The Gap Year: To Take or Not to Take (and What to Consider)?

Sitting in one of the offices at the UC Davis Health Professions Advising Center, I listen as the student in front of me, a third-year pre-optometry student, talks about her plans for the next two years.

We had been sitting there going back and forth about when she could take her remaining prerequisite courses, when she could take the optometry admission test, and when she could fit in more clinical experiences. Wanting to go straight through to optometry school right after graduation, she would have essentially needed to complete all of this before applying that upcoming summer.

Her eyes seemed to frantically search for some kind of answer as they scanned the marked sheet in front of her. Black arrows and blue strikethroughs covered the schedule she had made for herself. Her forehead wrinkled as she said, “Maybe, I can…No.” Outside, the California Aggie Marching Band could be heard as they made their way towards the Amtrak station for Pajamarino, a long-standing UC Davis tradition.

“Have you ever considered taking a gap year?” I asked her.

She looked up with her eyebrows raised. “No, I never really thought about it. I just don’t want to wait any longer than I have to,” she said. “I’ve just always planned on going straight through.”

“Why is that?”

The faint beating of drums could still be heard. “I don’t know.” Strands of her curls fell from her bun as she tilted her head. “What would I even do with a gap year?”

“How about if we made a timeline of what a gap year could look like?” I said. “This way you can see what seems better for you?”

Still unsure, but stressed out by her current plan, she hesitantly said, “Sure, okay.”

Taking out a blank timeline sheet, I outlined what a gap year could look like and explained some of the benefits, such as having more time to do things and not facing burnout—which, as we all know, is a major issue in the health field. With her current schedule packed with so much, she slowly came around to the idea, adding her own marks as we worked together. In the end, she decided to take a gap year. This was just one of many similar cases I have had.

As a peer advisor for pre-health students at UC Davis, I am constantly speaking to students about application timelines. There has never been a week in which it didn’t come up at least two to three times per advising day. And in each of those advising appointments, the topic of going straight through versus taking a gap year always makes its way into the conversation. It’s a stressful topic.

How do you tell a person that the plan they’ve had in their mind for practically forever may not necessarily work out as they had hoped?

At UC Davis, more than half of the students pursuing a health profession, such as medicine, dentistry, physician assistant, veterinary medicine, and pharmacy, will take at least one gap year. When you consider that there are hundreds, even thousands, of pre-health students within Davis alone, that is a lot. Gap years have become the new norm.

Despite the increasing number of students taking gap years either before or after college, however, students are still hesitant. Parents remain skeptical. After all, students are now conditioned to believe that after high school, they’re supposed to go to college, and after college they’re supposed to go to graduate school or get a job. If that wasn’t what you were doing, you got questions from everyone.

With gap years, you are essentially still doing that but with a “break” in between. Yet, it remains a daunting concept, one filled with many what ifs. Questions, such as “What do I do in my gap year?” or “What if I lose motivation?” or “Will it look bad?” always come up. Listen, if you are considering a gap year, you have many options and will not lose motivation, especially if the career you have in mind is what you truly want. It will not look bad and, most importantly, everything will be okay. You will be okay.

A gap year (or more) can be very beneficial. Not only will you have more time to complete any requirements you may need for the next steps of your life, but you will also be able to gain some life experience, reflect on yourself, explore other fields of interest, prevent future burnout, and even make some money before undergraduate or graduate school. Your gap year is a time for you to do what you need to do.

As advisors, my colleagues and I can suggest options and various paths for students based on what they need, but only the student knows what will work for them and what they ultimately need.

For Shalvi Prasad, a staff advisor at Health Professions Advising and a future podiatry student, her two gap years provided a chance to reflect and to find out what she truly wanted to pursue. In the office kitchen after a morning of advising appointments, with the smell of coffee brewing to the left, she shared how she had gotten the chance to shadow a podiatrist during her gap years.

“It ended up changing my career goal. I had always been premed, wanting to be an M.D. or a D.O. and serve patients that way, but after shadowing, all of that changed, and all of this wouldn’t have been possible had I not taken a gap year,” she said, taking her lunch out of the microwave. “It also gave me a chance to work on myself personally and give myself a break from all the things I was trying to balance as a student.”

