Pre-Med/Pre-Health: Getting Hands-On Experience
To get accepted to medical school, dental school, physician assistant programs, or other graduate programs in the health professions, excellent grades are essential. However, candidates also need hands-on health-care experience to gain knowledge of the field as well as community service experience to build strong interpersonal skills and cultural competence. Admissions committees look for students who have explored and tested their motivation for a career in health care by gaining knowledge of the field and engaging in service experiences.
Beyond these basic requirements for admission, candidates should seek out opportunities that motivate them, teach them, and inspire curiosity (like research!). This list of hands-on experiences includes programs for students looking to explore research and clinical roles, among other areas. Most deadlines are in January through March.
Knowledge of the field
Graduate schools seek candidates who have basic experience in the field (something meaningful and sustained) as well as a letter of recommendation from a professional in the field. This looks different for each program:
- Dentistry: Applicants must shadow a general dentist for at least 100 hours. They should also seek experiences that require them to work with diverse groups of people in service settings. Additionally, candidates must continuously work to improve their manual dexterity—needed for completing precise procedures in small mouths—through making art, playing an instrument, building models, doing nail art, performing lab procedures that require fine motor skills, etc. Some schools incorporate manual dexterity (carving) tasks as part of their interview process.
- Physician assistant: While each school may define acceptable activities differently, most programs seek applicants who have, at minimum, 500 to 2,000 hours of direct patient care experience in a paid position such as work as an EMT or CNA. Some programs also require shadowing of a PA for at least 30 hours.
- Medicine: Strong applicants demonstrate they have experienced medicine at its worst—been thrown up on, yelled at, etc.—and still seek to enter the field. EMT and CNA are common paths, as they guarantee a challenge. Some applicants find volunteer positions or other roles that offer direct patient contact and afford a challenge.
There are countless ways to gain clinical experience, but here are a few that our students frequently pursue:
|Role||Training Required (Approximate Cost)||Considerations||Possible Settings||How to Find Job (Entry-Level Pay)|
|Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)||
*4–8 week course
Click here for a list of EMT Trainings in MA
|Challenging role when done in an urban setting where calls are numerous. Can involve intense situations.||Ambulance company, ER, fire department||Check local job boards and contact local ambulance companies ($13/h)|
|Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)||
Click here for a list of CNA Trainings in MA
|Challenging, often unglamorous role that affords sustained patient contact. Highly in demand.||Assisted living or mental health facility, hospital||Check local job boards ($13/h)|
|Volunteer||Typically no formal training; instead, on-the-job training||Only roles with direct patient contact—patient escort, patient companion, etc.—are clinical. Since most positions are not demanding, candidates should seek roles that may increase in responsibility or that inherently push the boundaries of their comfort zones.||Hospital, hospice, assisted living facility||Check the organization’s website and contact the volunteer coordinator ($0)|
|Clinical Research||Varies from no formal training to CPR to EMT, CNA, or other training||Roles where applicants interact with patients are clinical. Positions vary widely in level of challenge; those that push the applicant are most valued.||University, hospital||Check job boards on hospital websites and pre-health email list ($15/h)*|
|Personal Care Attendant||3-hour orientation; each patient sets requirements (none to CNA, EMT, etc.)||Work directly for a person who needs assistance with bathing, toileting, meal prep, ambulation, etc. 1199 SEIU offers free training benefits like CPR.||Patient’s home||Check local job boards and the MA PCA Directory ($12/h)|
|Group Home Counselor||Varies from no formal training to bachelor’s degree||Work with teens or adults who have special needs or who are recovering from addiction at a live-in facility, supporting their physical and/or emotional needs.||Residential facility||Check local job boards and MassCareers ($14/h)|
*Certification processes can vary by state. Fees and exams may be involved in transferring a license from out of state.
In addition to traditional clinical experience, applicants can enhance their knowledge of the field in the following ways:
- Provides an understanding of the field and helps in deciding if a health career is a fit by allowing candidates to follow a health provider and ask questions.
- Starts, most commonly, with a personal contact or networking.
- Fulfills requirements for dental schools and some PA programs. Strengthens applications to DO medical programs when applicants have shadowed a DO.
- Offers flexibility—can vary in formality, be any length of time, and affords the chance to create personalized learning goals with the health-care professional. Since most shadowing is observing, not doing, it is primarily non-clinical. Candidates for medical and PA school should seek as much hands-on and patient interaction as possible.
- Tends to be more formal, with specific learning goals for the experience, but compensation, length, and responsibilities vary widely.
- Can be available in clinical work, research, and many other medically-relevant venues. Only those with direct patient contact are considered clinical.
Graduate schools will look for a sustained commitment to service both to the UMass community and to the community at large. Serving UMass—through clubs, CMASS, Residence Life, a TA role, band, etc.—exhibits an interest in being an active, engaged colleague. For ideas, see the list of ways to engage at UMass. Serving the community beyond UMass by making time to volunteer at least two hours each week demonstrates compassion and empathy.
Moreover, service is an opportunity for applicants to show an admissions committee the things that drive them toward a health profession, such as addressing poverty, serving children, or advocating for the elderly. It also offers a chance to highlight their personalities, whether they like sports, music, teaching, etc. Students should be thoughtful about the activities they pursue, seeking experiences that they enjoy and that resonate with them. For ideas, see the list of local volunteer opportunities.
As students engage in service, they should be mindful of finding opportunities to grow their skill sets. Graduate schools value those with experience in leadership, teamwork, and an ability to work across cultures. Direct, hands-on work with people—as opposed to philanthropy—is especially valued.
The most helpful resource here at UMass Amherst for finding a position in a research lab is the Office of Undergraduate Research & Studies (OURS). OURS staff can work with you one-on-one to help you find research both on and off campus. While medical, dental, and PA schools do not mandate research experience, having some can be extremely enriching and can allow a person to gain a better understanding of how knowledge is discovered. It can also help applicants to develop persistence, teamwork, and other invaluable skills. Moreover, research can be a wonderful opportunity to connect with faculty, which is important as all applicants need faculty recommendation letters.
Additional resources for finding research outside of UMass Amherst:
- Summer Undergraduate Research Programs (SURP): Participate in cutting-edge MD-PhD-focused research through a participating AAMC medical school, often with free room and board.
- The NIH Clinical Center (CC) Summer Internship Program: Work with mentors who are researchers and health professionals at the nation’s largest hospital devoted entirely to clinical research. Participate in the NIH Research Poster Festival and attend weekly lectures presented by NIH investigators.
- The Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP): Engage in academic enrichment activities and gain clinical exposure at a program targeted at first- and second-year college students from underserved backgrounds who are pursuing medicine or dentistry. Enjoy free room and board while gaining intensive, personalized graduate school preparation.
- The Pathways to Science search engine is an excellent source for finding research opportunities nationwide. It is offered by the Institute for Broadening Participation and works to increase diversity in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce. This database also lists research opportunities that are open to international students.
- For summer research opportunities and beyond, students should consult the list of hands-on experiences.