Gap year Q&A with alumnus Marc Drake
Why did you opt to take a gap year? Who or what inspired your decision?
If I’m being completely honest, I originally decided to take a gap year in order to have a break before starting medical school. I made the decision towards the start of the spring semester of my junior year. At the time I was studying for the MCAT, and felt discouraged by the process and trying to balance everything. I knew a gap year would give me some time to work more extensively in the health care system, and to ensure that this was the path that I wanted to take. After speaking with people who had taken a gap year in the past and with my advisors, I decided to follow through with taking the gap year.
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?
For the past year, I have been working as a Medical Research Assistant at Romano Orthopaedics, a private practice in Oak Park, Illinois. Going into college, I didn’t know any doctors aside from my primary care physician. One of the factors contributing to my decision to take a gap year was the desire to get some hands on clinical experience; I had volunteered throughout college, but I knew one or two hours a week wouldn’t be able to compare to working full time. In addition to gaining more clinical experience, I figured the opportunity would allow me to save up some money before beginning medical school, and give me time to work on my applications and interviews without having to juggle classes also.
Did you benefit from taking a gap year, and if so how?
I think taking a gap year has some important academic benefits, as it gives you an extra year of school to work with. Deciding to take a gap gave me more time to focus on finals and then really dedicate my summer to MCAT studying, which I believe ultimately helped my score. Choosing to wait in the application process also allowed me to include my senior year grades in the application, which I believe made me more competitive.
In terms of the actual gap year, I found the experience to be incredibly beneficial. I became comfortable speaking with patients, and was able to figure out firsthand how to deal with many of the scenarios my friends were learning about throughout medical school (how to deal with a difficult patient, how to console a grieving patient, and watching someone deliver bad news). But, I think what I treasured the most were the lessons I didn’t expect to learn from my gap year. I had the opportunity to work hand in hand with many medical residents and medical students, and I was happy to listen to people not much older than I am share their experiences of navigating through the medical education system. Additionally, I was happy to see many of the things I learned about in school occur in person. I have been able to see healthcare inequality firsthand and some of the issues patients face engaging the healthcare system, which is something I began to learn about during my undergraduate career. My job has allowed me to speak with patients about these issues, and understand the issues from both the provider and patient side.
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?
I think maybe the most important factor for people taking a gap year is to speak with others about their experiences, such as current medical students, residents, doctors, advisors, and anyone else involved in the medical education process. Prior to taking a gap year, I thought it was a fairly niche population of students choosing to take this path. As I spoke to more people, I realized that it is a fairly common experience, and there is nothing remedial about it.
Before choosing to take a gap year, I would also encourage students to research the opportunities and think about what exactly they hope to get out of the year. Service, research, clinical, or even something unrelated to healthcare are all potential options, and deciding which avenue you want to follow will have very different bearings on your gap year experience.