I did not intend to do a double gap year, but when I realized my original plan was not going to occur, I quickly reshuffled my priorities and redirected all of my efforts.
First, I made a list of all the things that brought me pure joy and committed to giving my best effort in each activity. Additionally, for each activity I was engaged in, I would place no restrictions or stringent expectations on the activity. What I mean to say is, I went into each experience with an open mind.
After I finished studying for the MCAT, the first activity I did was visit Italy for a month, which was on my list.
Next up: I established a volunteer/shadowing position at Children’s National Medical in Washington, DC, in the in-patient/out-patient Hem-Onc department. I developed a deep passion for pediatric hem-onc due to my own battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) as a child. Fueled by this passion, I shadowed physicians at the same hospital where I was treated, and which is also a nationally recognized pediatric cancer center.
This intellectually stimulating clinical experience was a huge gift, but not without costs. I was not paid, so I had to cover my own transportation and food expenses. Some would argue that was valuable time lost not working, but I knew it was right for me. It certainly has made learning my med school lecture material easier after having frequently observed a variety of clinical diagnoses.
In addition to volunteering, I would alternate days where I shadowed at International Pediatrics, a Spanish-speaking primary care private practice. With both of my parents having emigrated from El Salvador, I felt it important to maintain regular exposure to the world of medical Spanish.
This is how I remained active in medicine clinically, but I also remained active in medicine outside of the doctor’s office.
During the summer between gap years, I returned to camps for children with chronic illnesses that I attended as a youth with ALL. To re-energize, I planned several trips to beaches I have always wanted to see and sprinkled in a few trips to Ann Arbor.
Unrelated to medicine, I became involved in tutoring grade school because my sister is a teacher. I greatly enjoyed working one-on-one with the kiddos, helping them reach the goals they set for themselves academically.
For anyone considering taking a gap year: do activities that bring you pure joy, and do not concern yourself with how those activities impact the competitiveness of your resume. I think this is – in my humble opinion – what admissions takes notice of, or at least, what it seems my fellow peers have in common.
In the end, the activities I participated in may not have been extraordinary. However, they were fulfilling to me, and I gave a full effort in each of them.
In addition to my double gap year activities, I am deeply thankful for the chance I had to further establish community, especially within my church. I also got to spend quality time with my family, particularly with my nieces who keep me silly and light-hearted. It’s your passion along with the support of your community that will keep you fired up and strong all throughout your career.
Sylvia is a first-year medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School. She is interested in pediatric oncology. When she has energy left after a long day of studying she makes 1 or 2 more pages of progress in reading a novel before falling asleep.