Should I take a gap year before medical school?
I can’t believe it has been almost a year since I bid farewell to the hill. Even today, I feel as if I should be loitering on the first floor of the science center or scuttling to the diner for an inevitably late dinner. I dreadfully miss my Hamilton family and all of the memorable times I had during my four years. So, to the current students reading this, savor the flavor. Hamilton is a very special place, and you will likely miss it dearly once you leave. I certainly do.
Since my departure, I have been primarily focused on fulfilling my pre-med aspirations that I maintained at Hamilton. I have applied and been accepted to medical school while working as a medical scribe at University Hospitals of Cleveland. Having taken a gap year and worked for a year before medical school, I’d like to offer my two cents on why I took a gap year and insights into what I’m currently doing (and why you should do it too!).
Should I take a gap year, or even years, before medical school?
If you are prepared to present a competitive application directly out of Hamilton and feel as if you are ready to proceed with medical school very shortly after graduation, I would certainly not discourage you. A sizeable percentage of medical students nationwide (approximately 40% I believe) do go directly from undergraduate to medical school. However, based on that statistic, a majority of incoming medical students do take at least one gap year. Personally, I could not recommend this enough. I was initially reluctant to do so because I was anxious about finding something meaningful to do during my year off and scared to not be a student for the first time in my life. Despite my initial apprehension before I found my current scribe position, I know that taking the year off was the correct decision for me.
Here’s why I’d recommend it:
- Time off from school – When you get back from winter and/or summer break at Hamilton, do you feel energized, ready to hit the ground running in a new semester, or do you feel like you have fallen out of the academic groove? If you are the latter, a gap year may not be that beneficial, but I am definitely in the former category. I needed those breaks at Hamilton to avoid academic burnout. I think the same principle applies to the gap year. After the much needed break I took from school, I’m excited to start medical school in the upcoming months. I think I would have burnt out without my gap year.
- More time to prepare your application – The medical school application process is a horrible experience (this is an understatement, in my opinion). It is drawn out over a year (starting in May of year x when the application opens and concluding in July-August of year x+1 when you matriculate, if you’ll kindly forgive me for the algebra) and it creates a tremendous amount of anxiety. Your future is in the hands of other people who have never met you and they are evaluating a piece of paper bearing your life, heart, and soul. This is what will determine the remainder of your professional life. How could it not create anxiety? Even if you are lucky enough to be accepted to your top choice school in mid-October, the earliest possible time you can be accepted, you still endured at least several months of unpleasantness. Please believe me when I say this is not something you want to undergo more than once. Taking the year off gives you more time to prepare the most competitive application. You may take more time to study for and take MCAT (another terrible experience that you don’t want to subject yourself to than once). You have more time for experiences, such as volunteering, clinical work, and other extracurricular activities, to show that you’re prepared for a career in medicine and, equally important, that you’re also a real person who has interests outside of science and medicine. Lastly, if you’re GPA is a bit lower than you’d like it, senior year frequently raises GPAs because you’re taking familiar classes in your major and you have gotten very comfortable in the college environment. Due to these factors, gap year(s) = stronger applications in many circumstances.
- Time off to do whatever you want – Want to work and make some money before the financial burden of medical school? Want some experience in the real world? Want to travel the USA or the world? Want some experience doing something completely unrelated to your future career? All possible with a gap year.
The moral of the story here is that if you want more time, take it. A gap year is worth what you make of it. Medical schools will still be here in a few years. I met applicants on the interview trail who were still in undergraduate, working in corporate America, pursuing master’s degrees and PhDs, and even taking time off to start a family. If you take your time and do what you love, you’ll thank yourself for it. Personally, I used the extra time to work as a scribe.
Interested in being a scribe?
For an aspiring pre-med, I could not possibly recommend being a scribe enough. Here’s some information about it and why I would recommend it so highly.
What do scribes do?
This is a bit of a hard one to answer, because this will greatly depend on the venue where you choose to work. Broadly, think of the medical setting you are in (ER, physician office, etc.) as a courtroom. The doctor is the judge (the person running the proceedings). You are primarily the stenographer. Your job is to transcribe the proceedings into the medical records system. What is the doctor doing? What is the history of the patient’s present illness (chief complaint, how long since onset, associated symptoms, etc.)? What is the patient’s past medical and surgical history? What are the abnormalities on the patient’s physical exam (e.g. If the patient’s chief complaint is abdominal pain, is the patient’s abdomen tender and/or bowel sounds abnormal? If the patient’s chief complaint is a fall, are there any external signs of trauma?) The doctor and patient will relay this information to you for you to transcribe. You may have other responsibilities, but this documentation is the crux of your duties.
Why is it such a good experience?
Before I started the position, I thought that it may be mundane and repetitive, but I couldn’t have been more incorrect. In this position, you gain a tremendous amount of knowledge about medicine. At the most basic level, you learn medical terminology, which is detailed and precise but easy to master with practice. You also can learn how medical professionals communicate and work with one another, see and help many different patients, and observe the daily duties and practices of a physician. Personally, I don’t think I truly knew the profession medicine until I did this.
What sorts of people work in this field?
I don’t know of any career scribes. The vast majority are using the position as a stepping stone to another career in medicine. Personally, I work with other scribes who are medical students, pre-medical, PA students, pre-PA, and pre-NP. This is certainly not a coincidence. Scribing is a fantastic learning experience for future healthcare workers.
Where can I work as a scribe?
Pretty much anywhere in the U.S. I chose to move back to my home in Cleveland because I love the area and wanted to work in the community where I grew up. What sorts of places can I work at? As I said previously, a lot of different venues use scribes, including ERs, primary care offices, specialty care offices, and many more. I work in the ER, which I love because the fast-paced environment suits my, in kinder words, overly energetic personality. It’s up to you, though, where you want to be. Choose where you think you’ll be happy.
Hamilton has a long history of connecting students with alumni and parents whose advice, expertise, and resources help talented young people achieve success for themselves and in their communities.
I’m sold! How do I get this kind of position?
This is one area where I’m a bit of an outlier. I discovered the job opening for my current position through a fortuitous twist of fate and was able to obtain employment through a physician group. The vast majority of scribes are employed by one of the large scribe companies (Scribe America and the like). These companies have many opportunities. If you are seriously interested in pursuing scribing, searching the websites of these companies is a where you should begin. Apply early and broadly!
Much to my chagrin, the medical school admissions process is much too nuanced and complex for me to cover in this post. If you are looking for a place to start, I would highly recommend the Hamilton pre-health website. The information on it is thorough and I found it invaluable for all of my four years at Hamilton and especially during the application process. Best of luck to you and your pursuit of a career in medicine!
John Bennett '16 majored in chemistry and mathematics at Hamilton. Following graduation, John worked as an EMT scribe in Ohio. John will be entering a M.D./Ph.D. program this upcoming July.