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Work Shadowing vs Volunteering?

Work Shadowing: things to consider and how universities regard it?

You probably opened this post thinking “What? Work shadowing is disregarded by medical schools?” That’s exactly what I thought when I heard this for the first time at university open days. So, what exactly is it that’s disliked about shadowing? And what would medical schools prefer to hear about from you?

Is shadowing important?

  • Don’t get me wrong, shadowing is still important. Work shadowing is the only way to get a true insight into medicine as a career. When you go to get experience at a hospital or GP, you won’t have any of the necessary clinical skills for you to deal with patients so the best experience you can hope for is to watch a qualified practitioner carry out the interactions.

  • This is a vital part in helping you to understand what the role of a doctor is, how the healthcare system works and also appreciate some of the challenges faced by healthcare professionals.

  • The main thing they want is your REFLECTION of what you learnt and what that shadowing experience taught you - not just a list of things that you attended. Our logbook will help with this reflective process that you can download from here.

  • During this time we fully appreciate it is difficult to organise work experience, but acquiring insights through virtual means will be looked highly upon. We have released a separate reflective logbook for this which you can download from here.

So, what is it about shadowing?

  • Yes, from shadowing a doctor you learn the importance of compassion, communication, working in a team, effective leadership skills but that’s all. You haven’t demonstrated that you are able to communicate well or that you are compassionate by nature.

  • Simply watching a doctor treat a patient doesn’t prove that you have a natural desire to want to help people.

  • Shadowing does give you an invaluable insight, but rarely any hands-on experience.

What would be better than shadowing?

  • It’s understandable that you clearly can’t gain any hands-on experience from your work experience, but that’s what your voluntary work is for.

  • Taking up a voluntary post at a hospice or a nursing home would be the ideal experience. Here you can talk to the patients/residents and reflect on your communication and listening skills. By taking up a caring role like this you are also demonstrating that you do truly have a compassionate nature.

But that’s not the only experience that’s acceptable, just about anything that you have done which you can use to demonstrate that you have these skills. Remember to showcase that you have had a caring role, whether that’s from a personal experience or as a volunteer.

We'd like to thank Masumah for this very insightful blog. Masumah is a medical student at the University of Manchester. She runs a blog in which she writes about her experiences of medical school and also gives advice to applicants:

To find out more with regards to applying and organising work experience, please let one of our tutors know at

Be sure to download our free templates for Applying for Work Experience.

This post was reviewed by Dr Pooja Devani, @step2med.


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