Premed 101: Guide to Clinical Experience

Other than questions about MCAT and GPA, questions about clinical experience are some of the most common premeds have. Premed students want to know what clinical experience is, why they need it, and how to get it. I try to answer the most common questions about clinical experience here. Some questions are too nuanced or specific to be answered more broadly. Those often come down to a judgment call or checking advice given in the application services’ manuals. My new book, The Premed Playbook Guide to the Medical School Application Process, includes a section starting on page 81 called Work and Activities that will guide you on talking about your experiences, clinical or otherwise. 

Some questions you might be asking yourself or your advisors are:

What is clinical experience?

Clinical experience is when you get exposure to direct patient care. A good rule of thumb is that you should be close enough to smell the patient. Students sometimes use volunteering/community service and clinical experience interchangeably. There can be overlap, but whether you’re getting paid isn’t the important part. The setting is also not the important part. What makes something clinical or not is what you are doing and the context in which you are doing it. 


Why do I need clinical experience?

You don’t need clinical experience because you “have to” or need a certain amount of hours to be a good applicant. You need clinical experience to know what you’re getting into and why you want to be a physician. These experiences will let you prove to yourself and the admissions committee that this is what you want. You will also grow as a person through these experiences if you fully commit yourself to them. All your experiences and activities on your premed journey will help shape who you are when you apply, and clinical experience is no different. 


Does [insert activity] count?

Only you can decide how to classify something on your application or whether to pursue an opportunity, but there are some guidelines you can keep in mind. The most important thing is what you’re doing, not where you’re doing it. For example, being a receptionist in a clinic wouldn’t count because the work you’re doing is more akin to customer service, despite the setting. The opposite example is home health, where your activity is much more clinical but outside of a traditional medical setting. 

Some examples of the most common clinical jobs or volunteer positions people get are Certified Nursing Assistant or Medical Assistant. EMT, scribe, hospice volunteer, and clinical research coordinator. 


How many hours of clinical experience is enough?

There is no “enough.” That doesn’t mean you need thousands of hours. It just means you shouldn’t be thinking, “I’ll get 300 hours, and then I can be done.” That’s not how it works. It will be apparent that you were checking a box, and that’s not the mentality you should have. Doing a few hours a month over several years shows commitment and consistency. That also gives you time to grow in your position. Spending more time in a position will provide you with more to say about it and more depth to your description. 

In Session 121 of the Old Premeds Podcast, I talked about what you should focus on when deciding if you have enough experience and how to pace your experiences. 


For more on this, check out Session 321 of The Premed Years, where I did an Instagram Q&A that included answering some of these most common questions about clinical experience and a few other activities questions. 


One way to make your life easier when you’re filling out your application is to track your hours along the way. Add reflections as you track your hours to look back on as you write your essays. The easiest way to do this is through Mappd, where you can keep up with everything you do on this path and get feedback and a roadmap to your path to medical school. You can start with a no-commitment two-week free trial to see if it’s a good fit for your needs.