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How To Get Clinical Experience During COVID

Written By: Christine Crispen, Ph.D., Medical School Admissions Consultant and member of the Blueprint MCAT Pre-Med Advisory Council

Everyone applying to medical school knows that clinical experience is critically important to the medical school application. It helps potential students gain some understanding of what it’s like to be a doctor and hopefully some knowledge of what they are undertaking. Clinical experience examples include shadowing, volunteering at a hospital, clinic, EMT, medical assistant, free clinic volunteering, international service experiences, and the list can go on.

However, since March 2020, most, if not all, of the traditional clinical experience activities pre-med students chose to do have become unavailable due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, with medical school applications on the rise this cycle and possibly into the next, the competition is strong. As a medical school admissions consultant, I decided to explore some of the clinical experiences to do during COVID-19 that I’ve seen this cycle.

Clinical Experiences During COVID-19

Shadowing and Virtual Shadowing

Obviously, shadowing is the first step pre-med students take on their journey into medical school. You follow the doctor around, take the opportunity to ask them questions, and see how they interact with patients. This activity is probably minimal to non-existent right now because of the pandemic. However, I still encourage you to ask. Clinics and offices are starting to take appointments. A major caveat is to make sure you don’t expose yourself to other patients with COVID. We do our best to limit our medical students’ exposure and we definitely want you to limit your exposure as much as you can, too. Ask to see if they are taking volunteers to help with tele-health appointments or take temps at the door. You never know unless you ask.

I have received several questions about virtual shadowing opportunities and how Admissions Committees would view these on your activities. As with many things, all experiences are taken as part of the total application. So, if virtual shadowing is the only clinical experience on your application, I would be concerned that you do not have enough experience (in general) and I think most Admissions Committees would feel the same. However, I also know, as do other adcomms, that in-person experiences are difficult to come by right now, so I would never discourage applicants from taking advantage of all opportunities presented.

Virtual Volunteering

Virtual volunteering has become popular this year, with many people opting to work as COVID tracers. If your local hospital has a virtual volunteer program, do it! Once local guidelines permit, consider other in-person volunteer opportunities. You want a variety of experiences on your application so start here but over the next year, continue looking for other things you can do to become a well-rounded applicant.

Don’t Downplay Clinical Experience

We can’t overstate how vital clinical experience is to your medical school application, regardless if you’re a traditional pre-med or non-traditional applicant. Shadowing—in any form—is a great start. It is what I call passive learning. I would recommend you begin this your first two years of college if you know at this point you want to be a physician. As you progress over the remaining years of your undergraduate degree, you should find more active learning/participatory opportunities to gain clinical experiences. Consider getting a job such as scribe, EMT, or medical assistant. There might also be a small, community clinic or student-run clinic that will allow you to have a more hands-on experience.

I know it is difficult—even in “normal” times—for pre-meds to find clinical experience opportunities and 2020 hasn’t done you any favors. However, I encourage you to continue trying to be creative in finding how you can contribute and gain clinical experience. COVID will probably be around for the foreseeable future, so it’s important to be flexible and adapt to the changing landscape.

And, most importantly, if you do not have all the components for a solid, strong application, delay the submission until you do. Take the time you need to work on your application and do not forget the other determining factor in your med school application—the MCAT! Consider this: One and done—apply once and get accepted with the best possible application!


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