Ever since I had to start thinking about university, I always considered the idea of having a gap year. The thought of stepping off the conveyor belt we all know as the education system for a year to do whatever I pleased excited me. And up until the COVID-19 pandemic, I still had my heart set on one. But as the virus turned everyone’s lives upside down, my vision of the gap year I planned was truly out of the window.
In this blog post, I share the whole ‘the gap year I wasn’t going to have – then I definitely was – then oops, oh wait now I can’t’ story, and then reflect on how this is making me feel. I have no idea if this is going to interest any of you, but maybe some of you are in the same position as me, or conversely you are contemplating the idea of a gap year as a result of the pandemic. This should give you a background behind the process of having a gap year before medical school too, as it’s slightly harder than with other degrees.
Failing this, I’ll use this blog post as more of an emotional brain-dump activity of my own, which could help me to process all of the emotions this situation has brought up, and give myself a little pep-talk on how this may actually be a blessing in disguise.
Attitudes to gap years before medical school
As I said, I had always been attracted to the idea of a gap year from early on, but it was nothing serious until the end of year 12 when I was going to university open days. Since I decided to apply to study medicine, there seemed to be two attitudes towards having a gap year before starting. One supported it, considering the length of a jam-packed medical degree of 5 or 6 years, on the basis that it would be a good idea to have a year out between A Levels and university as a break from studying before delving into the stressful degree. I recall hearing one of the professors or admissions tutors (I can’t really remember) who spoke at the Imperial College London (ICL) open day Medicine talk who said that one of his regrets was not taking a year out before starting his medical degree and career as a chance to experience life before delving into the world of medicine. ICL approved of the idea of prospective students taking gap years so this encouraged me further.
The following plans for my gap year started to evolve in my mind:
- Travel: to Australia to meet my sister who recently moved there or maybe backpack through Asia or South America, or with all those air miles and the environment in mind: interrail through Europe or maybe explore more of the UK already on my doorstep.
- Activism: Through my vegan journey I have always wanted to spend more time doing more for the animal rights movement, and wanted to attend more marches, vigils, and put more time into online activism content. I struggle to do this alongside my A Level work, and I assume I’d have even less free time to get into this once I start university, so a gap year would be a great way to do this.
- Become a yoga teacher: I would love to turn my yoga hobby into a money-making idea on the side of my degree. I hear that some of the best yoga teacher training courses are in India, so I plan to head there to learn from the best. I could then lead some yoga classes in the evenings after university, to earn some money but meanwhile clearing my own mind and moving my own body. The DREAM.
- Run a marathon: I know that you don’t need to have a year out to tick this one off, but marathon training can be time consuming and so doing this in a gap year seems cool. Also, I could link this to my vegan activism and run for the animals by raising money for great organisations like Surge or animal sanctuaries.
- International Volunteering (medical related): a chance to travel and live somewhere for 3 months relatively cheaply, while making a difference to a community sounds fun and would absolutely benefit my medical career.
- Learn new skills and read more books: Essentially just do all the stuff I always wanted to do but school got in the way. Could I learn how to code, learn more about history or art or politics, or things I always thought I should know more about? Learn more about medicine to aid my degree? Could I learn how to code, build a website, start a business? Having a year out to do whatever I’d like to do would let me do these things.
- Spend more time with family: It seems each year at school rolls by with my family never really meeting up because schedules clash, or holidays before exams are completely written off for me to revise. Then the thought of me leaving home to go to university gives me a sudden sense of dread that I am probably never going to see my family much ever again. It would be nice to spend more time with them, go on some holidays without packing school textbooks in my suitcase, and actually go and visit my auntie and uncle in Italy.
- Sort my life out: just the general things like learn how to drive – (I can obviously do this in the summer between Year 13 and university, but then that would take up time from my precious summer) and of course pluck up the courage to get a fringe because NEW ACADEMIC YEAR, NEW ME.
A gap year made me very excited. On the other hand, I received a negative response to the idea:
- “A waste of a year”
- “You’ll be a year behind”
- “You’ll be behind all your friends”
- “If you’re passionate about medicine enough surely you’d want to start straight away?”
- “It’ll be much harder to be accepted anywhere if they think you’ve had a year out just to binge-watch Netflix”.
