Skip to main content

Clinical & Community Volunteer Experience

Building a competitive application involves more than just strong academic performance and test grades. Admissions committees for the various health professional programs also ask that applicants have experience with the respective fields they hope to enter. Importantly, this experience can take many forms, including: volunteering, shadowing, or employment. 

In addition to providing insight into your chosen healthcare career path, engaging in clinical and community opportunities also showcases your capacity for leadership, teamwork, and compassion.

You are encouraged to seek out opportunities in which you find the most personal and professional fulfillment. The quality of engagement (i.e., depth of involvement) is often more important than quantity (i.e., number of hours).

Is shadowing experience required?

Shadowing is highly recommended. In fact, some health professional programs (such as dental, PA, PT, OT, and veterinary medicine) require shadowing or observation hours. Whether recommended or required, the vast majority of health professional programs prefer applicants that have investigated the field they wish to pursue and have first-hand experience with the day-to-day responsibilities of the job.  Shadowing can also lead to strong letters of evaluation as well.

How can I find a health professional to shadow?

We recommend three avenues to finding opportunities to shadow health professionals. We also recommend that you ask each person you shadow if they have colleagues in other hospital or clinic departments who they think would be willing to meet with you to talk about shadowing as well. Remember that the goal of shadowing is breadth of exposure!

1)  Start with people you know.

  • Do you — or does anyone you know — know a health professional?
  • Have you — or has anyone you know —  ever, as a patient, visited a health professional?
  • Would you feel comfortable reaching out to one (or all) of these people to ask about shadowing?

2) Begin volunteering in a health care setting and get to know the health professionals who work there.

  • Volunteer positions might put you in the closest touch with health professionals who work in fields you do not plan to pursue (e.g., you may want to be a physical therapist, but you interact mostly with RNs).
  • Get to know and learn from these people. Shadow them. And ask them to connect you with their colleagues in your field of interest.

3)  Use clinic and hospital directories to find contact information for health professionals.

  • Cold-emailing / cold-calling does work. It may be uncomfortable and it may take several attempts, but it is effective. Be sure to include brief details about yourself, your professional goals, your contact information, and availability.
  • You may also consider first asking health professionals that you do not know if you can conduct an informational interview before you ask to shadow them.
4) Apply for the the University of Houston Academic Associates program.

Do clinics and hospitals have policies for shadowing?

Yes, most clinics and hospitals have policies on shadowing. Please review the websites of any clinics/hospitals to find the information you need regarding shadowing policies before trying to gain this experience.

How can I expand my shadowing network?

An important goal of shadowing is breadth of exposure. This means that ideally you do not shadow the same health professional in the same setting for 80-100 hours, as shadowing multiple health professionals across multiple settings is preferable. Our advice is to always ask any healthcare professional with whom you are currently shadowing if they can connect you with a colleague in another clinic or another department of the hospital who they think may be willing to meet with you.

In addition, it can be useful to shadow health professionals in fields you do not plan to pursue. This will help you learn about multiple professional roles on health care teams. It will also give you the opportunity to crystallize your reflections on why you will serve best in the role you are pursuing.

How should I ask health professionals if I can shadow them?

Health care professionals are often very happy to talk with students. You can help them respond to your request to meet by explaining clearly why you want to talk with them. For example, when you reach out to a health professional, you might do the following.

  • Tell them why you are reaching out to them specifically. Maybe someone recommended them or they work in a health care field that interests you.
  • Share a little about yourself — e.g., where you go to school, healthcare or research experience you have, your professional goals.
  • And this goes without saying — always be courteous, respectful, show awareness of their busy schedule, and express appreciation for whatever they have time to do with/for you, even if this is limited to responding to your call/email.

If a health professional says “no,” do not take it personally. Health professionals are busy, and they may have to say no for reasons beyond their control. Do not be discouraged if you get a “no.” You will eventually get a “yes” if you stick with it. Shadowing Request Email Template

How long should I shadow?

After you find someone who is willing to let you shadow, ask how much time this person would like to plan on having you shadow. They may have had students shadow in the past and have a set way they like to offer this experience.

Shadowing can range from a single day to a few hours per week. Some health professionals may be willing to arrange several weeks or months of shadowing with you. We encourage you to spend as much time shadowing health professionals as you want and they are willing to offer. You may meet someone you want to learn more from than you can learn in 8 or 12 hours of shadowing. That is great. We also encourage you to remember that the goal of shadowing is breadth of experience. And as we say above, this means the ideal situation is not you shadowing the same health professional in the same setting for 80 hours. A much more ideal situation is you shadowing multiple health professionals in multiple settings.

