Gap year Q&A with alumna Annie Polcari

Why did you opt to take a gap year? Who or what inspired your decision?

Starting at Notre Dame as a pre-medical student, I never thought that I would take a gap year (actually two gap years, in my case). In fact, I didn’t even really know that it was an option. When the time came to think about applying to medical school, however, I just wasn’t ready. I remember sitting in a meeting with my pre-medical advisor and my mind going blank at the thought of a “gap” year – what does that mean? What will I do? Will this hurt me as an applicant? I was totally devastated thinking that I wouldn’t be following my classmates to medical school right after graduation. I felt like a bit of a failure. 

Annie Polcari

When I say that I wasn’t ready to apply to medical school, it was for a few reasons.  Firstly, my science GPA needed some help. I was a student-athlete on the track team and adjusting to demanding science courses along with a collegiate-level athletic schedule was difficult for me.  It really did take me some time to learn how to study and manage school, track, and a social life at a place like Notre Dame, which really demands and expects your best in all aspects of your education.  Secondly, I needed to improve my MCAT score, as it became increasingly difficult during my senior year to study properly in order to achieve my target score while also maintaining extra-curricular activities and a full class schedule (all of which are required to be admitted to medical school).

I also needed some time to reflect on why I wanted to become a physician.  It was easy for me to say that I wanted to be a doctor, but not as easy for me to articulate why, neither to myself, nor my family, and not even to my advisors.  If I couldn’t explain this to myself, how would I be able to explain it to an admissions committee?

I made the final decision to take time off before medical school while talking with my dad on the long drive back to New Jersey after my junior year. During our conversation he forced me to really reflect on the suggestions of my advisors, on why I was so apprehensive about the idea of a gap year, and on what my plan would be next.  That self-reflection was really important for me and for my decision to take a gap year. 

Thinking about my decision to take a couple of gap years now, though, I wouldn’t take that time back for anything.

 

How did you spend your gap year? Did you have a plan, and if so did you stick to it? Is there anything you wish you had done instead?

When thinking about a gap year there are a lot of things to consider including costs, your interests, and what will improve your medical school application. Planning my gap year involved taking into consideration my goals as a student and as a student-athlete.  As an undergraduate, I got involved with the student chapter of Timmy Global Health.  Several medical service trips to Ecuador sparked an interest for me in global health issues– something I’d never quite been exposed to before my time at Notre Dame.  So here I was faced with the prospect of taking a gap year, during which time I would need to improve my GPA, inspire my passion for medicine, and keep my own interests in mind. 

Therefore, I decided to apply to the Master’s of Science in Global Health program at Notre Dame. It also just so happened that if I chose to stay at Notre Dame, I could compete for another year in track and field. If I wasn’t admitted to the Master’s of Science in Global Health program at Notre Dame, my plan was to apply to the Master’s in Public Health or other biomedical master’s programs, where I could meet my academic goals while improving my research and population health exposure.

Luckily, I was admitted to the Master’s of Science in Global Health program and enjoyed a year of academics, research, and competing in the sport that I love. Getting the chance to compete in track that extra year was awesome, but the best part about that gap year was the global health curriculum, because this was where I discovered where my passion in healthcare and medicine lies. I actually loved it so much that for a short time I was considering giving up the medical school dream to pursue a career in global health instead. 

During this first gap year I applied to medical school (before re-taking the MCAT) and didn’t get in anywhere. I researched several options and worked with my advisors in my Master’s of Science in Global Health and pre-medical programs to come up with ideas as to where to go from here. I retook the MCAT, finally got the score I needed and was ready to apply, but needed to fill this second gap year with something worthwhile to me. I accepted a fellowship at the headquarters of Timmy Global Health in Indianapolis, where I used my global health training to develop monitoring and evaluation strategies for their global health efforts, managed a scholarship program, and traveled to several countries working to expand Timmy’s programming. It was fun, challenging, and taught me more than I ever could’ve imagined. So, I had to run through a couple of plans and change paths a few times before I finally got accepted to medical school, but those experiences have proved to be 100% worth it as I sit in medical school classes today.

 

Did you benefit from taking a gap year, and if so how?

Without a shadow of a doubt I benefited from taking gap years. Like I said, I was able to find where my passion in medicine lies, improve my application, and mature. I also learned once I got to medical school just how valuable taking a gap year was. In my MD/MPH program at the University of Miami only about 10 out of the 48 students in my class came straight out of undergrad, the rest of us took at least 1 year off before matriculating. 

The activities from my two gap years proved invaluable during my medical school interviews. There wasn’t a school I went to where my interviewer didn’t spend the majority of the time asking about my gap year experiences. The MSGH program and fellowship at Timmy Global Health also gave me a lot to talk about, from answering ethical questions to explaining why I wanted to be a physician. It made me unique from other applicants, many of whom are now my classmates with gap year experiences of their own that allow them to contribute in ways that maybe I cannot.

Of course, my gap year activities improved my application and helped me get into medical school, but more importantly these experiences will also make me a better physician. Notre Dame is a unique place in the way the University attracts people who want to help others, and instills in students an obligation to give back, to improve our communities and the world. That undoubtedly contributed to the things I chose to do during my gap year and will in turn help me connect more to the diverse patients I will meet, and the communities where I will practice medicine.

 

What advice would you give to a pre-med student who is considering taking a gap year? What would you say are the pros and cons?

My first piece of advice is if you are considering a gap year, don’t feel like you failed! Look at a gap year as an opportunity, to learn and do even more than is possible in 4 years of undergraduate studies. 

My second piece of advice is to reflect – what do you want out of your gap year?  In what ways are you trying to improve your application? Do you simply want to experience something other than medicine before jumping into medical school? What are your passions? What is your budget for the year? Try to tailor your gap year experience to these things, make a list of goals and research opportunities that will allow you to reach these goals. Think about the costs of these experiences if they are feasible, or how you can make them feasible through scholarships, grants, or family contributions. Apply to every experience you can come up with, there is nothing worse than having no options and nothing wrong with having too many options.

My third piece of advice is use your network, especially your Notre Dame network! About half of Notre Dame students now take a gap year, which means you have a bunch of ND students before you who have left a good impression with admissions committees to master’s programs, fellowship administrators, researchers, volunteer organizations…the list is endless. Ask older students what they did and if something sparks your interest, ask them to help you get in touch with their contacts. 

My final piece of advice is, don’t give up! Take it from me, getting into medical school is not easy, but it’s so worth it. Keep your end goal in mind through the application process, and don’t be afraid to reach out to your advisors for help and advice, they are there to help you. 

I look forward to working with all of you as future physicians, and as always, Go Irish!