Learn word-for-word how to set up your dream shadowing gig
If medical school is in your future, you’ll need to shadow a doctor before you apply. Beyond the fact that shadowing is a required extracurricular activity for medical school, it also helps you be certain that you’re entering the profession with open eyes. You’ll see what the hours are really like and what day-to-day tasks the work entails, in addition to various other challenges and benefits of being a doctor.
Shadowing will also give you experiences to discuss in your medical school personal statement, AMCAS Work and Activities section, and during interviews. You’ll also receive an opportunity to develop relationships with potential recommendation letter writers and doctors who may be advisors and mentors for years to come.
Though shadowing a doctor is extremely common for medical school applicants, we’ve found that arranging shadowing hours can be a stumbling block for many students. It’s intimidating to reach out to professionals in a given field to ask for a significant amount of their time! But fear not. In this guide, we’ll explain everything you need to know about how to ask to shadow a doctor. We’ll cover what to say, whom to ask, and best practices for completing your shadowing hours and making the most of your experience.
What is shadowing a doctor like?
Unlike internships or volunteer work, shadowing a doctor is typically a fairly hands-off experience for you, the shadower. Your role will mostly be that of a silent observer hanging in the background as the physician goes through a complete day on the job. This means that you’ll sit in not only during patient visits and procedures, but also as the doctor completes paperwork, reviews files, takes breaks, and handles anything else that comes up.
During appointments, the doctor will likely introduce you to their patient, explain the purpose behind your presence, and make sure the patient has no issues with you being in the room. Though most patients will probably be fine with it, you may occasionally be asked to step out of the room due to privacy concerns. This is no big deal and also a good reminder that you are legally obligated to keep all information you obtain while shadowing strictly confidential due to HIPAA laws.
Though you’ll mostly be watching quietly as the doctor works, they may occasionally invite you to participate in an appointment more directly, such as during a physical examination or asking if you have any questions for the patient. Always wait to be invited and for the patient to express consent, especially if it requires you to physically touch them.
While shadowing a doctor is a largely passive activity, benefits include the opportunity to gather observations and ask questions. We recommend bringing a small notebook with you to write down anything you’d like to remember or discuss with the doctor at the end of the day or during breaks.
(Note: Jotting down observations will provide valuable material for application essays. Note that it is considered acceptable for you to write about a shadowing experience in your personal statement or secondary essays, as long as you omit or change identifying details such as a patient’s name, date of birth, address, etc. To make it clear that you’ve maintained a patient’s confidentiality, consider using an initial or a pseudonym in quotations, such as, “Ms. H” or “Joseph.”)
How to find a doctor to shadow
The easiest way to set up shadowing hours is to simply ask someone you know—perhaps someone in your family or a family friend. If you don’t happen to know any doctors personally, however, don’t worry. There are other ways to make those connections.
A good place to start is by reaching out to your own doctor, if you have one, or perhaps a pediatrician or family doctor you saw growing up. Chances are that they’ll be more likely to let you shadow them due to your pre-existing relationship.
Even if they say no, it’s still worth getting in touch as they may be able to suggest colleagues who would be more amenable to being shadowed. (The same goes for any friends you may have who are already in medical school and will be certain to know practicing physicians.)
Your undergraduate institution likely has resources to connect you with doctors as well. Reach out to your school’s premed advisors or any professors who have taught you in premed coursework to ask if they know of any doctors who you might be able to shadow.
If you’re at a university with a medical school or hospital on campus, contact the med school or hospital directly. Most hospitals have dedicated offices for coordinating volunteers, so you could also try contacting the volunteer office of any local hospital, regardless of whether or not they’re affiliated with your school.
If you’re still stuck, don’t be afraid to cold call local primary care practices to ask if you can shadow one of their practitioners. Though the idea of cold calling might seem awkward, remember that shadowing is extremely common and that all doctors were once premed students with similar questions and uncertainties to ones that you may have now. Most will be happy to hear that you’re interested in medicine and will be willing to at least point you in the right direction.
(Note: Before you begin contacting doctors, it’s worth considering what types of medicine you think you may want to pursue and attempting to find matches within those fields. This will gives you the opportunity to “try out” different specializations. Plus, stating your interest in, say, women’s health can help you make a stronger case as to why you want to shadow an OB/GYN.)
If you’re interested in more than one area of medicine, pursuing multiple shadowing opportunities is a great idea because it’ll give you the chance to compare different specialties. If you’re unsure or you’re simply unable to find a doctor within your specialization of interest, we recommend exploring primary care specialties such as internal medicine, family medicine, or pediatrics.
