The Importance of Gaining Clinical Experience
Gaining clinical experiences is very important in preparing yourself for a health professions school. Many admissions officers will look at your health care experiences as an important part of their holistic review. As I travel to visit with students across the state of Texas regarding the application process, the most common questions about clinical experiences that I receive are: What type of clinical experiences should I have? How much clinical experience do I need? Why does it matter if I have clinical experience before I apply?
What type of clinical experience should I have before I apply?
Clinical experiences can often be divided into shadowing/volunteering or paid positions.  During shadowing experiences, students are often exposed to patient care through volunteering their time by either following a physician in their clinical practice or in a hospital-based setting. The exposure that the student receives during this time can offer a glimpse into the day-to-day demands that a physician sees.
As a family medicine physician, I often have students shadow me in my clinical practice. Initially, many of the students didn’t use the opportunity to engage with me in a conversation about my medical practice or the steps of becoming a physician. After a few shadowing encounters, I have started to ask that students take notes on the patient care experiences that they witness. This often opens up the dialogue about my practice and about careers in medicine. I then provide guidance for them and ultimately can provide a letter of recommendation for their application. Therefore, I would highly recommend that you engage your shadowing physician and build a mentoring relationship with them. In preparation for applying to medical school, having a letter of recommendation from a mentor-physician will go a long way in making you a competitive applicant.
However, admissions officers realize that shadowing/volunteering might not be possible for some students. Therefore, I would encourage future applicants to look into paid positions such as working as a certified medical assistant (CMA), emergency room scribes, emergency room techs, phlebotomist or even becoming an EMT.  These experiences can also provide valuable opportunities to see what the clinical work really looks like.
If you have difficulty finding shadowing opportunities or a paid position, there are creative ways in which you can gain clinical experiences. A recent survey performed by the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) stated that 87% of medical school admissions officers would accept an alternative activity to clinical shadowing. I would encourage such students to either volunteer time through a home health/hospice company, volunteer time in a nursing home, become a volunteer EMT, or even work with children with special needs in an occupational/physical therapy practice.
Students are often enticed to go overseas for their clinical experiences. Although these opportunities do provide patient care exposure, you must remember that being exposed to medical care in the United States should be a priority because one day you will be licensed to take care of patients in our country. The ultimate goal on your clinical experiences should not be a bullet point in your application, but to be exposed to patient care, and more importantly, becoming passionate about taking care of patients.
How much clinical experience do I really need?
When it comes to clinical experiences, quality is more important than quantity. I would encourage you to seek out various clinical experiences in preparation for applying to medical school. One hundred hours with various specialties or patient care experiences will look better than many more hours spent in one specialty. To most admissions officers, having a variety of clinical patient care experiences is often used as an important criterion during the holistic review process and can separate you as a competitive applicant for medical school.
As you enter your undergraduate institution, I would recommend that you seek out patient care experiences through pre-medical societies, clubs and organizations. Take the initiative and discover experiences in your local undergraduate communities, or even in your hometown. The goal is to seek experiences that demonstrate some form of passion towards caring for patients. Admissions officers realize that not all students take the traditional track of entering medical school straight from an undergraduate institution. Therefore, if you are a non-traditional applicant try to incorporate some varied clinical experiences even if you do not have a large number of hours. Patient exposure experiences will help you when your application is reviewed.
Why does it matter if I have clinical experiences before I apply?
You must remember that you are applying to enter medical school where much of your training will be in clinical settings. Admissions officers are looking for candidates who demonstrate a sense of compassion, empathy, and a desire to help those in need and have experienced such in some sort of first-hand way. One of the best means for demonstrating these attributes is by enhancing your clinical patient care experiences, which can provide great material for your personal statement and are often great talking points in an interview.
Admissions committees are not assessing your clinical acumen, but we are trying to get a sense of your understanding of the medical profession. We are trying to assess your ability to handle the stress and time management constraints that physicians undergo. I would encourage you to develop personal relationships with shadowing physicians and anyone that takes care of patients, so that they can provide wisdom and insight to help you understand what is important in addressing the needs of patients.
Finally, as you start developing your pathway towards applying for medical school, remember to keep patientcentered clinical experiences in the forefront of your mind. Ultimately, admissions officers are looking for those attributes that we know will help develop empathetic and kind physicians. Gaining valuable clinical experiences will not only help you in the process of becoming a competitive applicant for medical school, but it will help you develop the attributes that we want in a physician.
- How to gain research and clinical experience for med school. https://www.kaptest.com/study/mcat/how-to-gain-research-and-clinical-experience-for-med-school/
- Five ways to gain experience without shadowing. https://students-residents.aamc.org/choosing-medical-career/article/five-ways-gain-experience-without-shadowing/
- Do I need clinical experience to get into medical school? Jessica Freeman, MD https://mededits.com/medical-school-application/do-i-need-clinical-experience-get-into-medical-school/
Dr. Felix G. Morales is Associate Dean of Admissions at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine.