What I Learned Taking a Gap Year During College

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College is a busy, special, and unique time of your life. As a student, you are bombarded with opportunities. At my college, we often refer to this as “drinking from a firehose.” There’s a lot thrown at you in a high-pressure environment, and the only reasonable thing to do is choose what you want to drink. But choosing what programs, activities, and classes to take advantage of is an inherently stressful thing and requires a careful prioritization of your values and interests.

In addition, school can be stressful, and it’s a lot easier to do well when you are operating in a productive niche where you are happy, healthy, and enjoying the overall environment. It takes a lot of courage to make the decision to step back and reevaluate your school trajectory. When I did that after my sophomore year, I realized there was a clear, albeit scary, option: I needed to take a gap year.

Students take gap years (in college) for three primary reasons:

  1. A forced leave, perhaps due to poor academics or probation from school.
  2. Medical leave because your body or mind might need rest/care.
  3. Personal leave, which is usually your own decision to take some time off.

The type of leave you are taking will affect what you do during your year off. Typically, (1) is a temporary suspension that may place stipulations on your grades or conduct when you get back, whereas you may have to send additional information to your school in the case of (2) or (3). I took medical leave, and when I got back, MIT required a few meetings with administrators to confirm I was ready to reassimilate into college.

 

So You Want To Take Time Off—What Now?

First, take a step back. Think about your experiences. What about school have you enjoyed? What have you not enjoyed? And most importantly, what are the goals you have for your time off?

I recommend writing down a list of things you want to accomplish by the time you go back to school, from the big picture things like taking better care of yourself to more concrete tasks like traveling internationally and interning at X company.

Avoid staying on the same path you’ve been on—the whole point of this time off is to reprioritize and get a change of pace. Don’t feel pressured to do something obviously useful or lucrative (like, say, research) to justify your decision to take time off. Medical schools are not going to disagree with you taking time off if you explain why you needed it and how you worked hard to make it a productive experience. There might be a stigma at your school against taking time off, but ignore it—you are being proactive about your life! This will serve you well.

Research your school’s departments to see who would be involved in helping you take a leave of absence. For my school, the office was titled Student Support Services. These people will not only serve as your liaisons to the administration, but they can also help talk through the decision with you. They can give you ideas on how to spend your year off, tell you what the expectations will be, and connect you with other resources, such as career advising.

 

What To Do During Your Time Off

Students working and volunteering for Gap Year Jobs

There are lots of opportunities to consider for your time off. It’s easiest to block your time out with structured programs and experiences rather than general themes like travel or spending time with family.

I needed advice on what internships and organizations I could work with, so I asked program coordinators at MIT to meet with me and tell me about the opportunities they thought would be suitable. I also emailed or called any organization or person whose work I found cool—Pls from various labs, personnel at various organizations, and MIT staff who worked in groups that were even tangentially related to my interests in medicine and humanitarian aid.

Don’t be picky about who you contact, and be open to any opportunity, even if it doesn’t check all of your boxes. MIT also graciously funded my time abroad, which made international travel more feasible for me. In fact, I only found out about EMERGENCY, an organization I interned for, through a vague connection with the Italy coordinator for MIT’s International Study office.

Colleges and research groups often fund research experiences, so if you are taking time off because you want to conduct serious research rather than learning in the classroom, it may be possible to get paid. In addition, the NIH funds a series of either semester or year-long internships in a variety of fields that might be suitable for certain research projects, so look into PIs within NIH-funded labs.

Even if you don’t want to do something that might obviously offer money, like internships or research, create opportunities for yourself, and if you set up something that you really want, you can always seek out additional sources of funding. Colleges often have small grants or scholarships you can take advantage of regardless of the exact thing you are doing with your time off.

Many schools provide specific funding for international opportunities, especially if they are in the humanitarian or public service sector. Medicine-focused NGOs are plentiful and often do a lot of global work.

You can also have a productive time without an internship or lab work or even public service. Take some time to self-study different topics or pursue other interests. Be a barista, take a cooking class, or start journaling. The most important aspect of taking time off is the return—you want to feel refreshed and ready-to-go when you go back to school, but you can only achieve that if you feel there has actually been a change of pace.

Sometimes, taking up a random interest or hobby that you never had the time to learn can change the trajectory of your life. One of my best friends spent three weeks teaching herself introductory Python by watching coding videos online, and then came back to school and switched to be a computer science major. If you’re looking for a job that’s still medically relevant, most towns have local EMS groups you can join as a volunteer.

