Maximizing the gap years between college and medical school

College MD/PhD admissions medical school admissions premed
By Will

Gap year between college and medical schoolIf you’re a college student planning to wait 1-3 years after graduating before attending medical school, I was very recently like you. Yay, we were the same! Although you or the people around you may have doubts about prolonging your training or entering the nebula of a life unstructured, I think the time you spend during your gap years can have a profound impact on your personal development and life trajectory.

There are many compelling reasons to “take time off.” I personally decided to work for two years at a genomics research institute in Cambridge, MA for a few reasons:

  1. I wanted to improve my technical skills for doing computational research
  2. I planned to take the MCAT after college, so I needed some time to prepare
  3. I wanted to experience my life as a working adult

These reasons are ranked in order of importance for when I first decided to take my gap years. Looking back, I would reverse the ranking in terms of how important these reasons are to me now. Preparing for the MCAT was still important, of course. And I did manage to gain some exposure to computational genomics (although not as much as I would have liked, particularly due to the demanding experimental nature of my job). Yet what I ended up valuing the most, by far, was the opportunity to live my life for the first time as someone who was not a student.

In the short term, life after college was not pretty. On the contrary, it was so hard! I moved to a city, Boston, where I knew very few people, and for the first year, I felt socially cloistered. Adjusting to work-life is also difficult–applying myself for full and often very long days is a fundamentally different beast from attending class periodically. As the days turned into weeks and months, and my learning at work plateaued, the monotony of days-in, days-out slowly crept in. For several months, this feeling was conflated with a general burn-out from preparing for the MCAT and writing my secondary apps.

There were two major themes during this period that redeemed the experience for me. The first was the realization and acceptance that most of life is comprised of days-in and days-out, and they don’t have to be unpleasant or even necessarily banal. To illustrate this point, I want to point you to two of my favorite short writings. They are both very short but dense with meaning, so please take the time to read them! The first is a college commencement speech by David Foster Wallace on paying attention through the banality of life. The second is an illustrated essay by Tim Urban on what he calls “mundane Wednesdays”.

The second theme was healing myself by working on hobbies and going on travels that I wouldn’t necessarily have had as much time for in school. One of the most important skills you will learn as a working adult, if you haven’t already, is how to live your life well. This doesn’t only include sleeping, exercising, and eating well, but the whole gamut of “little things” that will improve your mood day today and make life more meaningful. For instance, this weekend I stocked up on a 24-pack of canned congee and a 50-pack of instant Korean cereal drink mix so I can enjoy a homey breakfast every morning for the next couple of weeks. I also spent a couple of hours learning how to operate a mobile phone gimbal (Zhiyun Smooth 4, for those interested!) so I can put together some high-quality music videos in the future. On a more obviously larger scale, I traveled to China and Singapore for a couple of weeks to be with my grandma and friends, and also hiked ~200 miles on the Camino Portugues in Portugal and Spain earlier this year. Knowing how to enjoy your life, from the small to the large, will be an incredible boon to you, particularly through trying periods later in medical school.

A major question still remains, I know. What should you do during your gap years? My advice is this: choose something you won’t regret even if you don’t apply to med school. Do yourself a favor and don’t cheat yourself on this imagination–really pretend you are not going to med school after all. What would you enjoy doing? The thing is, med school can be rewarding, but it is also inevitably challenging enough already, and you really don’t want to burn yourself out beforehand doing something you don’t enjoy for the sole sake of unilaterally buttressing your app in some way. You don’t like lab work? Don’t do lab work. Don’t like scribing? Get a different job. Barring special circumstances, it doesn’t matter nearly as much what you do as how you feel about doing it. As difficult as they may be to identify, gap year pursuits which resonate with you and make you happy will naturally shine in your application and interviews when people ask you about them. Do the Fulbright. Join the policy think tank. Work on your friend’s physician-patient communication aid startup. Regardless of how you still feel about applying to med school in the next few years, you won’t regret the decision you made about what to do in your gap years. And if you do apply, you will feel, sound, and look better in your written applications and in your interviews when you hit the trail.

I hope this post is helpful to you for conceptualizing both the idea of gap time and how to choose what to do in this period.