It was spring of my sophomore year in college, and the August 2004 MCAT was sitting on the horizon. I had completed my pre-reqs, and my subject-specific knowledge was at an all-time high. Unfortunately, I was only about 80% sure I wanted to go to medical school. (Also, it was the weekend of a music festival that I was pretty set on attending.)
So began the delay of my medical education — a pause which continued until I began studying for the MCAT in 2010. It marked the beginning of the most adventurous, introspective, character-building phase of my life. While I sometimes think, “I could have been an attending for a few years by now,” the decision to take some appreciable time off was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. As my AMCAS application came together, the challenge was clear.
How do I explain this enormous glaring lapse in my education?
1. Have a good reason for why you did it.
Some breaks in education are forced. Having to care for sick family members, experiencing our own health problems, climbing out of dire financial straits…. Sometimes life’s curveballs dissolve our well-crafted plans and timelines. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t carry any guilt or shame just because you aren’t following the traditional path. In all likelihood, you didn’t have a choice. Be 100% honest regarding the external factors that drove you to need a break, and no one can hold them against you.
If the break was an elective one, then it is up to you to explain why you needed some “me time.” You will have to let application readers know why it was advantageous for you— and all of your future patients — to catch a break. No one can tell you the answer to this question but yourself. It might take some time and some soul-searching before you can articulate exactly why you sidestepped part of your education. The same rules apply: strive for total transparency, and while doing so, convey the factors that made this the right decision.
2. Highlight all of the positives that came from the experience
No matter how your time away from academics was spent, it is your job to show how the experiences turned you into a better person, and how they will make you into a better doctor. Maybe the time off to raise children helped you define the true meaning of altruism. Caring for an ill family member or going through a medical issue yourself can certainly help you empathize with future patients. Your around-the-world trip probably helped you develop greater perspective and resourcefulness.
If you chose to take time off from formal education to do medical work, all the better. This sort of activity is obviously transferable to your future career, and it makes you unique while demonstrating your selfless side. If your time off was spent in a non-medical profession, find experiences therein that relate or have parallels to medicine. Perhaps you are changing careers, and have a background working as a hedge fund manager. While not the most altruistic profession, this line of work certainly speaks to your ability to lead, and put in long hours at a mentally demanding job. It demonstrates your dedication to a field, and shows you won’t be fazed by the workload of medical school. Volunteer experience speaks for itself — giving your time and energy to those in need is going to be the centerpiece of your next couple decades.
3. Stand by your choice to take time off.
As the non-traditional pathway becomes more traditional, any stigma or negativity associated with an educational pause has all but faded away. Therefore, you shouldn’t try and dance around the truth. Own your decision and take pride that you had the gall to buck the trend. You should not see yourself as second-rate to those who have gone straight down the path without any gaps. If anything, time away from the rigorous academic speed train can refresh the mind and add a whole new dynamic to your person. In describing how you spent the time, you will want to drive the conversation towards the more amazing things you’ve done, and away from any purely hedonistic, self-serving experiences you undertook. Your one week Project Smile trip should dominate the conversation, not your summer spent lounging poolside in Mexico.
4. Use any remaining time to make yourself more attractive to admissions committees.
If you are currently in this important gap, start thinking now about how to spin it into an overall experience that admission committees will smile upon and understand. If you are lacking in meaningful experiences, consider what else you can do to make yourself an attractive candidate. Volunteer for an ambulance company, take up a job as an emergency room scribe... find some way to help your fellow human being.
Like any application or interview, your job is to market yourself, and cast a bright, positive light on all that you’ve done and on every decision you’ve made. Show the interested parties why you had no other choice but to take a break, and the myriad benefits that you have garnered from the experience.