Where will your gap year take you?
By: Ryan Kelly
Looking for a good gap year idea? Easy – just don’t take a gap year at all!
I mean, why would med schools take students with gap years when plenty of qualified candidates have applied “on time” as juniors?
I’m just joking, but I’m sure you’ve heard this opinion before – maybe from older curmudgeonly doctors or from hyper-competitive fellow applicants.
The truth is that the average applicant is 24 years old, meaning that most candidates actually take TWO gap years. Shocking, I know.
Often times, it’s because these candidates need to improve their MCAT scores, show an upward trend in their grades, or find a way to stand out.
So, unless you’re in the minority of extra-high achievers, you should assume you’ll be taking at least one gap year.
How should you spend this time? There’s no ONE formula, but there are certainly worse and better options.
Every year, I encounter students who do not plan ahead accordingly.
Often, they will fall behind in one aspect of the application – perhaps their AMCAS submission, MCAT prep, or secondary essays – which then causes a rippling effect on each sequential step. Pretty soon, it’s the end of the summer and they’re scrambling to figure out their gap year plans.
Many gap year plans require networking, certifications, job interviews, etc., so it’s paramount to think and plan ahead. They might spend August, September, and maybe even October (yikes) determining their plans. This means they will have little to say about themselves in their interviews and update letters. At best, they will have just started the activities. They might even still in the training phases.
The gap year essentially starts in August, so you should prewrite your primary and secondary essays well in advance so that you can spend a decent portion of your summer securing these plans.
Don’t get me wrong, when August comes around, you’ll deserve a break! As I’ll say later on, it’s definitely okay to do some self-indulging during your gap year.
But I’ve seen some gap years turn into extended vacations. If you were an admissions officer, imagine reading something like this in an update letter:
Since submitting my application, I’ve been training for two boundary-pushing physical challenges: a full marathon and a bodybuilding competition. While working with my friend who is a personal trainer, I have been cutting seconds and cutting fat every day. I’ve always been a natural athlete, but these endeavors are testing my limits and elevating me to a new level.
Lastly, I’m currently planning a detailed sailing adventure with my friends, where we’ll be taking a rented boat from Catalina Island all the way up to Portland, with several ports along the way. This will be a great way to escape from all the stress of applications while also testing our self-sufficiency and seafaring abilities. We’ve already started a social media page for our trip, @___________, where we’ll be recording our voyage and making connections with people at different ports!
I admit – a full marathon, bodybuilding, and sailing are all activities that require some hard work, follow through, and dedication. But they’re all very self-interested and could certainly be viewed as frivolous to one’s candidacy.
You SHOULD enjoy your gap year and take some time for yourself, but make sure there is some substance and altruism behind what you’re doing.
The Status Quo
I feel like this group is a close cousin of the “Latecomer” category in terms of how much planning they do. But through their luck, they are able to continue certain activities, rather than starting over from scratch.
This could mean continuing their scribing positions, their work in research labs, and/or their volunteering in the community. Sure, they’re racking up more hours, but they’re accumulating the same experience and insight.
The problem lies in “why” they’re doing these activities. Gap years are spent intentionally; if there isn’t much passion or motivation behind the activities, it’ll be tough to conjure any good stories or updates once interview season kicks in.
If you’re going to continue activities, you should focus on an end goal (a publication, the launch of your product, a certain event you’re coordinating) or at least some upward mobility (moving from scribe to chief scribe, etc.).
In essence, you want to show the med schools some trackable progress.
Look at how cool you can sound in an update or interview if you push yourself into positions of greater responsibility and challenge:
Since submitting my application, I have been promoted to Chief Scribe, where I now train younger scribes and coordinate with staff to improve clinical workflow. With permission from the hospital, I am in the process of altering our training program to ensure that new scribes are prepared for different providers’ preferences. I am also establishing small informal workshops where we review documentation for hypothetical complex cases. This job is honing my leadership, communication, teamwork, and conscientiousness as a co-worker and future provider.
The One-Note Candidate
For most admissions topics, I’m a firm believer in “depth over breadth.” But this depth can sometimes be taken too far.
I recall certain candidates from the past who fell into this category:
– a bioengineer who wanted to get his start-up off the ground
– a public health activist who was planning a mobile clinic in Tijuana
– a musician who was recording an R&B album
All of these sound like amazing activities, but the follow through was the problem. Each of these activities relied on undetermined factors, many of which were out of the candidates’ control.
The start-up did not have enough staff and funding. The mobile clinic was delayed for six months due to logistics. The R&B album relied on very slow pro bono work from amateur producers.
These candidates put all their eggs in one basket, and when that fell through, they were left with stories of grandiose plans that now sounded pretty half-baked.
Trust me – you should definitely think big and take risks, because many failures can are productive and good fodder for stories. BUT you should have a few pokers in a few different fires at once, so that you have back-up plans and options.
Again, it’s easier to ensure these back-up options if you PLAN AHEAD.
When it comes to gap years, I believe that three is the magic number.
#1 – DO SOMETHING TO ADDRESS A WEAKNESS
Once you’ve identified your weakness, a year is a nice amount of time to work on it. You probably won’t turn that weakness into a strength, but you will be able to show medical schools that: a) you realize what your weakness is and b) you’re working on it. You will want to update your medical schools about your progress during the year that you’re applying, so working on this weakness will give you something to say in your update letters.
#2 – BUILD ON A STRENGTH
It’s easy to think that you should spend all of your time fixing weaknesses, but beyond a certain point, spending time on weaknesses is counterproductive. To show you why, let’s examine a few questions:
Would you rather do something you’re good at or suck at? Are you going to be more motivated to focus on your weaknesses or your strengths? Most importantly, in what type of activity will you be most likely to make an impact? An activity that you’re already good at or one where you’re a complete beginner?
After reading those questions, most applicants prefer building on a strength, and if done well, this can put your application over the top.
#3 – DO SOMETHING JUST FOR YOURSELF
You DO NOT have to spend all of your time obsessed with getting that white coat.
This year is your chance to do whatever is on your bucket list. Have you always wanted to travel? Ever wanted to learn to surf? Maybe try your hand at improv or stand-up comedy? This is the chance to do it.
Here’s one of the best gap years I’ve seen:
a) over the summer, the candidate did zero gravity research with NASA (he didn’t have a lot of research experience)
b) when he was in the United States, he worked on the nonprofit he founded several years ago, hosting events and fundraising (building on a strength)
c) for two months right around Christmas, he flew to the tip of Argentina and biked back to the United States
This gap year hits all three of my principles, and every piece of it sounds interesting and fun. It’s flexible enough to allow the student to fly around the country for interviews while having plenty of ammunition with which to update medical schools throughout the next year.
I hope this guide helps you plan your gap year effectively.
Are you wondering if your gap year choices are weak, average, or strong? Want to bounce some ideas off our savvy experts?
Ask in the comments below, and our Savvy Pre-med staff will respond personally! Best of luck!