College is a crazy, 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 of interests. In addition, school can be really stressful, and it’s a lot easier to do well when you are operating in a productive niche where you are happy and healthy and enjoy the overall environment. It takes a lot of courage to make the decision of stepping back and reevaluating your trajectory within school. 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 might need some rest, and (3) personal leave, which is usually your own decision to take some time off. The type of leave that you are taking will likely affect what you might want to do on 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 that 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 that you want to accomplish by the time you go back to school, from the big picture things like “I want to take better care of myself mentally” and “I need to recuperate and feel rejuvenated” to more concrete tasks like “I want to travel internationally” and “I want to intern at X company.” Avoid staying on the same path you’ve been— 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! That will serve you well.
Either before or after you’ve thought about your goals a bit, 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 just 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 they can connect you with other resources such as career advising.
What To Do During Your Time Off
There are lots of opportunities that you could look into for your time off. It’s easiest to block your time out with structured programs and experiences rather than general themes like “I will travel” or “I will go home”. 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 that they thought would be suitable. I also emailed or called any organization or person whose work I found cool— PIs 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 that you can take advantage of regardless of the exact thing you are doing on 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 random 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 that there was 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 that you can join as a volunteer.
The most important thing is that you make sure your time off ticks a lot of boxes that you wished for. Go back to the list of priorities that you set when first decided you needed time off. Which opportunity would allow 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 as productive as possible. Don’t select the program that seems most outwardly prestigious or impressive just because of the name. Pick something that will make you grow mentally and emotionally (and maybe that happens to be the prestigious program!)
What To Expect From Your Time Off
I don’t mean to keep pushing the cliche of “my time off was life-changing”– more realistically, it was reaffirming and just 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, and have 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 that I had built at MIT. College throws social groups at you and 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, then maybe you don’t have to be as intentional about it. But, if your goal is to decide between majors or gain a lot of experience, you’re going to have to work a little bit harder to make sure your year off is productive. With that being said, don’t work yourself to the bone! 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 just spent the year traveling around the world. This time is meant for YOU. So make sure whatever you do is in YOUR best interest. Likely, as part of the process to reenter 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 always going to be hard. But it also allowed me to reprioritize, and think about what activities I wanted to keep doing and which ones I might have grown past. I also felt a little disconnected when I got back from MIT, because people will continue to live their lives without you, and it’s hard coming back to a community that you were a really integral part of and just now have to reassimilate. Many schools will have networks for students who either transferred in or took time off, which is a cool way to meet a diverse group of people that 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 if just a little— email your advisor with updates if he/she is open to that, and regularly Skype friends and family. Reintegrating into a society that you feel strongly rooted in is much easier when there are individuals who you can stick with.
It can also 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 of the learning styles and classroom formats were so different.
When you go back to school, don’t feel downtrodden if you find school 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 almost always have resources to help students reassimilate. If you need to spend more time in the library or at office hours first, that’s fine! You’re a new person now, and it makes sense that you’ll have to find a 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 I promise it’ll be worth it.
All in all— everyone should consider taking a gap year/semester.
I still think taking time off is one of the best decisions I have ever made, and it has 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. 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 go into med 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.