How to make contact
Once you’ve determined whom you’d like to ask, start by reaching out via email or phone. Either way, you’ll want to include the following information:
An introduction, including your name, where you attend school, and how far along you are in your education
An outline of your career goals and interest in medicine
How you learned of that particular doctor
Why you think they would be a good person for you to shadow/what you hope to get out of the experience
A direct request to shadow the doctor, including scheduling information (more on that below)
If emailing, make sure to write a professional-sounding email and consider also attaching your resume to give the doctor a fuller picture of who you are. If making contact by phone, be prepared with a brief—think thirty seconds or less—version of your request in case you need to leave a message. In any event, you’ll want to be polite, polished, and concise—doctors are busy people.
On that note, be prepared to be flexible with your schedule. While it’s fine to let a doctor know if there are certain times you simply cannot be available (for instance, if you’re going out of town), make it easy for them to say yes. This means working around their schedule as much as possible, even if it entails a few compromises on your end.
Similarly, begin planning your experience well before you’d actually like to shadow, to make time for doctors who might not immediately be available. We recommend making contact with doctors at least a month in advance, though giving yourself even more time may be beneficial in case you don’t find a match right away.
While shadowing hours can be completed any time before applying to medical school, including during a gap year, consider beginning them as early as possible in case you discover you’d like to explore a different specialization or that medicine is not the path for you.
How to ask a doctor to shadow email
Email script to ask a doctor you already know (e.g., a family friend or your former doctor)
Dear Dr. Minhaj,
I hope this note finds you well. Since we last saw each other for my last check-up, I started college at Tufts University, where I’ve been majoring in psychology and am pre-med. I am particularly interested in pediatrics, psychiatry, and family medicine.
I am hoping to arrange some shadowing opportunities in order to learn more about the day-to-day of being a doctor, and I’m wondering if you’d be open to me spending some time in your office over my winter break, spring break, or summer, when I will be back in Montclair. I’d be so grateful for your time. Please let me know. I would be happy to discuss what dates would be convenient for you via email or over the phone.
Many thanks and my best,
Email script to ask a doctor whom you DON’T know personally
Dear Dr. Alvarez,
My name is Julia Bailey and I’m a junior at UCLA majoring in Biology. I’m writing because I’m considering applying to medical school and am hoping to shadow a doctor in order to give me a better sense of the profession. I received your contact information through my academic advisor, Dr. Laura Kim, who suggested that you might be a good person to get in touch with due to my interest in cardiology, which I would love to discuss with you in light of your experience in the field.
Would you be willing to allow me to shadow you during a work day in the upcoming months? I would be grateful for any amount of time that you could spare, whether that’s one day or a few. I’ll be out of LA during the first week of June, but am otherwise available. If you are amenable to letting me shadow you, please let me know of some days that might work for you and I will arrange my schedule to make those dates work.
Please let me know if you need any other information from me. Thank you so much for your time—I look forward to hearing back from you.
How to ask a doctor to shadow over the phone
(Note: We recommend reaching out via email first, but if you only have phone contact information or someone tells you to reach out over the phone, try this.)
Phone script when leaving a phone message for a physician you already know
Hi Dr. Minhaj! I hope all is well. This is your former patient, Jane Seidman, calling from Boston. I’m a junior pre-med at Tufts these days, and I’m calling because I’m hoping to set up some shadowing opportunities and wondering if you’d be open to me spending some time in your office. Please give me a call back when you can at 123-456-7890. You can also reach me over email at jane.seidman—S-e-i-d-m-a-n—3 at tufts dot edu. Looking forward to speaking!
Phone script when cold-calling a physician you don’t already know
Hi, Dr. Kaufman. My name is Marianne Adeyemi and I’m a junior pre-med student at the University of Michigan. I’m calling because I’m hoping to set up some shadowing opportunities in women’s health, and I found your name on a list of providers in Detroit. I’d love to speak with you about potentially spending some time in your office one work day a week next semester, beginning in January. Please give me a call back when you have some time at 543-217-9876. You can also reach me over email at m dot Adeyemi—that’s a-d-e-y-e-m-i—at umich dot edu.
A few more tips
Here are a few more best practices to keep in mind as you complete your shadowing hours:
Dress appropriately. This means professional attire (or scrubs—confirm with the doctor beforehand) and closed-toe, comfortable shoes.
Be mindful of clinic or hospital policies in regards to activities like eating, drinking, and hand washing.
Send the doctor a personal, handwritten thank you note after the experience is over. Gratitude will go a long way towards setting a positive, professional impression.
If you’re hoping for a letter of recommendation, it’s best to ask relatively soon after your shadowing experience is over. That way you’ll remain fresh in the doctor’s mind as they are writing for you.
Setting up a shadowing experience may seem daunting, but it’s actually relatively simple. On top of this, it’s one of the very best ways to gain insight into the life of a doctor and determine if medical school is right for you.