Questions About Internships and Volunteering

I didn't get an internship... now what?!
What is Clinical Experience?
Physicians in the Alumni Career Network
How Important Is Volunteering?
Summer Camp Job
Volunteering Abroad
Letters of Recommendation as a Freshman
Contact Names for Your Activities

Finding a Summer 'Internship'

Question:  I am a freshman and I just want to make sure I don’t miss the chance to find an internship for the summer. I don’t see specific internships listed on the HPA website. Am I missing something? Can you give me advice about where to look and what kinds of internships are a good idea to consider?

Answer: Any internships we hear about are posted in our Vitals newsletter, so be sure to contact us if you'd like to subscribe! We also list them in a separate Summer Opportunities page. In addition to Vitals, be sure to check Hire Tigers, the Career Services online system for current postings of all internships as well as full-time jobs. We encourage pre-health students to become familiar with the Career Services website, including the page devoted to finding internships and guidance on finding alumni who might be willing to host you as an intern, or give advice about where you might look. In addition, we provide links to organizations where Princeton pre-health students have interned over the years in the Pre-Health Prep section of our website (both clinical and research opportunities). These may or may not have current opportunities at any given time, but we encourage you to learn about these and similar organizations at home and abroad, and check on what might be available if you are interested. Of course, not every internship you do as a pre-health student needs to be specifically health-related. You can also gain valuable service, leadership, teaching, and research experience—or pursue other talents-- that will be relevant for a future in the health professions. Internships are one great way to gain exposure to medicine, but just don’t forget about shadowing, volunteering during the summer and/or the academic year, coming to “The Doctor Is In” and other presentations, and just keeping an eye on healthcare in the news. Good luck! 

PICS Internships

Question:  Hi HPA – I am a freshman and I am trying to make plans for this summer. I want to remain in the states and I’d really like to get some clinical exposure, and maybe have a chance to do some clinical research. I don’t have enough money to pay for housing to be out of my hometown… Are there any domestic Princeton programs or resources that you can recommend?

Answer: In the fall semester, the PICS (Princeton Internships in Civic Service) opportunities are announced. In 2012, among the offerings were 23 different paid internships in 13 hospitals or medical/health policy organizations! A PICS internship will have you working closely with terrific physicians and healthcare teams, with alumni as your mentors. Details about each organization and position are posted on the PICS website. The PICS Application is due in January. Keep in mind that non-clinical, and non-health related PICS opportunities can also be relevant and meaningful pre-health experiences. After all, medicine is about being in the service of others, so getting experience working in these kinds of settings can help you to develop your helping skills, empathy, and leadership potential. Of course PICS is just one option for getting clinical experience. You can also always feel free to use the HPA Physician Shadowing List, the Tigernet Alumni Directory, or contact physicians or other healthcare professionals, or hospital volunteer offices close to home. 

I didn't get an internship ... now what?!

Question: I ‘m a freshman and applied to a few internships, but didn’t get any of them, and now I don’t know what to do this summer. Help! 

Answer: First of all, don’t despair – we’re glad that you put yourself out there as an applicant. The process of finding internships, crafting your resume and cover letter, asking for letters of recommendation – all of this is great practice for future applications, and will give you a head start in future years, when you’ll have more experience under your belt as an internship applicant.

Many students encounter this issue, especially in freshman and sophomore summers. This is a good time to turn to your personal/family network: do you have friends’ parents who are physicians, or friends of physicians? This could be a good excuse to visit a roommate or Princeton friend for a couple of weeks over the summer, hang out with them at night, and go to work with their parent during the day. Did you work in a lab in high school? Maybe your supervisor has some connections that will help you find a new opportunity, or some colleges or universities that they might recommend where similar work is being done – we’ve had students find research opportunities just by writing professional emails and attaching their resumes, and sending this information to researchers in fields of interest. Don’t forget to use the Princeton network: reach out to alumni who might be in your area, and see if they’re willing to have you shadow, or maybe even assist on a research project, if they’re in a lab. Use the Career Services guidelines for networking to make contact with alums. Also, don’t limit yourself to learning about medical careers in the summer. Maybe you’re still considering interests from high school, or maybe you’ve discovered something new through your courses and activities here – now is the time to explore! If you’re still trying to decide whether you’d rather be, say, an engineer or a doctor, reach out to some engineers and do some shadowing with them, too. 

Many hospitals also have summer volunteer programs for college students – we’re starting to compile a list of links to Volunteer Services offices at hospitals. If you’d like some help locating hospitals in your area, email us and we’ll do some scouting near your home town. If you don’t have access to a hospital, consider other ways that you can show your dedication to your community, and improve your cultural competence (exposure to people different from yourself) through volunteering – working with veterans, the elderly, people with disabilities, people who are homeless – there are many sectors of society that you will be serving as a physician, so gaining an appreciation of their experiences on a personal level now can help you think about your career in the future.

