By: Tianyu Liu

According to the AAMC, the average age of medical school applicants in 2016-2017 was 24 for women and 25 for men. This suggests that the average applicant is taking 2-3 years after graduation before applying to medical school.

I was one of those applicants. I have always been confused about the terms “time off” or “gap year”, because I didn’t view my time before medical school as mere relaxation time or a gap in my life. I had always planned to pursue medicine, but with health reform and other changes in the healthcare system, I wanted to better understand the environment in which I would one day practice. Therefore, after graduation I accepted a job at a health care strategy research company, where I spent two years working with hospital executives on the challenges facing their institutions and the patients they served.

Since coming to medical school, I have met many classmates who had varied experiences that have all made them stronger applicants and individuals in one way or another. I wanted to share three pieces of advice for those considering doing something different before medical school:

Do something you are passionate about.

Many students feel that since they are planning to go into medical school, they should stay safely within the traditional realm of medicine by finding a job within the hospital, or following the tried-and-true method of doing research for a year. If you are passionate about being in the hospital or conducting research, then by all means pursue that passion, but don’t limit yourself solely because you are trying to “pad your application”. Many of my classmates have had experiences outside of clinical medicine that have strengthened their application. The key insight to remember is that successful physicians need to be well-rounded individuals who can relate to a diverse population of patients, and that the practice of medicine itself draws upon a varied set of skills that transcend many disciplines.

One classmate of mine spent two years working for Teach For America; he now frequently uses his teaching skills to communicate complex medical concepts, and plans to incorporate medical education as a key component of his medical career. Another classmate worked for an organization that helps connect patients with social services such as food aid and housing; she became a valuable member of the care team in the hospital during the discharge planning process for patients in need of those services.

Read More: Best Gap Year Options Before Medical School

Reaffirm your commitment to medicine.

While your primary pursuit during your time before medical school may not be specifically related to clinical medicine, it is important to take the opportunity to reaffirm your commitment to a future career in medicine. Shadowing local physicians in a variety of specialties is a great way to increase your exposure to different fields of medicine while gaining potential physician mentors. One friend of mine shadowed a family medicine physician once a week while she was working full-time. She witnessed firsthand all aspects of medicine, not just the heart-warming moments, but also the stresses of 15-minute patient visits and mounds of paperwork. But knowing that she was still excited about medicine despite these challenges helped reaffirm her commitment to medicine and made her a stronger candidate. Of course, if you find that your calling is something other than clinical medicine, that’s okay too. It is much better to come to that realization before investing 7+ years and hundreds of thousands of dollars into a career path that may not be right for you.

Read More: 5 Steps To Landing An Undergraduate Research Position

Focus on personal development and exploration.

Most medical student or physicians you speak to will tell you that once you start your training, you won’t have nearly as much freedom and flexibility as you will have during your time out. Take full advantage of it. Travel to a part of the world you’ve been meaning to visit. Pick up a new hobby you’ve always wanted to try. Take some time to understand personal finances and figure out what all the current fuss about limits on 401(k) contributions means. You’ll commonly hear that students who have had a few years of life experience before medical school tend to be more mature, professional, and well-rounded. Take this time to develop as a person and set yourself up for success once your medical training begins.

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