What are some things to keep in mind while I shadow?

Each clinic and hospital has specific expectations for shadowing in their facility. Know their rules and expectations prior to shadowing.

  • Dress professionally and comfortably.
  • Feel free to ask questions and take notes in between patients but not in front of them. Prepare questions ahead of time.
  • The health care professional is required to introduce you as a pre-health student to each patient. There may be patients who are uncomfortable having you in the room during an exam or appointment, so you may be asked to step out. Other patients might engage you in conversation. Regardless of your level of interaction with patients, you must keep all patient information confidential.

What should I do after I shadow?

Write thank you notes.  If you had a great experience with a health professional, ask this person if you can keep in touch. Reflect in writing about what you saw and what you learned. Create a spreadsheet to keep track of dates, hours, and contact information for all your shadowing experiences. All of this will come in handy when you are applying to health professions programs! And remember to keep everything you observe when you shadow completely confidential.

Informational interviews are simply conversations you arrange with someone who works in a profession that you want to learn more about. These conversations will give you great insight into careers that interest you. You can ask the professionals you meet with about the particular path they took to their career, what advice they would give someone in your position, their day-to-day experiences at work, what they love and what they don't love about their job, current events and concerns in their field — and anything else you want to ask about.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when it is not possible for students to volunteer and shadow in healthcare settings, you can still reach out to healthcare providers to see if they have time to talk with you by phone or in a video chat about their careers. When you ask to meet, always show sensitivity to the fact that they may have added responsibilities at work due to the pandemic. Some will and may not be able to meet. But others will have and want to give time to you. You can always reach out and see if providers have time for, and interest in, a meeting — and they can offer the time they have and want to give!

Setting Up the Interview:

  • Identify a healthcare provider to whom you want to reach out.
    • Consider starting with people you know:
      • Do you have friends or relatives or know alumni (LinkedIn) who work in a health profession? Regarding family members, they can be great people to talk with and learn from. You may also shadow them. However, when you apply to health professional programs, you are not able to report shadowing relatives; however, they can connect you with their colleagues!
      • Ask healthcare providers whom you or someone you know has seen as a patient (Who is your primary care provider? Have you or someone you know seen a health professional for any reason? Are you comfortable reaching out to these people?).
      • Ask health professionals where you work or volunteer. (Make every effort to get to know the health care professionals where you work/volunteer. They can be great people to talk with, shadow, learn from, and they can be great connections to other health professionals.)
      • Search online directories and call or write to professionals working in areas of interest to you.
  • Reach out and ask to meet by phone or video chat. Share your interest in healthcare and ask if they would be willing to meet for a short (20-30 minute) informational interview. Let this person know who referred you (if applicable).
  • Prepare for the interview by learning about the person you will interview (if possible) and preparing questions.

During the Interview:

  • Call the provider at the time, and by the means, you agreed upon.
  • Initiate and keep the conversation going. Ask the questions that you came up with ahead of time but let the conversation go in other directions as well. Also, be ready for them to ask you questions!
  • Stick to your 20-30 minute time frame.
  • Ask for recommendations of other professionals you might contact to interview. Be sure to find out if you can use this person’s name when you approach the people they recommend for additional interviews.
  • If the conversation has gone well, ask this person if they may allow you to shadow them.
  • Ask if you can contact this person again if you have questions in the future.

Informational Interview Questions:

These are ideas for questions. Be sure to come up with your own as well!

  • Work environment and skills for success

    • How would you describe the environment in which you work?
    • How would you describe your typical day?
    • What do you spend the most time doing?
    • What kinds of problems/decisions do you face during your day?
    • What are the most important skills you use every day?
    • What makes a person successful in your position?
  • Personal experience

    • Can you tell me about your career path and where you see yourself in a few years?
    • What did you study in college and what did you do to prepare for professional school?
    • How does this job affect your personal life?
  • Professional development

    • When selecting a professional program, what did you look for?
    • Are there things you wish you had known or investigated when you researched and selected programs?
    • May I use your name in contacting these people?
    • If I have questions, may I stay in contact with you?

After the Interview:

  • Be sure to send a thank-you email immediately (within a day) and a thank-you note within a week!
  • Organize your notes from the interivew. Consider follow-up questions.