The golden rule when for all pre-med students is simple and universal: have great recommendation letters, a high GPA and stellar MCAT scores. However, what some students neglect to place an emphasis on is shadowing experiences. Not only is it important for gaining a rec letter from a physician, but it can play a major role in determining what type of health care speciality that is the right fit for you. For instance, when I was in college, I was selected in a hospital program to shadow a pediatric rheumatologist . Although pediatrics has always been my interest, I did not like how this particular field was very…abstract, for lack of a better word. This experience helped me figure out that I wanted a specialty with more of a “hands on” approach; I wanted to see a patient, diagnose him/her, and be able to do something to help relieve some of their suffering and pain. After shadowing a podiatrist, that’s where I discovered my calling. I could combine all my favorite parts of medicine and enjoy what I am doing at the same time.

Another reason why shadowing physicians from various fields is important prior to applying to medical school is really to avoid making a wrong choice. One of my former classmates in the beginning of our first semester disliked podiatric medicine from the very beginning. After matriculating in the program for a month, she dropped out. Her reason? She’s always been more interested in teeth and wants to be a dentist. That’s a fine choice and another excellent health profession, but why would she have wasted time and tens of thousands of dollars to only drop out after a month? Medical school is expensive, and the word “refund” never made it into their dictionary. Perhaps if she had shadowed both a dentist and a podiatrist she would have been able to realize her passion earlier and had saved herself loads of stress and anxiety.

So you’ve shadowed, found what you’ve been looking for, collected the rec letter, and gained admission to your dream program. You don’t need to shadow anymore since you’re in, right? Of course not! Following a physician around and experiencing first hand  what they do is not only important prior to matriculation, it’s a great opportunity to help apply what you have learned in classes and to reinforce the concepts. Seeing it in print and googling pictures of a technique is not as effective as actually hearing that abnormal murmur or watching a physician perform a positive Lachman’s test. Following upperclassmen in the clinic is just as good, perhaps even better for students a bit intimidated by their clinical professors or afraid to be asked difficult questions by the physicians about the exams performed. You’ll get a taste of what to expect in your clinical courses, and most of the time you’ll be granted the chance to perform some of the basic tests or to offer a differential diagnosis.

If you have the chance to gain some clinical experience, don’t turn it down. Even if it’s a specialty that doesn’t really interest you, it won’t to try it, you can only stand to gain. It’s better gain a general idea early on of what type of career you’d like to pursue, and the best way is to gain as much information as you can about various fields. Medicine is such a wonderfully diverse land of opportunity, but narrowing your choices down before actually experiencing other specialities can lead you to regret your hasty choice.