We also encourage you to revisit the Question of the Week: “What pre-health things can I do during Fall Break while I have some free time” – many of these things also apply to Spring and Summer breaks! 

What is Clinical Experience?

Question: HPA says we have to get “clinical experience” or “clinical exposure” before medical school but I don’t really know what this means. What experience is best? Why do I need it?

Answer: Medical schools want to be confident that students understand what they’re getting themselves into—that they’re committing to an expensive, time-intensive path of study with reasons based in concrete experience rather than abstract understanding. Additionally, they’re seeking to admit students who are service- and people-oriented, and who have started to develop their own ’bedside manner’ skills: spending time with those in need in clinical settings is a great way to demonstrate your service orientation and to gain comfort in working with sick people.

Here are a few common ways that students gain clinical experience:

  • Shadowing: short-term, passive opportunity to get a glimpse into a certain specialty by following a doctor in their day to day work. You may have a chance to see how a physician interacts with their patients, to pick someone’s brain about the satisfactions and frustrations of practice. Could lead to longer-term mentoring relationship. 
  • Volunteering: longer-term, active opportunity in which you provide a service to the hospital/clinic. This can give you a sense of the culture within a unit of the hospital over time, allow you to interact with the team within the unit (nurses, techs, physicians, etc.), and, in some units, you may have the opportunity to interact directly with patients and their families.
  • Becoming an EMT: after a course and certification test, EMTs respond to emergency situations. Great opportunity to gain hands-on skills, but does not provide familiarity with the hospital setting or work of physicians.
  • Scribing: paid position in which you follow doctors as they visit with patients and take notes for them, so that they can focus on the patient. Scribing has become a popular glide year activity.
  • Clinical research: depending on the study, students may be able to assist in enrolling patients or administering tests, which can help develop interpersonal skills and provide better understanding of the patient experience. Doing research also gives students access to mentors in the field.
  • Other opportunities that may help students build similar skills: working at summer camps with kids with disabilities, providing health education, working as a Certified Nursing Aide or Phlebotomist, providing language translation, working as a doula.

Students shouldn't limit themselves to one type of experience or one setting - the broader and more diverse the exposure to health and health care, the better! In addition to active experience, reading books about medicine, attending talks like our Doctor Is In speaker series, watching documentaries, keeping up with articles posted on our Facebook page about medicine, and taking health-related courses will further prepare students for medical school and their future careers. 

How important is volunteering?

Question:  How important is volunteering for pre-med students?  Is a student who works at a hospital or lab and shows interest in medicine less competitive than one who also volunteers?  If volunteering is crucial, how much of it should be done?

Answer: This is a very difficult question to answer--an all-too-common question, but a hard one. No one should make you volunteer. If you're not sincerely interested in serving your community in some way then you should not do it. However, many pre-meds cite a desire to help others as one of their main reasons for pursuing medicine, and many medical schools are interested in training physicians who see their work as a service to society and to individuals. If you are asked at a medical school interview some day why you want to become a doctor (and someone is sure to ask you that question) and you tell them that you take satisfaction in helping others, you have very little credibility if you've never volunteered your time in service to other people less fortunate than yourself, or if your most recent volunteer work was in high school. Why would anyone believe you if they don't see evidence of volunteering during your college years? Generally, your clinical experiences in college should include some volunteering, but we cannot quantify the amount - how much of your health-related experience is for pay, or through an internship, or shadowing, or true volunteer work is all up to the individual. In addition to clinical experience, volunteering in other relevant ways - tutoring, coaching kids, helping the elderly - all "count," so don't turn down those opportunities just because you don't think med schools will be interested in them. Hopefully you chose Princeton with full knowledge and appreciation of its motto re: being "in the nation's service"....right? 

Making the Most of Hospital Volunteering

Question:  I've been volunteering at UMCPP here in town and to be honest I don't find it very interesting.  I'm wondering if you could help me.  Why do med schools insist that we volunteer in a hospital?  Can I do something different?  It's pretty frustrating. 