The most important thing is to make sure your time ticks off the boxes you wished for. Go back to the list of priorities you set when first decided you needed time off. Which opportunity allows you to fulfill the most goals?

There is never going to be a perfect opportunity. You will always have to mold each experience into being what you want it to be. Don’t select the program that seems most outwardly prestigious or impressive just because of the name. Pick something that will help you grow mentally and emotionally.

 

What I Gained From My Time Off

My time off was reaffirming and nudged me in a more focused direction. I was previously interested in medicine and maybe specifically neuroscience, but I came back awed by the world of humanitarian aid. I started to take classes at MIT that focused on global health, poverty, and sustainable development, and this led me to an Anthropology minor.

I’m taking this even further for my gap year(s) before medical school. I’ve been applying to a lot of sustainable development and global health Master’s programs, which will equip me to get a holistic perspective on medical humanitarian aid and effective ways of building healthier, happier societies.

I also gained a ton of amazing experiences and new friends and colleagues, but I definitely had to break out of the shell I had built around me at MIT. College throws social groups at you, so it’s a lot easier to find friends with similar interests, but you have to work a bit harder to challenge yourself to socialize. I found myself meeting people from varied backgrounds who broadened my perspective beyond the MIT science and engineering nerds, which gave me a holistic sense of how to tackle a problem.

Taking a year off puts a lot of responsibility into your hands. If your goal is to relax, be intentional about it. If your goal is to decide between majors or gain a lot of experience, you’re going to have to work to make sure your year off is productive. With that being said, don’t overwork yourself.

While you should be intentional and productive, make sure you’re also enjoying the break from school. In addition to doing research or a cool opportunity, maybe you want to take some time to paint or go hiking. I know several people who took a Personal Leave of Absence and spent the year traveling around the world.

Read our guide: Traveling Before Medical School—Decisions, Options, and Travel Strategies.

This time is meant for YOU. So make sure whatever you do is in YOUR best interest. Likely, as part of the process of reentering school, you’ll have to write an essay about what you did during your time off and how it helped you. This is a great time to reflect on your experiences and think about how you want to use what you learned going forward.

 

Returning to School

I’ll be honest: it was hard coming back to MIT. You start to build a routine and day-to-day schedule during your time off, and interruptions to this are difficult. But it also allowed me to reprioritize which activities I wanted to keep doing, as well as which ones I might have grown past.

I also felt a little disconnected when I got back to MIT because people continue to live their lives without you. It’s hard coming back to a community you were a really integral part of and having to reassimilate. Many schools have networks for students who either transferred in or took time off, which is a nice way to meet a diverse group of people who were as proactive about their education as you were.

It helps if you try to maintain your connections to school during your time off, even just a little. Email your advisor with updates if they are open to that and regularly connect with friends and family. Reintegrating into a society you feel strongly rooted in is much easier when there are individuals who you can stick with.

It can be really difficult to get back into an academic, classroom-style mindset. You likely will have a huge change of pace when you take time off, and going back to the grind can be taxing and draining. Hopefully, taking time off will also allow you to reprioritize, so you have a better sense of what activities are worth losing that hour of sleep for.

Studying what you love also makes a world of difference. I found that interspersing my schedule with global health and anthropology classes gave me a break from more technical neuroscience classes, so I felt happy to learn in each one because the learning styles and classroom formats were so different.

When you go back to school, don’t feel downtrodden if you find it more difficult than before you left. It’s a hard thing to get back into! Make sure you’re checking in regularly with Student Support Services or whatever office helped you take time off. As part of their job, they often have resources to help students reassimilate.

If you need to spend more time in the library or at office hours at first, that’s fine! You’re a new person now, and it makes sense that you’ll have to find new balance. Be forgiving with yourself, and be proud that you chose to do something out of the ordinary. Once you feel comfortable with your workload, make a conscious effort to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. Again, it might take a little bit to find a new normal, but it will be worth it.

All in all, I believe a gap year or gap semester can be a life-changing opportunity. I still think taking time off is one of the best decisions I have ever made, and it totally defined the next few years of my life.

If you want to know more about my personal journey and exactly what I did during my time off,  you can read about it here: How My Year Off Changed Everything.

Be proactive about deciding the type of education that is most important and helpful to you. Sitting in a classroom is one way of learning a lot of information, but you can also gain valuable experience through a job, volunteer work, research, or personal hobbies. You want to enter medical school understanding why you want to be a doctor and what facets of medicine most appeal to you, as well as what your dream job might be at the end of the line. Life is a lot happier when you feel you have a purpose.

If you’re considering taking a gap year, read our other gap year guides:

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