The Medical School Gap Year, Part II: What to do in your year off
March 12, 2012
In my last article we explored the idea of the medical school gap year and the various reasons why someone might or might not be inclined to delay the start of med school. Once you’ve chosen to take a year off, the next step is to decide what you will do with that time; there are many options each with its own pros and cons, so you’ll want to consider your own path carefully.
Important note: Regardless of your reasons for taking a year off, it is imperative that you do some medically-relevant activity while on your gap year – for example, working in your year off in a clinical research lab, or volunteering in medically-needy communities as you travel around the world. Be sure that you continue to shadow physicians, volunteer in your community or in a hospital, or conduct research; medical schools need to see that you are still interested in practicing medicine and that you remained connected to healthcare in your gap year.
Enhance Your Application
Instead of rushing to accomplish everything in the summer before senior year and applying late to medical school, you might consider taking a gap year and then applying early next cycle with all your ducks in row. The application cycle can be stressful, time-consuming, and expensive, so if you don’t feel prepared to apply to medical school, there is no shame or harm in holding off on your med school application for a year.
Take a Break
It’s okay to admit that you just need a break! You’ve worked hard – you studied for the MCAT, endured many sleepless nights, and perhaps worked multiple jobs to help pay your way through school. This will probably be the last time you will be able to take a real break for a long time once you start medical school, and the gap year is an excellent way to knock out some of your “bucket list” goals. Taking a break now can also help you to avoid burnout later; medical school is intense, and starting when you don’t feel ready and refreshed to can make the adjustment much more challenging. Just don’t forget about the important note above!
Organize Your Finances
If you are paying your way through undergrad and/or medical school, you might be considering a gap year to earn some money to help with loans and other expenses. Working for a year can also help you stockpile savings for those rainy medical school days when all you want to do is jump on a plane to Disney World and have fun for a change! Paid research positions and other healthcare-related jobs (ex. clinical study manager, hospital volunteer program coordinator, or medical scribe) will not only put money in the bank but they also double as awesome experiences to discuss in your interviews and mention on your applications. Given the current job market, it’s important to meet with your campus career center as soon as possible to get the ball rolling.
Gain Life Experience
Medical school is a huge transition from undergrad in terms of personal and professional responsibility; it may well be the first time you are responsible for your own well-being, as well as the well-being of others. There are many important decisions you will have to make upon starting school. How will you study? How will you handle personal finances? How are you going to eat? They may sound like silly questions, but as a medical student you’re expected to be a self-sufficient adult capable of managing your own life. There is no right or wrong way to do so, but taking a year off and living independent of your parents or the structure of college dorm may be a good way to gain valuable life experiences.
Many students take time during their gap year to work on service projects either at home or abroad. Participating in community volunteer/work programs (both medical and non-medical) in your gap year allows you to serve others and gain exposure to people from a variety of different backgrounds. It’s also a great way to gain additional life experience and improve your application – as long as you are willing to listen and learn, you will develop your personal values and maybe gain insight into the direction you want your career in medicine to go.
As you can see, there’s really no limit to what you can do with the extra time that your gap year affords. The most important thing is to remember that this is just a detour on your path to medical school, not a speed bump. In the third and final entry in this series, I’ll show you how to take your gap year activities and use them to strengthen your application in ways that you couldn’t without them.