Give Me a Break: A Rundown on Gap Years
Riya Dange grew up in Sunnyvale, California, and moved across the country to study at Duke University. She is currently in her third year, pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Neuroscience with a Minor in Linguistics. Outside of class, she conducts research on the evolution of visual systems and competes as an attorney on Duke’s Mock Trial team. In the following article, Riya counsels pre-meds to consider taking a gap year between college and medical school.
My latest procrastination bent has led me to Charmed – a “chick-flick meets magical horror” show from the late ‘90s. It features subpar special effects, convoluted romantic side plots, and the Halliwells: three witchy sisters with enviable powers. Prue moves objects with her mind, Phoebe sees the future, and Piper has the ability to freeze time.
Now, with all due respect to Phoebe and Prue, Piper’s is the power I would love to have. I currently feel as though time is hurtling past me – and taking with it any chance of maintaining my sanity. I’m being pelted from all angles with questions about my future. What does finals week have in store? What am I going to do right after I graduate? Do I want to attend medical school? Which medical school? Where? Why? When?
*** FREEZE ***
According to a 2016 survey by the American Association of Medical Colleges, 60.6% of medical school applicants took at least one year off after graduation.
How wonderful would it be if, like Piper, I could put up my hands and – just like that – freeze time? I could catch my breath, drink in the temporary peace, and take a moment to figure out my next move. That, in a nutshell, is why more and more students are choosing to take at least one gap year before medical school.
A “gap year” is just that – a gap, a break, a brief respite from the incessant march of higher education. Although students who take gap years aren’t really “freezing time," they do gain gain the opportunity to top off their resumes, gather their application materials, and have meaningful professional experiences before plunging into medical school.
When I first told my parents I wanted to take a gap year, they were aghast. “What… so a year off for watching movies on your parents’ couch?” They didn’t understand why anyone would want to prolong the already lengthy process of becoming a doctor.
During gap years, many students take up jobs, volunteer abroad, or gain clinical experience. Any or all of those experiences can help enrich a student’s application to medical school – and, more importantly, help them evaluate their future career trajectory.
I’ll be the first to say: they raised some valid concerns. Not attending medical school directly after graduation means forestalling your medical career by at least a year. That, of course, is time that could be spent in the move toward a defined career goal – as long as it’s a goal of which you feel certain. However, if you are anything less than dead set on medical school, a gap year affords the breathing room to reflect on your personal and professional goals. As Dartmouth medical student Cassie Kosarek points out in an article for U.S. News, “When you are solely focused on earning a particular GPA and MCAT score to get into medical school, you might lose sight of why you want to become a physician in the first place. A gap year can enable you to reconnect with your original reasons for choosing medicine, as well as consider ways you see yourself contributing to the medical field in the future.”
One of my most important concerns is making sure I’m happy in my future career, no matter what it may be. I understand that my plans could very well change in the next few years, but – all the same – I want to make an informed, logical choice based on my passions and priorities. That’s why I’m planning to take a gap year. During that time, I want to seek out new professional experiences that will help me assess whether medical school is actually the right path for me.
Contrary to popular belief, students who deliberately plan for gap years do more than just “take time off to watch movies on their parents’ couch.” Many take up jobs, volunteer abroad, or gain clinical experience. According to a 2016 survey by the American Association of Medical Colleges, 60.6% of medical school applicants took at least one year off after graduation. During that time, 51.4% worked at another career, 46.1% pursued research, and 13.5% worked or volunteered internationally (many reported doing more than one of these). Any or all of those experiences can help enrich a student’s application to medical school – and, more importantly, help them evaluate their future career trajectory.
According to a 2016 survey by the American Association of Medical Colleges, 60.6% of medical school applicants took at least one year off after graduation. During that time, 51.4% worked at another career, 46.1% pursued research, and 13.5% worked or volunteered internationally. Any or all of those experiences can help enrich a student’s application to medical school – and, more importantly, help them evaluate their future career trajectory.
In an article for the American Student Medical Association, Jennifer Tran-Kiem describes how taking a gap year to volunteer in Perú allowed her to witness the effects of poverty on health care access. She writes that her experiences there inspired her to pursue a public health-oriented career “creat[ing] and implement[ing] policy to enhance medical services in lower socioeconomic communities.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Sylvia Morris spent her gap year working in a retail job and taking a science course. In her 2013 article for U.S. News, she calls her gap year experience “instructive as it reinforced [her] desire to go to medical school and avoid retail jobs.” She advises students to plan well in advance for their gap years by reaching out to trusted mentors, exploring scholarship opportunities, and identifying any gaps in their medical school applications.
Two weeks ago, I attended a medical school admissions panel at Duke. The speakers included the admissions directors for Duke’s Medical School and MD-PhD program, as well as current medical students at Harvard and Duke. Naturally, every pre-med overachiever and their grandmother turned up for the event. At one point, the conversation turned to gap years. Andrea Liu, Duke Medical School’s Director of Admissions, told us that we should first address any “gaps” in our medical school applications. For instance, if a student didn’t have much clinical experience, they should consider looking into clinical shadowing and volunteering opportunities during their gap year. However, when I approached Ms. Liu individually after the event, she clarified that a non-medically oriented gap year experience could be just as valuable – as long as I could connect it back to my personal and professional development.
Sometimes, following the pre-med track feels like going through a cookie-cutting machine. We all take the same courses and check off the same requirements in pursuit of the same goal. In the midst of all that, it’s important to remember that each applicant ultimately crafts a unique story about their journey to medical school. So, when planning for a gap year opportunity, you need to ask yourself, “How do I see this fitting into my personal and professional growth? Can I connect the dots between this opportunity, my past experiences, and my future goals?” I’ve been told many times that there is no standardized formula for the “perfect, doctor-worthy gap year.” There is no potion recipe in the Book of Shadows that will help you Charm your way into medical school. As long as you find an opportunity that fits your needs and interests – one that you can weave into your story – you’re setting yourself up to be a strong applicant.
A native of Sunnyvale, California, Riya moved across the country to study at Duke University. She is currently in her third year, pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Neuroscience with a minor in Linguistics. Outside of class, she conducts research on the evolution of visual systems and competes as an attorney on Duke’s Mock Trial team. She also enjoys creative writing, government advocacy, and globetrotting.