Having juggled various extracurricular activities, familial responsibilities, and academics all at the same time during her undergraduate years, Shalvi’s gap years were a necessary time for her to refocus on the things that she needed to do for herself. However, Shalvi’s story is not your story, and gap years are not for everyone. When considering whether or not to take a gap year, think about why you would want to take it, if you need to take one, and what it can do for you.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when considering a gap year, and remember, everyone’s path is different even if the goal is the same.

1. Why am I taking or considering a gap year, and what do I want to accomplish during that time?

Before taking a gap year, establish a reason. Whether you want to gain more life experience, develop job skills, or explore career options, you should have some idea of what you want to do. Set some goals.

They do not have to be significant life goals. They can be as simple as becoming a better speaker or becoming more culturally competent. By setting a goal, you will have something to focus on—and you will have an answer to your parents’ constant questions about what you plan to do.

And remember, goals and plans can change, so do not feel like you are locked into whatever you decide today.

2. Is there something I have always wanted to do?

For many pre-health students, once they begin medical school, dental school, nursing school, or pharmacy school, it can be difficult to simply pause and pursue other life dreams. If you have always wanted to do something—perhaps join the Peace Corps or Teach for America, study abroad, or even just travel—your gap year is a great time to do so.

Undergraduate and graduate school will still be there when you come back. Do what feels right. If there is a nagging feeling that you need to do something else apart from your current goals, listen to it. You may find that something else is what you truly want to do for the rest of your life.

3. What are some constraints I may face if I take a gap year?

You’ve decided that you want to take a gap year, so now what? Other things to consider include finances, familial obligations, and other constraints. Determine what may conflict with your gap year plans so that you can find a way to work around them or determine if taking a gap year is even feasible. Sometimes it isn’t, and you need to know if it is for you.

4. Do I feel ready to go to undergraduate/graduate school?

Ultimately, the most important thing to consider is, are you ready? A gap year is a personal decision, and only you can determine if you are ready to apply or if you need to take a gap year. Listen to your instincts. I assure you, you will know.

So do you or do you not take a gap year? That is for you to decide.

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As a senior at UC Davis pursuing a B.S. in Neurobiology, Physiology, & Behavior and a Professional Writing minor, I am also a peer advisor and a program coordinator for our Health Professions Advising Center. Through my roles, I meet and work with many students and organizations through advising, putting on workshops and special events, such as the UCD Pre-Health Conference, and creating material for students to use. I love working with people, along with reading, writing, and trying new things.

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The Gap Year: To Take or Not to Take (and What to Consider)?

Sitting in one of the offices at the UC Davis Health Professions Advising Center, I listen as the student in front of me, a third-year pre-optometry student, talks about her plans for the next two years.

We had been sitting there going back and forth about when she could take her remaining prerequisite courses, when she could take the optometry admission test, and when she could fit in more clinical experiences. Wanting to go straight through to optometry school right after graduation, she would have essentially needed to complete all of this before applying that upcoming summer.

Her eyes seemed to frantically search for some kind of answer as they scanned the marked sheet in front of her. Black arrows and blue strikethroughs covered the schedule she had made for herself. Her forehead wrinkled as she said, “Maybe, I can…No.” Outside, the California Aggie Marching Band could be heard as they made their way towards the Amtrak station for Pajamarino, a long-standing UC Davis tradition.

“Have you ever considered taking a gap year?” I asked her.

She looked up with her eyebrows raised. “No, I never really thought about it. I just don’t want to wait any longer than I have to,” she said. “I’ve just always planned on going straight through.”

“Why is that?”

The faint beating of drums could still be heard. “I don’t know.” Strands of her curls fell from her bun as she tilted her head. “What would I even do with a gap year?”

“How about if we made a timeline of what a gap year could look like?” I said. “This way you can see what seems better for you?”

Still unsure, but stressed out by her current plan, she hesitantly said, “Sure, okay.”

Taking out a blank timeline sheet, I outlined what a gap year could look like and explained some of the benefits, such as having more time to do things and not facing burnout—which, as we all know, is a major issue in the health field. With her current schedule packed with so much, she slowly came around to the idea, adding her own marks as we worked together. In the end, she decided to take a gap year. This was just one of many similar cases I have had.

As a peer advisor for pre-health students at UC Davis, I am constantly speaking to students about application timelines. There has never been a week in which it didn’t come up at least two to three times per advising day. And in each of those advising appointments, the topic of going straight through versus taking a gap year always makes its way into the conversation. It’s a stressful topic.

