BACKGROUND: Earlier studies of medical students on nonsurgical rotations have shown that clinical clerks usually first interact with their patients late in the clinical course. This would seem disadvantageous to the student's learning because they would have less opportunity to generate diagnoses or a management plan. STUDY DESIGN: A questionnaire designed to assess the nature of medical student-patient interactions in all potential clinical sites was administered to third year medical students during their surgical clerkship. Students received questionnaires each day to evaluate their clinical experiences from the previous day. RESULTS: The results from 311 student-patient encounters were collected and analyzed by clinical site as follows: outpatient clinics, outpatient surgery, inpatient surgery, day of surgery admission, inpatient consults, or emergency room consults. Students reported significantly more opportunities to elicit chief complaint, generate potential diagnosis, develop or suggest a management plan, and perform the initial examination when in the clinic setting. CONCLUSIONS: Overall, students were given relatively few opportunities to be the first to interact with any patient in any setting. They infrequently had an opportunity to independently generate a hypothesis or generate a management plan. Currently, the clinic offers the best opportunity for the student to complete these processes. © 2002 by the American College of Surgeons.