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Weekly Weigh-in: Taking a Gap Year

Welcome to PDr’s Weekly Weigh-in! Each week, we ask medical students and physicians to weigh in on some of our most frequently asked pre-med questions.
This week’s question: What factors contributed to your decision to apply straight in or take a gap year?

Edward Chang, DGSOM MS3
I decided during my sophomore year that I was going to take a gap year because I did not want to take the MCAT in the summer after my sophomore year or during my junior year. I also knew that I would become a leader or contribute most significantly in my extracurricular activities during my senior year. I wanted to write about these experiences on my application. For example, I wrote my senior research thesis, during my senior year. I was also the president of my club during my senior year.

I’m very glad I took a year off because I gained valuable research and life experience during that time. I learned how to negotiate my salary, manage my finances, work in a team, and how to deal with doctors – all these skills I knew would come in handy later.

I suggest trying to figure out your gap year plans by the Jan-March of your senior year. Good positions fill up quick so just keep that in mind. For me, my student clinical research position turned into a full time research job. I had already discussed with my boss, who hired me during the beginning of my senior year, that I wanted a full time job afterwards and he was completely on board with that. My research experience during my year off paid dividends even for medical school. I obtained important research skills (data management, data analysis, how to write and submit a manuscript, etc) that I was able to utilize in medical school. The people I did research with in medical school were impressed at how much I knew about research, all of which I learned during my year off. Also, the manuscripts that our team submitted during my gap year, were slowly published throughout my time in medical school. It was nice knowing that the research I did during my gap year will help me for my residency application as well.

|| Read: What To Do During Gap Years Before Medical School ||

Evan Laveman, DGSOM MS3
I decided very early that I was not going to take a gap year. I think if I had not made that decision by mid-sophomore year, it would have been fairly difficult to pull off. This meant that I had to take my MCAT during the Summer between my sophomore and junior year, and apply the following Summer. There were a few reasons that I chose not to take a gap year: 1.) I had already had a good amount of work experience, and wanted to keep my academic momentum, 2.) I was certain that I wanted to go into medicine, so why waste any time?, 3.) I couldn’t think of any personally valuable experiences that I would want to pursue during that time. If I was to take a gap year, I think I would have continued work as an EMT, but I had already had a few years of EMT experience, I didn’t want to do any lab research, and I didn’t want to get a job that didn’t contribute to my career path. I was also considering getting a job as a scribe.

In the end, I’m very glad that I went straight through to medical school. I feel that I was ready at that point in my life, and am very happy to be where I am now in my medical education. One of the minor points is that most students these days are not going straight through into medical school, so I was definitely one of the youngest in the class (I also have a late birthday). In a class with an average incoming age of 24, I was 21, and there were definitely some times when I could feel that difference in life experience. I think that I could have benefited from some more time out in the world, even if it was just learning how to manage my own finances, or live as an independent (not constantly pulling from student loans). Being a student for so long, I feel like there a lot of “adult skills” that I need to catch up with as I go. I ultimately think that it comes down to your conviction and preparation for entering medical school. In order to not take any gap time, you have to start planning quite early, and at that point many students aren’t even sure that they’re applying to medical school yet. I didn’t feel like anything I did in my gap year would contribute to the strength of my application, so I decided to get right to the point and go straight through. Everyone has different reasons for taking time off or not, so never hinge on the advice of one person to decide what’s right for you, it’s very much a personal evaluation.

|| Read: Apply to Med School After Third Year or Fourth Year? ||

Brandon Brown, UCSF MS2
I decided fairly early on to take a gap year, mostly because I just didn’t feel ready to apply and thought my application would be improved from my 4th year experiences. Admittedly, there was also a bit of “peer pressure” here because most of my pre-med friends seemed to be taking gap years.

When I was a 4th year, I didn’t exactly know what I was going to do during my gap year, I originally planned to just get a job somewhere and enjoy making some money for once. I ended up landing a pretty good job offer after going to one of UCLA’s career fairs, but my PI offered me a paid full-time position as a research associate in the lab so I took that instead (because I wanted to finish up some lab projects and I was already comfortable there). Working in the lab turned out to be a great choice because my PI let me take off as much time as I needed for interviews; if I had taken the other more “corporate” job, interviewing would have been much more difficult.

I recommend doing something productive but flexible to allow for interviews during your gap year. Tutoring, research, or flexible job are all good options.

Overall, I’m personally glad I took a gap year and I think taking at least one gap year is becoming the norm for incoming medical students. I was able to be a “real adult” for a year, make money and pay the bills, have a routine, and enjoy the “off-time” once I was done with work for the day. On the other hand, medical training is a very long journey, so I can definitely see why people might want to just get started as soon as possible.

|| Read: Five Reasons to do a Premed Post-Bac ||

Evan Shih, DGSOM MS3
My decision to go straight into medical school was based on two factors: I was excited to start medical school, and I believed I had a strong academic momentum to carry me into medical school. In regards to the first factor – the more I immersed myself in free clinics and Emergency Rooms, the more I got bored with the undergraduate general education classes. I wanted to experience the thrills of medicine and understand the vast medical knowledge that could be applied in real situations. In short, I couldn’t wait to begin medical school. As for the second factor, I didn’t feel much burnout and knew that a year out of school, out of the classroom, would only distract me from my aspirations.

That being said, I think there are plenty of valuable reasons to take time off from school. Having just started my 3rd year rotations, waking up at 5am to begin pre-rounding in the hospital by 6am, and getting home around 8pm, I think I’ve gotten a peek into the level of commitment and time that is expected in medical school. In addition, being a pre-medical student is getting harder and harder. Gone are the days where good grades are enough to attend your dream school, students are now expected to invest hundreds of hours into research, volunteering, and clinical experience. A few years in between college and medical school may be the perfect opportunity to spend time with your loved ones, gain some real-world job experience, and travel the world. When you’re ready, come back to medical school with your mental fire reignited.

Recommendations for time off? Find a full-time job (doesn’t have to be research related), work hard for 6-8 months, save up a few thousand dollars if possible. Then grab a giant backpack, clean underwear, a good friend, and a place ticket and go to South America, Australia, Europe, or Asia. Meet people, try street foods, hike mountains, immerse yourself, and enjoy your time off. You won’t get another chance to until you’re finished with residency.

About Emily Chiu

Emily Chiu
Emily Chiu is the Director of Logistics at ProspectiveDoctor.com. She is currently a third-year undergraduate student at UCLA. If you have any questions about her work, or are interested in contributing to ProspectiveDoctor.com, please contact her at emilychiu@prospectivedoctor.com. Follow ProspectiveDoctor on Twitter, @ProspectiveDr.