Answer:  You probably want to focus on the things you do enjoy about being in the clinical setting and not the things that are tedious or uninteresting.  Medical schools do not “insist” on hospital volunteering per se, but they do value applicants with experience interacting with patients, and before one goes to medical school and obtains proper qualifications and skills, one is left with volunteering as the main means for gaining patient contact.  A few things to remember:

  • If your frustration comes from a lack of contact with physicians, and the patients you see are asleep, then you're volunteering at a less than optimal time of day. When scheduling your volunteer work, think beyond what is best for your schedule. Volunteer in the mornings or afternoons, possibly on weekends if you have to, not late in the evening when the docs have gone home and the patients are sleeping.  And remember: we have a list of local physicians who have volunteered to have you shadow them--it's on our website.  You might try contact some of these physicians in order to have more interaction with doctors.
  • Students often experience more than they realize when serving as a volunteer. Write down your experiences. Spend a little time recording conversations you've had with patients or conversations you've overheard between doctors and staff. The more detailed you are with your note-taking, the better equipped/informed you'll be when asked to discuss your volunteer work. (It may even help you better understand why you're volunteering in the first place.)
  • Lastly, remember this isn't about your doing something you find interesting as much as it is about backing up your desire to work in a profession where serving others is at the heart of all you do. To be blunt, it's not about you, it's about what is needed to be done in order to help a hospital help its patients. Tasks like comforting patients, talking with them and their families, transporting them, etc. are essential experiences in your development as a caregiver.  

Physicians in the Alumni Career Network

Question:  Hi HPA - Next summer I am hoping to be in San Francisco working for a nonprofit organization.  If all goes right, I’ll get this job I’m hoping for.  I’ll have some time after my employment finishes, and maybe even before it starts, to do something else.  I was wondering if you knew of any job shadowing or clinical opportunities in the Bay Area or maybe in Chicago, since that’s where I’m from and I could stay with my parents.  I’d like to secure a short term (1-3 weeks) shadowing position.

Answer:  We recommend that you use the Tigernet Alumni Directory available on the Career Services website.  You should be able to find a Princeton alumnus-physician in San Francisco or Chicago who has volunteered to host/mentor/talk to Princeton students.  This avenue has worked well for many other Princeton students.  The alumni in the directory are hoping to be mentors to current students.  Also, don’t forget that the HPA site has a list of local Princeton-area physicians to shadow during the regular school year. 

Shadowing Health Professionals

Finding Opportunities

Question:  I’m interested in shadowing opportunities for the break. What should I expect to get out of the experience? Do you have any recommendations for how I should go about finding a shadowing position?

Answer:  Shadowing can an excellent way to gain exposure to and become informed about the everyday practice of medicine. Working closely with a healthcare provider and his/her staff in an office helps you to learn about expectations in the field and the challenges and rewards of practicing medicine. A shadowing experience also allows you to build a relationship with a mentor in the field and ask questions, ultimately helping you to decide if this path is the right one for you.

In terms of locating shadowing opportunities, HPA has a list of local physicians in the Princeton area who are open to having students shadow them. If you’re going home for break, you might reach out to a Princeton alumnus physician by first looking at the Tigernet Alumni Directory. Career Services also offers "Princeternships" with pre-identified alums, and you can apply to participate in these shadowing opportunities through HandShake. The deadline to apply for January Princeternships is in November, and the deadline for Spring Break Princeternships is in February. 

When you contact a physician, tell the person where you found them, give a brief introduction of yourself, and what in particular interests you about their background, position, or organization. Let the doctor know that you'd be interested in any shadowing opportunities that they can provide. If your first contact is by email, attach a copy of your resume and let them know that you're happy to connect by phone if it's helpful. If your first contact is by phone, have your calendar available in case the physician wants to schedule something right away. Try to have an idea of what you're looking for when you shadow in case you are asked. You also might want to check out your peers’ Princeternship blogs to get a sense of what they have gained from shadowing experiences in the health professions.

If the doctor can't accommodate you for shadowing, you might see if they would just be willing to talk with you for an hour or so, and then put together a list of questions you might like to know more about in pursuing your interests in medicine (this is often called an "informational interview"). Career Services has a great list of starting questions you may want to ask here.


Question:  I shadowed a physician over the fall break. Do I need a letter or other documentation to provide proof of the experience?

Answer:  No – you sign a statement of integrity when you apply to medical school stating that you are portraying your experiences honestly, and this will suffice. You will be asked to provide contact information for each activity that you report in your application so that schools could follow up on the experiences if desired, but for the most part, they will trust that you are being truthful in your application.

Shadowing Guidelines

Question: I have some family friends who are doctors and they’ve agreed to let me shadow them over break, but they haven’t had students shadow before and asked me what to expect. What should I tell them?

Answer: Excellent question! We want shadowing experiences to be positive for students and for the physicians who are providing this valuable opportunity. A group of medical school personnel, pre-health advisors, ethicists, and others have collaborated to developed Guidelines for Clinical Shadowing Experiences for Pre-medical Students. We encourage you to read through them so that you can provide a summary for the physicians, and you can also provide them with a copy of the guidelines, or a link to the document. 

