Gap Year

Perspective on Gap Years from a Third Year Medical Student

Whether you are planning to apply straight to medical school or to take a gap year, Emily offers a perspective on how time off has helped her through third year clinical rotations.

The third year of medical school is profoundly different than the first and second years. There is an invisible wall separating the preclinical from the clinical years with a dramatic shift that happens after we pass the first step of our boards (USME Step 1), which demonstrates the fund of knowledge we’ve acquired in the first two years. We abruptly transition from absorbing information to applying it as we begin participating in patient care during our third year clinical rotations. The learning curve from books to flesh is steep, and we go from two hours of lecture per day to sometimes 16+ hour days in the hospital with one day off every eight, all the while knowing that our performance is being evaluated. It is an overwhelming change to say the least.

| Read Weekly Weigh-In: Taking a Gap Year |

I think we all go through a stage in each rotation of feeling burnt out. At least I can speak for myself when I say that physical and emotional exhaustion are huge hurdles. I am grateful, however, for the time I took off between undergrad and medical school. Because of my time working in the “real world, I can confidently reassure myself that I chose the right career, even after the hardest and longest days in the hospital.

| Read Medical School Gap Year Fear |

Here’s how I know that I made the right choice: When I am at the hospital or in clinic, I almost never look at my watch. At the end of a 12- or occasional 16-hour day I leave invigorated, not realizing until I get home and sit down how physically exhausted I am. Time flies by, and I come away at the end of each day having learned something new and with questions in mind, and sometimes having truly made a contribution to the care of my team’s patients.

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

In contrast, when I was working – even landing excellent and interesting jobs that paid well – I found my mind frequently wandering away from my work. Sometimes I would also allow my attention to stray to the news (particularly health-related) or social media, even when I had an active project. While I enjoyed the work at both of my companies, over time most of my weeks began with a countdown to the next weekend.

I told friends, family, and myself that I loved what I was doing and was so lucky – indeed, I was lucky for the opportunities, the mentorship, and the experiences. But on a day-to-day basis, I was not engaged in my learning or accomplishments. I took pride in my work, but could not see myself doing it forever, and – if I’m honest – the thought of continuing even for several years was completely depressing.

| Read Apply to Medical School After 3rd or 4th Year? |

Now, even on the most awful days when patients are offensive and profane, nurses are rude, and I am literally falling asleep in rounds and making embarrassing blunders in front of my attending and entire team, I can still see myself loving what I do in 10, 20, 50 years. I wake up the next day ready to start again and excited for what patients I might meet and new medical conditions I will encounter, even if the night was a little too short.

My time off helped me put in perspective how truly lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing, and gave me the confidence to forge ahead knowing that I’m in the right place. I hope that all of my colleagues feel this way about medicine, but I am sure that some do not. I would encourage anyone thinking about applying to medical school to take some time doing something else for a year or more if you are at all unsure about what you should do. If, at the end of day, that times off helps you get through the third year of medical school, then it will have all been worth it.

| Read Emily’s Path Part 1: Why I Applied to Medical School |

Emily Singer

Emily is a writer for She graduated from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and is currently a general surgery resident at Ohio State University. She is a graduate of Stanford University, holding Bachelor’s degrees in Economics and Russian Languages and Literature. After graduating in 2009, Emily worked as a research analyst at a health policy consulting firm and a research scientist studying green products chemistry at a San Francisco-based startup. Emily’s interests include health policy, medical education, and global health.

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