Plan for a Successful Gap Year Before Medical School

Use a gap year wisely to prepare for the whirlwind of medical school and residency commitments.

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Volunteering at a hospital, office or clinic is a productive way to pass the time between college graduation and medical school enrollment.
Volunteering at a hospital, office or clinic is a productive way to pass the time between college graduation and medical school enrollment.

Achieving a work-life balance during medical school or residency is rarely possible. But taking a gap year, usually scheduled between undergraduate graduation and the beginning of graduate school, is an opportunity to recharge before starting the seemingly endless grind of medical school and residency.

A gap year offers incoming medical school students time to prepare for the commitment to medicine that they are about to embark upon. Once in medical school, your time is not your own, and you will make sacrifices in order to be successful

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You will miss birthday parties, weddings, graduations and holidays because medical education and postgraduate training become all consuming. From tasks like reviewing cardiac pathophysiology lecture notes multiple times to staying at the hospital late to double- and triple-check patients, you will build the muscle of perseverance that enables career success. 

Therefore, in your gap year, do something you enjoy. Learn from my folly. I did not have a plan for my gap year other than to apply to medical school and take a break. 

Consequently, I worked retail and took a science class. My work was instructive as it reinforced my desire to go to medical school and avoid retail jobs. 

Given the opportunity to choose again, I would have started a year in advance looking for a position in a way that would more positively contribute to my future studies. 

Use a gap year to engage in challenging, mentally stimulating work that expands your mind and contributes to society. Identify what you would love to do if you had more time, as well as the activities you are good at. 

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Once you determine the commonalities between what you like and where your talents lie, make a list of mentors and advocates. Meet them for coffee and ask them about their first job and how to start out a career. Talk about possible opportunities and connections to others who can assist your objectives. 

You can also talk to an academic adviser early in your undergraduate tenure, and look at Fulbright and Rhodes scholarship programs, as well as the Peace Corps. 

If you have gained acceptance to medical school, consider using a gap year to do something you have always wanted to do, such as train for a triathlon, apprentice in a kitchen or work as an assistant at a movie studio. 

If you have not gained acceptance in medical school, use this time wisely. Consider the pharmaceutical industry, basic science or clinical research, or volunteer work. Volunteering at a hospital, office or clinic provides a glimpse of health care in practice. 

[Highlight your compassion in medical school applications.] 

Medical scribe positions are also a great introduction to medical terminology and a chance to shadow an ER physician while providing a much-needed service.

If you are contemplating taking a gap year, there is much to gain from your adventures. If you are itching to go to medical school immediately, then bypass the gap year and continue your life journey. 

Whether or not to do a gap year is a personal decision and only you can decide what is best for you – so make the decision that resonates the most with your true self. 

Sylvia E. Morris received her M.D. from Georgetown University School of Medicine and her Master's in Public Health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine and a community health advocate. Find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.