Getting Hands-on Experience

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As a student interested in pursuing a career in the health professions, succeeding in your academic coursework should be your primary focus, but your cocurricular activities are what make you the well-rounded, unique person that you want to be—and can help you stay balanced and sane while working away at your courses!

In choosing extracurricular activities, keep in mind that admissions committees at the various health profession schools are looking for students who have explored their motivation for a career in health care. Many opportunities exist for clinical and research experience on and off campus. Most deadlines for summer research programs are in January through March, so start your research in the fall.

Summer and Gap Time links

Clinical Opportunities

Medical and dental schools prefer candidates who have had some basic experience in the field through volunteering, internships, shadowing, or working in an office. Ultimately, applicants in any health profession will greatly enhance their chances of being admitted if they have had this kind of experience in their chosen profession as well as a letter of recommendation from a professional in the field. There are countless ways to gain clinical experience. Here are a few that our students tend to pursue:

Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)

EMT training is available through several venues, and an EMT license can be used when working for other employers including fire departments. The certification process varies by state.

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

Often overlooked as a possibility, becoming a CNA provides great training and allows very close patient contact. Training programs to become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) can be found through the Red Cross, community colleges, or through medical facilities themselves. Once you’re certified, you can work in assisted living facilities, hospitals, mental health facilities—basically anywhere that nurses may be found. You could easily become certified during a summer vacation and then find paid, patient-care focused employment for the rest of your academic career.

Hospital Volunteer

Area hospitals are always looking for volunteers. Some have established volunteer programs for college students and most will at least have a volunteer coordinator who can help you gain a position. The rule of thumb is that about 100 hours of service will give you a reasonably sustained view of what goes on in the hospital. The more patient care and observation of hospital staff you can get, the better. So working in the emergency department, or playing with children in pediatrics, for example, would be more meaningful than working in the gift shop or doing data entry. Most volunteer positions are fairly basic at first but as you get to know the doctors, nurses, and other staff, and show your enthusiasm, trustworthiness, and interest in the environment, you may gain access to more hands-on opportunities. Summer is a good time to volunteer since you have more hours to work with and probably an easier means of transportation.


Shadowing can be formal or informal, long-term or for a single day. Shadowing basically refers to working one-on-one with health professionals to see what they do in a regular work day (or week, or other time period). Shadowing differs from a formal volunteer program in that you’ll work directly with the health care professional to determine your level of participation and what you hope to gain from the experience. Most shadowing occurs when the student is already familiar with the health care professional. For instance, you may know some doctors who are family friends, or your pediatrician may be willing to let you work with him or her for some amount of time. Shadowing is most useful when you have a chance to interact with patients, observe procedures, or otherwise have a fairly hands-on role. Not all shadowing is clinical experience. If you have questions about this please contact a pre-med/pre-health advisor.

Health Care Internships

Internships differ from shadowing and volunteer work in the formality, and the compensation for your participation. Internships can be paid or unpaid, and the amount of time and level of responsibility also varies widely. Internships tend to have specific learning goals that you are meant to gain from your experience. If you take an internship for credit, which is possible through Career Services, you’ll be expected to reflect on the experience through formal activities such as journaling or writing papers. There are a wealth of internships available, in clinical work, research, and many other medically-relevant venues. To learn more about internships, sign up to meet with a career advisor.

Research Opportunities

Students have numerous opportunities to explore the area of biomedical research on campus. Many departments offer information about joining research labs. This list of undergraduate research opportunities can be useful. Another good place to start is by looking at individual faculty members' web pages, which include research interests and recent publications. After viewing web pages and/or meeting with an undergraduate advising head, follow up with a visit to faculty members during their office hours or at their laboratories.

While medical and dental schools favor clinical experience over research experience, getting research experience can be extremely enriching and also help to guide you in a specific direction.

Summer Opportunities

Each year a number of summer research/enrichment programs are held at various government agencies, universities, and pharmaceutical companies. Some of these programs are specifically tailored to underrepresented ethnic minorities and economically disadvantaged individuals. They are typically designed to supplement a student’s science education and/or offer exposure to the health profession field through clinical or research work. Listed below are several off-campus opportunities focusing on biomedical research.

GREAT group SURP programs

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Group on Graduate Education, Training and Research (GREAT) maintains a website with links to its members' summer undergrad research programs (SURPs). These programs allow students to participate in cutting-edge research, and often offer a stipend, room and board, and travel allowance. The applicant pool is competitive and you're encouraged to apply early. Most deadlines for application are in January and February.

NIH Biomedical Research Summer Internship

The NIH Clinical Center (CC) Summer Internship Program selects 50 students to participate in the Clinical Center's internship experience. At the Clinical Center— the nation's largest hospital devoted entirely to clinical research—students work with mentors who are researchers and health professionals; participate in the NIH Research Poster Festival with results generated by their work in this summer program; and attend weekly lectures presented by NIH investigators. Application deadline is March 1.

Summer Medical and Dental Education Programs (SMDEP)

The AAMC's SMDEP is a free (full tuition, housing, and meals) six-week summer medical and dental school preparatory program that offers eligible students intensive and personalized medical and dental school preparation. The programs include academic enrichment activities, clinical exposure, and other activities. Each of the 11 programs has different entrance criteria and all are interested in first- and second-year college students with a demonstrated interest in issues affecting underserved populations. Applications are competitive.

Health Care Careers Enrichment Programs has an option on their home page to find enrichment programs, many of which are summer programs.

Gap Year Opportunities

Being a competitive candidate for medical school is a challenging process. It can be quite useful and rewarding to allow yourself 'gap' time, or time after you graduate to work on becoming the most competitive candidate that you can be. Learn more about Gap Year Opportunities.