I hear students get confused over these two terms: shadowing and volunteering.
Both are medical experience, and their usefulness depends on what your career plans are, but what’s the difference?
Shadowing a Doctor
Some premeds choose to shadow a doctor. This involves spending time with the physician and observing their work. It requires depth, but is generally seen as a minimal commitment to clinical work (although not always) since you will likely not be participating in any of the procedures. You will simply be an onlooker.
This is not to say that shadowing a doctor is not worthwhile — it is, but you need to set your time commitment early. I would recommend six months or more shadowing a doctor to prove to medical schools you are seriously interested.
Shadowing is important in that it’s a very intimate way to see the daily activities of physician. However, that being said, it’s pretty common. If the choice was between shadowing and clinical volunteering, the latter is almost always preferable.
Clinical Volunteering All the Way
This isn’t to say that shadowing is not beneficial to have on your application. It definitely is. However, the general consensus is that volunteering is preferable. Why?
- Shadowing does not involve as much patient interaction.
- Volunteering demonstrates more knowledge than shadowing.
- Recommendations from a doctor you are volunteering with looks much more impressive than from a doctor you shadowed.
- Volunteering does not have to be in a clinic — it can be any organization you work for, although unpaid.
Dedicating your time to volunteering is most likely to be perceived as more of an indicator of who you are. This is because it is a more formal arrangement than shadowing. By volunteering for a long time at a clinic, you will learn the rhythms and flow of the medical profession.
It all comes down to time commitment — you need to plan it out, whether shadowing a physician or volunteering.
How to Get the Most Out of Volunteering
The first time you volunteer at a clinic, you need to have an open mind. Realize your limitations and try your best to learn. By better demonstrating you’re serious, and able, you’ll impress your superiors and receive a strong letter of recommendation. This looks especially impressive if you have dedicated a lot of your time.
A few other tips of trade:
- Write down any memorable experiences as they happen while volunteering. Save these for when you write your personal statement.
- Be sensitive to the situation, but also ask poignant questions when appropriate.
- Read about what you observed and interested you that day — this will keep you locked into your practice.
- Above all else, truly enjoy the experience and get to know your peers.
You can only plan out your time commitment — the rest, you need to take it as it comes. The whole point of volunteering is that you grow as a person; you only get as much out of it as your put in. The experience should impact you enough that you can write about it and provide insight into your volunteering work when the time comes on your application. This will give you an edge when writing your personal statement.
Will It Increase Your Chances of Getting Into Medical School?
If you have proven time commitment, it most definitely will have an impact on your odds of getting in. I addressed this topic in one of my videos made for the MCAT Club.
You can also check your chances of getting into medical school by taking my free self-assessment test which can be found at this link here.