The Case for the Gap Year(s)

So you are undergrad and you really want to go to med school or pharmacy school or dental school or any other health care professional school. You’ve wanted to go for years. Maybe it has been your dream career since you were a child when you learned how to put on a band-aid. You volunteer; you do research; you participate in every extra-curricular activity possible; you shadow docs; you have a 4.0; you’ve done well on the standardized entrance exam. You’re essentially ready to apply and go straight to med/pharm/dental school right when you finish college. Here’s my advice:

Don’t.

It might sound odd– why should you not go straight from undergrad to professional school? You’ve basically done everything a student should do to get in. And you would be right; you would have a great chance of getting in. I’m making the case of taking some time off not for the school’s sake, but for your sake.

I took off one year between undergrad and med school (typically called a gap year). Going into college, I had every intention of graduating May 2014 and starting med school later that summer. But, when it came time to take my MCAT and apply near the end of my junior year, I decided I wasn’t ready. Not that I needed to boost my application in terms of grades or activities nor did I feel unprepared for taking the MCAT. It just didn’t feel like the right time to apply. I was not mentally ready for the life-changing experience that is med school.

For my gap year, I worked at a private orthopedic practice and learned more about health care and how it actually works than I could have ever learned through shadowing and volunteering alone. Here are some of the biggest things I learned and experienced by taking a year off:

  1. How to deal with patients: This is probably the best reason for taking a gap year. Working in a busy practice, I saw and/or talked to anywhere from 50 to 100 different people every day– the good and the bad . No joke. In med school thus far, I’ve interacted with about five. And I really won’t start getting a lot of patient interaction until my third year when clinical rotations start. Even if you are a “people person” dealing with patients is a skill that only takes time to develop. I cannot even imagine how I would act when I start clinicals in a couple years without knowing how to interact with people!
  2. Burnout prevention: Simply put, you get a break from doing school work for a year (or more)! Who wouldn’t like a break from undergrad studies and the huge amount of information you must dump into brain in professional school. Also, you have 4 more years of school plus 3-10 years of residency/fellowship by which time you’ll be in your early thirties. Don’t you want to spend a year with friends and family in the prime of your life and have some FUN?!
  3. Maturity and growth: I’ll try not to be cliche here, but taking a year off really helps you to grow as a person and as an adult. College is the first time you are away from your parents, but you really don’t have the chance to develop much adult-responsibilities during this time. Without going into to much detail, but taking a gap year truly helped me become an adult. Even in the first week of school, I could easily pick out those who went straight in from school as opposed to those who took some time off, mainly based on maturity. Don’t get me wrong, these students will be great doctors, but it’s a difficult transition from college to working life and even harder to go from college to professional school.
  4. Health care can be awful: Probably the most disappointing thing you learn working in health care is that there are so many annoying, political/regulatory aspects of the field that you just aren’t exposed to as an undergrad or even med student. Insurance companies control so much how care is delivered. Billing/coding, electronic medical records and other technological aspects of medicine are fraught with their own complications. Doctors can be very particular about who they want to see and how they want to see patients which can cause tension between members of the staff and, sometimes, even other practices/hospitals. I think that this is something that all pre-professional students should really get a feel for before entering school because if you can’t deal with these aspects of health care, then you will most definitely hate your career choice.

There are so many more benefits from taking time off that I just can’t include here because the post would be way to long! Additionally, my experiences are only limited to the fact that I decided to work in private practice. But there are countless other things you can do during your gap year(s), so look for another post for some suggestions on what you can do instead of going straight into school! Even if you are still completely set on going straight in to school (which is okay if you do!) just take time to consider all of your options!

❤ Theresa

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