How do you tell a person that the plan they’ve had in their mind for practically forever may not necessarily work out as they had hoped?

At UC Davis, more than half of the students pursuing a health profession, such as medicine, dentistry, physician assistant, veterinary medicine, and pharmacy, will take at least one gap year. When you consider that there are hundreds, even thousands, of pre-health students within Davis alone, that is a lot. Gap years have become the new norm.

Despite the increasing number of students taking gap years either before or after college, however, students are still hesitant. Parents remain skeptical. After all, students are now conditioned to believe that after high school, they’re supposed to go to college, and after college they’re supposed to go to graduate school or get a job. If that wasn’t what you were doing, you got questions from everyone.

With gap years, you are essentially still doing that but with a “break” in between. Yet, it remains a daunting concept, one filled with many what ifs. Questions, such as “What do I do in my gap year?” or “What if I lose motivation?” or “Will it look bad?” always come up. Listen, if you are considering a gap year, you have many options and will not lose motivation, especially if the career you have in mind is what you truly want. It will not look bad and, most importantly, everything will be okay. You will be okay.

A gap year (or more) can be very beneficial. Not only will you have more time to complete any requirements you may need for the next steps of your life, but you will also be able to gain some life experience, reflect on yourself, explore other fields of interest, prevent future burnout, and even make some money before undergraduate or graduate school. Your gap year is a time for you to do what you need to do.

As advisors, my colleagues and I can suggest options and various paths for students based on what they need, but only the student knows what will work for them and what they ultimately need.

For Shalvi Prasad, a staff advisor at Health Professions Advising and a future podiatry student, her two gap years provided a chance to reflect and to find out what she truly wanted to pursue. In the office kitchen after a morning of advising appointments, with the smell of coffee brewing to the left, she shared how she had gotten the chance to shadow a podiatrist during her gap years.

“It ended up changing my career goal. I had always been premed, wanting to be an M.D. or a D.O. and serve patients that way, but after shadowing, all of that changed, and all of this wouldn’t have been possible had I not taken a gap year,” she said, taking her lunch out of the microwave. “It also gave me a chance to work on myself personally and give myself a break from all the things I was trying to balance as a student.”

Having juggled various extracurricular activities, familial responsibilities, and academics all at the same time during her undergraduate years, Shalvi’s gap years were a necessary time for her to refocus on the things that she needed to do for herself. However, Shalvi’s story is not your story, and gap years are not for everyone. When considering whether or not to take a gap year, think about why you would want to take it, if you need to take one, and what it can do for you.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when considering a gap year, and remember, everyone’s path is different even if the goal is the same.

1. Why am I taking or considering a gap year, and what do I want to accomplish during that time?

Before taking a gap year, establish a reason. Whether you want to gain more life experience, develop job skills, or explore career options, you should have some idea of what you want to do. Set some goals.

They do not have to be significant life goals. They can be as simple as becoming a better speaker or becoming more culturally competent. By setting a goal, you will have something to focus on—and you will have an answer to your parents’ constant questions about what you plan to do.

And remember, goals and plans can change, so do not feel like you are locked into whatever you decide today.

2. Is there something I have always wanted to do?

For many pre-health students, once they begin medical school, dental school, nursing school, or pharmacy school, it can be difficult to simply pause and pursue other life dreams. If you have always wanted to do something—perhaps join the Peace Corps or Teach for America, study abroad, or even just travel—your gap year is a great time to do so.

Undergraduate and graduate school will still be there when you come back. Do what feels right. If there is a nagging feeling that you need to do something else apart from your current goals, listen to it. You may find that something else is what you truly want to do for the rest of your life.

3. What are some constraints I may face if I take a gap year?

You’ve decided that you want to take a gap year, so now what? Other things to consider include finances, familial obligations, and other constraints. Determine what may conflict with your gap year plans so that you can find a way to work around them or determine if taking a gap year is even feasible. Sometimes it isn’t, and you need to know if it is for you.

4. Do I feel ready to go to undergraduate/graduate school?

Ultimately, the most important thing to consider is, are you ready? A gap year is a personal decision, and only you can determine if you are ready to apply or if you need to take a gap year. Listen to your instincts. I assure you, you will know.

So do you or do you not take a gap year? That is for you to decide.

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