Before you drive a car for the first time, you’ve spent numerous hours—literally weeks of your life—in a passenger seat. Before you enter medical school, then, it makes sense you would give the profession a look from the passenger seat. That’s where premed shadowing—following around a physician for a day or a week—can come into play. Find out what to do when shadowing a doctor so you can get the most out of the experience.

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“Shadowing is important no matter what field you go into,” said Benjamin R. Chan, MD, associate dean for admissions at the University of Utah School of Medicine. “In college, I was debating between premed and prelaw. I shadowed a couple of attorneys and it wasn’t such a positive experience. They were nice, but that wasn’t the life for me. I shadowed a few physicians, and I liked it much better.

“Once you go down the path of medical school, that’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It’s a lot of time and a big expense. So shadowing gives a great opportunity to experience that and help people make up their minds.”

Some medical schools will require shadowing a physician as part of your application, while others will strongly encourage it. As a potential medical student, what should you get out of it? Here’s what experts working in medical school admissions had to say about that.

Busting media myths of physician life

When you go to medical school, you will be training to be a doctor, and it’s not like the ones you see on TV. For that reason, it helps to see a physician in action, Dr. Chan said.

“Because of the media, people have this image of what doctors do,” Dr. Chan said. “But not until you shadow a physician, and you see their activities, witness them delivering bad news, dealing with insurance companies, seeing all the paperwork, do you understand what it means to be a doctor at all times.”

Your first lessons in professionalism

Professionalism is a significant part of medical training. Residents tend to follow the example set by attending physicians and students follow the one set by residents. As a premed, watching a physician work can, hopefully, help you begin developing good habits in a clinical setting.

John D. Schriner, PhD, is associate dean for admissions and student affairs at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, one of 37 member schools of the AMA’s Accelerating Change in Medical Education Consortium.

“Modeling is very big,” he said. “Hopefully you are working with a great physician who can fan the flames of the fire that a student has burning to want to go to medical school.”

“Anything that a student can glean from an interaction or engagement in that clinical environment should be positive—as long as they are an active listener and astute as to what they are trying to get out of that experience.”

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Understanding patient vulnerability

Dr. Chan said most students shadow through hospitals or health systems, but that doesn’t have to be the case. He encourages prospective students to be creative with the venues in which they shadow. Some practice settings Dr. Chan recommends for shadowing hours include hospice or respite care, or nursing homes. As far as finding those opportunities, he says it doesn’t hurt to pick up the phone and simply ask. More times than not, your interest in shadowing or volunteering will be welcomed.

“What the admissions committee likes to see is applicants who have a history working with vulnerable patient populations, experiences that let applicants exemplify their passion and professionalism,” he said. “A lot of people, when they apply to medical school, they write about why they want to become a doctor. But we focus on actions that back up those words.”

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