Shadowing Hours

Question: I am in the process of setting up some shadowing with an orthopaedic surgeon, and his assistant has asked me how many hours I wanted to shadow for. What is typical?

Answer: It depends on what you’ll be doing as you shadow and what you want to get out of it. Generally, if you’re just observing and asking a few questions, about 3-4 days full time will give you a good sense of what’s going on. Spreading your time out across a few different shadowing opportunities with physicians or other health professionals in different areas may maximize the learning experience.   

Summer Camp Job

Question:  I am a pre-med freshman. I know it is suggested that we do medically-related summer programs, but is it absolutely necessary the summer after freshman year? I love kids, and would love to work at a camp this summer, especially since it will probably be the last summer that I would be able to do this. Would this be discouraged? Should I try to volunteer at a hospital or something like that at the same time?

Answer:  Go ahead and work at the summer camp. It’s nice to love kids! Medical schools think so, too. Maybe you could hang out with the camp nurse a bit? Some people do their medically-related activity during the academic year instead of the summers. Do what works best for you. 

Volunteering Abroad

Question: I recently saw an ad for a program that places volunteers abroad in medical internships, but it costs a lot. What do you think of the program? Can HPA help me find funding?

Answer: There was a recent story on NPR about the proliferation of companies that coordinate this kind of abroad experience that lays out some of the issues surrounding this kind of program: The Risk (and Unexpected Benefits) of Sending Health Students Abroad. We at HPA feel most comfortable with programs that are partnering with campus programs like IIP and PICS – that way, we know that you have support from Princeton and that the programs have been vetted. We maintain a list of programs in which Princeton pre-health students have participated on the Clinical Experience page of our website, but we do not endorse any particular programs; we recommend considering what these programs offer critically, and using the AAMC and ADEA guidelines for providing patient care internationally as you evaluate organizations. Also keep in mind that there are many vulnerable and underserved populations in the US who would benefit greatly from your assistance as a volunteer for the summer – do not feel that you can only make a difference by traveling abroad. As for funding, the Student Activities Funding Engine is the best place to start. 

Letters of Recommendation as a Freshman

Question: I’m a freshman and I’m applying to internships that require letters of recommendation, but I haven’t gotten to know my science professors well at all. Can I use letters from high school? Can I ask my writing sem or freshman sem prof even though they aren’t in sciences? How about preceptors? Are there other people I should ask?

Answer: The answer is going to vary depending on the internship(s) that you’re applying for. Check to see if this is addressed on their website (usually in application procedures or an FAQ page). If not, it’s fine to contact the program directly. Some internships require college letters but others will accept high school letters; some would strongly prefer science letters while others aren’t as strict – best to get in touch with them individually and see what they say. If they do not prefer science references, then we would recommend choosing faculty or preceptors who have gotten to know you well. Generally, letters from preceptors/TAs are going to be fine – any postdoc or doctoral candidate at the University who instructs our undergrads is a fine recommender. Sometimes a preceptor will co-sign their letter with the primary professor of the course – this is fine, but not required. By the time you’re applying to professional school, we will expect that you’ve gotten to know at least some of your faculty well, but as a newer student, it’s understandable that you haven’t been able to do so yet. Even so, we’d recommend that you start making a point of getting to know faculty via office hours, informal meetings, etc. – the more you practice now, the easier it will be as you progress through your academic career. 

Contact Names for Your Activities

Question:  Hi! I've been doing some volunteer work with the Student Volunteer Council as well as the recent Down Syndrome Conference. Will I need (for medical school applications) signed or written recognition of this service or is keeping record of it sufficient? As a freshman, I'd like to get started on this as soon as possible so I don't end up panicking my junior year when I realize I have no verifiable service.

Answer:  Glad you're planning ahead. When you complete your AMCAS application some day--this is the generic, online application for medical school--you'll need to list a contact name for every activity you list. It is wise to keep track of who's in charge of these experiences as they happen. Ideally the contact person would be a University staff member of faculty member if it's a University-related activity, or if the experience happened away from Princeton the person would generally be a supervisor. In some isolated cases, the person who led your activity might even be an upperclassman, although try avoid listing a fellow student if at all possible. Even if that person is long gone by the time you apply to medical school, you will be asked to supply their name. That is the only 'recognition' you'll need. Don't worry, medical schools do not typically contact these people (or even attempt to), the only exception being cases where something else (perhaps comments in the personal essay, in the letters of evaluation, or the interview) raise suspicions as to the veracity of what you listed as an activity.