How Do Elite Pre-Health Advising Offices Advise Their Pre-Meds?

So, you’ve decided to pursue a medical degree. Congratulations! You’re about to embark on a lifelong journey of discovery and innovation, which will positively impact others’ quality of life. Before that happens though, there is still a long road ahead of you, from polishing your academic resume to fleshing out your real-world experiences. Questions can arise on how to effectively use your time as you juggle all of your responsibilities, and an important aspect of that is just how much time you should be spending on any one thing.

A huge part of becoming a successful doctor is knowing for certain that you have the passion and determination to keep up with the demands of the profession. While rigorous academics offer an initial introduction to the high standards of medicine, clinical experiences and shadowing doctors can provide deeper insights into the daily trials and successes of medical professionals.

Clinical shadowing can reveal realities that may not be immediately apparent within the confines of a classroom. There are, however, no set guidelines on what type of clinical shadowing should be completed or how many hours should be dedicated to this pursuit. While this gives you the freedom to explore your personal interests without constraint, it can also cause confusion and anxiety. In an effort to resolve any lingering uncertainty, we delved into what some of the elite universities have to say about it.

Princeton University

While Princeton University does not have its own medical school, the Ivy League university does offer extensive resources to advise students looking to pursue a medical profession. Health Professions Advising is an expansive collection of information, which has answers to many of the most frequently asked questions – including Clinical Experience FAQs.

First and foremost, it is helpful to remember what schools are looking for in applicants and how clinical experience helps develop those traits. Anyone looking to pursue a profession in medicine must be willing to commit to an expensive, time-consuming career path, and that includes having a long-term vision for their future selves. Prior experience in a medical setting can help ground a potential applicant’s opinion of the field in reality, where long hours and competitive environments are the norms. But not only does a medical profession require a determined academic, but also an empathetic team player. Schools will want to see that you have developed a good “bedside manner” and are genuinely interested in assisting the community as a whole – and this is where the various types of clinical experience come into play.

It is unlikely that you will be able to display all of these qualities by simply shadowing a doctor as they go about their day. While this can be a helpful experience, consider completing a variety of experiences to round out your application and skillset. Volunteer at a hospital or clinic to gain a better understanding of hospital culture and the communities they serve or become an EMT for hands-on experience in potentially high-pressure situations. While clinical experience is an important part of your pre-med journey, do not forget that it is also meant to help you decide what type of career is for you.

Which brings us to the big question: how many hours do you need to complete? Ultimately, unless there is a defined school prerequisite, you yourself are going to have to decide when you have seen and experienced enough. Princeton University recommends 3 to 4 full days of clinical shadowing per physician, but this number isn’t set in stone and can change based upon what experience you are pursuing. What is important is that you leave with a better understanding of the daily demands of the profession and if you are comfortable interacting with a wide range of communities with empathy and patience.

Due to the nature of COVID-19, gaining traditional clinical experience may not be an option for you. Schools understand this and are offering more flexibility in their applications during these unprecedented times. However, there are still ways for you to delve into the medical world: virtual 1-on-1 interviews with physicians, documentaries, articles, and virtual seminars are all good places to learn from others’ experiences and ask any questions you may have.

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Shadow 20+ hrs per week over summer/winter break, focus on grades during the year, and stand out to medical schools.

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Columbia University 

Much like Princeton, Columbia also has a health professions advising office. By breaking down the expectations of students by their desired future profession, and how they plan to map out their pre-medical career, it’s very easy to get a solid idea of which tasks you should be giving the most effort in the lead-up to medical school. The premedical curriculum is broken down by the courses you should take, the labs and extracurriculars, and efforts outside the school the students should be taking.

Specifically in the world of summer programs, Columbia mentions specifically that students should seek to study abroad and do work in the context of preparing for medical school. However, there is a cautionary note that most medical schools will not accept coursework that is completed abroad. While students should keep that in mind, going abroad for immersion, experience, and opportunities to shadow a doctor is still infinitely valuable.

Columbia does not recommend a specific number of hours as a part of its program leading up to medical school for shadowing. 

Although the school does not specifically mention clinical experience in association with standards, having that experience will give you the opportunity to test, develop, and advocate for your skillset during the application process.

As you go over the curriculum and extracurricular recommendations, ask yourself if you have each of the attributes listed. If you are uncertain or believe you could use more practice in a certain area, pursue a shadowing or volunteering option in a clinic that will best serve that particular skill.

Cornell University

Cornell University has an equally deep library of pre-health resources for pre-med students. This school, which boasts the largest Ivy League undergraduate population,  extensively lists not only the academic requirements and recommendations for students as they make their way through undergrad but also the extracurricular clinical experience that students should be attaining to enhance their expertise and skill levels.

In particular, there is a section dedicated to activities outside of the classroom that includes information on how to attain shadowing hours and how to diversify your experience.

Listed amongst those selection criteria is an investigation in the field of medicine, or in other words, clinical experience. This is an important consideration for Cornell, as it indicates that you have been exposed to the realities and demands of medicine and remain confident in your interest in the profession.

Although there is no specified hourly requirement listed, it is mentioned that the admissions office is interested in meaningful, rather than perfunctory, participation. This means that, again, rather than you checking off an hourly goal, you should be aiming to gain as much educational value from your shadowing experience as possible. 

Take advantage of the range of opportunities available to you, whether that means shadowing a physician, partaking in a research project, or accepting a health care employment opportunity, there is no limitation to the skills you can gain from these experiences. It should be noted that Cornell lists almost the exact same technical standards as Columbia University, so if you use those as guidelines for planning your clinical experience, you’ll be positively positioning yourself for your application process.

Yale University

Yale University also has an in-depth library of resources for pre-med students from their pre-med medical department. One of the most helpful things Yale does for its pre-med students is break down a detailed timeline for how the application process should be going depending on your year. This includes extracurricular resources, suggested application times for the MCAT, and more.

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About Atlantis

Atlantis partners with hospitals to provide clinical shadowing for U.S. pre-health students. Offering programs primarily in Europe, Atlantis connects students with top hospitals in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Hungary, and elsewhere. During their academic break, participants shadow 20+ hours per week, developing the AAMC Core Competencies and setting themselves apart on their medical/PA school applications. Our mission is to equip the next generation of healthcare leaders with experiences that create a lifelong passion for medicine.

Interested in taking full advantage of clinical shadowing? Explore international opportunities with Atlantis by starting your application process today!


Atlantis does not imply an endorsement from these institutions; however, it seeks to disseminate important truths about medical admissions to as many pre-health students as possible, in order to help students navigate the often stressful pre-health path.