Pre-Med Students Across The U.S. Increasingly Take Gap Years Before Medical School

Isabella Falsetti | The PhoenixThree to five inches of snow are expected to fall in Chicago between Wednesday night and Friday morning.

Kate Rochowicz, a Loyola senior, will soon spend 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day treating gunshot victims, people injured in bad accidents and others in need of emergency care. She’ll be working as a full-time emergency trauma technician at the University of Chicago’s trauma center instead of an immediate transition to medical school.

By choosing to work rather than go straight into medical school, the 21-year-old will join pre-medical students across America in taking something she said seems to be an “uprising trend” — a gap year. 

According to a 2019 survey from the Association of American Medical Colleges, 43.9 percent of 15,151 students who enrolled in medical school took one to two gap years. Of the students surveyed, 13.4 percent also took three to four gap years and 7.9 percent took five or more gap years, according to the survey. 

Loyola doesn’t keep statistics on the number of pre-medical students who take gap years, said Jim Johnson, the chairman of Loyola’s Pre-Health Professions Advisory Committee — which advises pre-medical students on pursuing their chosen careers. At Northwestern University, 70 percent of the students accepted into medical school take one or more gap years, according to the university’s website.  

Johnson said the increase in pre-medical students taking gap years is a “national phenomenon.” He said a gap year can provide pre-medical students with many important opportunities, such as catching up on required classes, saving money and traveling abroad. 

“Some of my colleagues don’t call it a gap year, they call it a gift year,” he said, adding instructors are increasingly encouraging students to take a gap year. 

Ola Kierzkowska, a psychology major at Loyola who’s taking a gap year next year, said while it might be difficult to transition in and out of the school mindset, she sees financial value in taking a gap year. The 21-year-old plans to spend her gap year expanding both her financial savings and work experience. 

Kierzkowska said she is “still trying to figure out” the specific plan for her gap year. However, she said she currently works as a research assistant at the University of Chicago and is interested in applying for a higher position. Another possibility is a full-time position at Misericordia — a non-profit that supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities — Kierzkowska said. 

However, some Loyola students are still opting to go straight into medical school, including two seniors Riley DeMeulenaere and Derek Rink. 

Rink, a 21-year-old who applied to about 20 medical schools, said he feels ready for the “rigor and expectations” of medical school. DeMeulenaere, 21, also said he felt prepared for both the application process and medical school itself, emphasizing he wants to stay in a “school mentality.”

“I don’t see a gap year as an all good or all bad thing,” DeMeulenaere said. “I think it really depends upon where the individual sits based upon their four years of undergraduate [school].”

Alongside financial reasons, Rochowicz said she thinks the gap year trend is also due to increased support in the medical field for the mental health of future doctors. She said the pre-medical coursework is exhausting and intense, causing extreme stress. 

According to the 2019 Medscape National Physician Burnout, Depression and Suicide Report, 14 percent of physicians have had thoughts of suicide without an attempt and 1 percent have attempted suicide. The report also said 44 percent of physicians feel burned out. 

Rochowicz said burnout can be compared to “forgetting you’re a person,” emphasizing how stress causes doctors and pre-medical students to ignore their own needs. Taking a gap year is a good and beneficial way to curb burnout, she said.

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