succeed in medical school, the doctor needs to see that you are actively learning from your experiences around the hospital. The following sections will go into these ideas in more detail, but asking informed questions and taking notes will allow you to absorb more information and demonstrate that you are actively engaged.

DO: Ask Questions

While you do learn a lot in your pre-med classes, nothing compares to real-world experiences that show what your days would actually look like as a physician. When shadowing a doctor, chances are you’ll run into situations that you’ve never encountered previously. Whether the doctor prescribes a medicine you’re not familiar with or a patient has a rare illness, always ask follow-up questions (at an appropriate time, of course) in order to learn as much as you can from these circumstances. 

If nothing else, spend any downtime you have asking the doctor about their time in medical school. As you know, the admissions process is brutal and medical school itself is even harder, so getting advice from someone who’s been through it is invaluable. 

DO: Take Notes

The time you spend shadowing a doctor will be jam-packed with new experiences and learning moments, and you won’t want to forget any of them! Make sure you aren’t just going through the motions and taking notes to appear busy. Your notes will be an incredible resource as you apply to medical school and eventually become a physician. And as stated above, it’s a worthwhile endeavor to debrief with your doctor to make sure you didn’t miss anything.

When you finally begin to write your personal statement and medical school secondaries, you may find that you want to include an anecdote of a situation you encountered while shadowing. The more details and specifics you can add to a story like this, the more your essay will stand out. This is where your notes will come in handy. Rather than just pulling from a vague memory, you’ll be able to look back on the exact thoughts you had during the situations you encountered.

DON’T: Only Shadow 

Right alongside scribing and volunteering with the Red Cross, shadowing a doctor is one of the most common extracurriculars for pre-med students to pursue. Therefore, it’s important to have more on your activities list than just shadowing. Working in a research lab in your area of interest is an excellent supplement to shadowing. In fact, I’ve known pre-med students who found a lab experiences through the doctor that they shadowed. 

Not only does lab work deepen your connections to the medical community and further your specific interests, but it can also result in your name being included on a research paper. Other pre-med activities could include volunteering and gaining teaching experience. However, just like shadowing, these activities are very common. Therefore, it’s essential to put a unique twist on them or make them specific to you and your passions within the field. Instead of volunteering once for a well-known group like the Red Cross, you can start your own volunteering initiative in your particular interest within medicine.

DON’T: Shadow Randomly

Because shadowing is such a common pre-med activity, it’s important that you put careful thought into it. When looking for doctors to shadow, try to find one in your field of interest. For example, if you want to be a heart surgeon and have other activities that align with this interest, such as working in a cardiology lab, try finding a cardiologist to shadow. It wouldn’t make sense for you to shadow a pediatrician, after all. Admissions committees would be confused, as this experience wouldn’t align with the rest of your application.

There are many benefits that you can reap from shadowing a doctor in your specific field. First and foremost, it will allow you to solidify that this area of medicine is indeed right for you. After spending time with the doctor, you may find that their work isn’t what you expected and rethink the type of medicine you want to do in the future. And in terms of your medical school application, shadowing a doctor in your field will show that you are committed to this topic and that you are interested in delving deeper into it. 

DON’T: Be Inconsistent

If you decide that shadowing a doctor is going to be one of your pre-med activities, then you have to be consistent. Shadowing once and then never going again will not be useful to your education nor your future medical school application. As stated above, one of the key benefits of shadowing is building a strong and substantial relationship with a doctor, so you should strive to not only be consistent with the number of times you shadow, but also who you decide to do it.

If you spend a semester studying abroad, for example, try finding a local doctor to shadow throughout your time there. Not only will this broaden your view of medicine as a whole, but it will also add a distinctive activity to your applications. But if this isn’t possible for you, don’t worry. Whenever feasible, try shadowing the same doctor each time. This will allow you to build a level of trust, which will make for standout recommendation letters. 

As with every aspect of your medical school candidacy, it’s important to diversify your experiences in order to stand out among your peers. Look for any way possible to make the time you spend shadowing a doctor unique. Avoid inconsistency, make sure to go into shadowing with a clear objective, and you’re sure to have a worthwhile experience!

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