These scared me, and I don’t think I would have felt the same way if I was applying to any other degree but it was the commitment to medicine that made me feel strange. It was upsetting to acknowledge that I wouldn’t be at the same stage of the medical journey as all my current friends applying to medicine, and I wouldn’t be able to discuss what each year is like with them; I’d always be the one a year behind. It would be annoying to have a preconceived idea of what a year would be like from my friends in the year above telling me, rather than just living it myself with no presumptions. But then maybe this would be nice, having friends in older years to give me advice (and notes ;] ), or maybe I’m totally underestimating the fact that I may not actually get the chance to speak to many of these current friends anyway, we’ll both have made new friends in separate years so all this won’t be a big deal. But then that would be sad.
In times of peak stress and burnout during A Levels coupled with comments from medical students at open days like “It’s only going to get worse!” I said to myself I NEED a year out. Even if I’m not as productive as I plan to be during the year, I am confident that the much needed break will ultimately make me a better medical student and doctor. After much thought and many conversations with my parents, friends and some teachers (along with a trusty for and against table) I decided to have a gap year.
Gap years before medical school: two ways
When applying to universities when wanting a gap year, you have two options: apply during your gap year (as a normal applicant wanting to start the following year), or defer your entry (apply in your final year of school with everyone else but request to delay the starting date of your course by a year). I knew that getting into medicine involves a long-winded application process consisting of entrance exams, personal statement, interviews, having recent work experience and regular volunteering and finally nailing those A Level grades.
Initially, it makes sense to apply during the gap year so that you can focus your energy on A Levels alone during Year 13 then have the grades under your belt before you embark on applying during your year out. Universities are more likely to accept you knowing that you have already met the grade requirements (rather than trusting that a conditional offer holder will get their predicted grades) and you will get an immediate place not a conditional offer.
Universities are sometimes iffy about accepting those deferring as they find it difficult to save spaces for students a year in advance without knowing the competition they’ll receive that year. (I actually wanted to apply to University of St. Andrews but they did not accept deferred entries so I couldn’t apply – if you are deferring your place to medical school ensure the university is okay with this). Thus applying during the gap year would also prevent this problem. However if, like me, you have plans for the gap year which involve travelling, it would not be good to be called for an interview in a week at a London university when you’re halfway across the world. Many universities do not allow interviews on Skype, and they can be difficult to reschedule so you want to be at home during this time.
Finally, it is very difficult to actually get an offer for medicine regardless of how well your application is simply due to the competition amongst medical applicants, so if you don’t get in first time round you’ll have to reapply next year. If you’re applying for the first time in your gap year and don’t get a place, you’ll have to reapply the following year and so will have to take two gap years. This may not look so good on your second application. Whereas if you are unsuccessful the first time round during Year 13 and have to reapply, you will be reapplying in your gap year anyway. You are more likely to get in the second time round as you would have likely improved your entrance exam scores, possibly had more experience and perfected your interview techniques. It should also be quite an insightful experience and improve your resilience.
Either way, make sure you either state in your personal statement what you plan to achieve in your gap year OR what you have achieved in your gap year which will improve your skills/demonstrate medical values/make you a better medical student and so doctor. And prepare to answer questions about it in interviews. Otherwise they will be thinking that you’ll spend it on the sofa watching Grey’s Anatomy.
I decided to apply with deferred entry during year 13. Although this meant I had to balance the application process with A Levels, if I didn’t get a place I knew the worst case scenario would be reapplying during the gap year I wanted anyway. Applying deferred essentially means the university is saving a place for you for the next cycle, so you can merrily go and enjoy your gap year knowing you have a university degree to come back to.
I was fortunate enough to get a conditional deferred offer to begin my course in autumn 2021. I got the terrifying email on the day right before schools closed due to the pandemic. Just as I got the motivation in the form of a university offer to power through the final hurdle of sitting the A Levels, the exams were cancelled. My excitement and relief from getting an offer after three rejections was muffled by the uncertainty thanks to COVD-19 and lockdown.
‘Oops wait, now I can’t have a gap year’
As we got further into lockdown, I realised that it was extremely unlikely that I would be able to fulfil my plans for my gap year, considering the fact that many of them involved international travel. I quickly realised I had to make an important decision:
- Continue with my gap year plans, and hope that travel goes back to normal soon (but it is very likely that instead I’ll be stuck at home in the UK binge watching Netflix and watching all my friends have their university experience already. The people who said “you’ll be wasting a year” would be smug). OR
- Contact the university to ask to start this year instead and no longer have a gap year.
I read a Mark Manson (author of the best selling book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck) newsletter the other day and he said that ‘when it comes to decision making…one of the best things to optimise for living regret-free is asking yourself, “what choice will I regret making the least?” ‘ . I honestly don’t know the answer to this for my case, but it helps to think about it anyway.
I’m angry that my plans that were so fixed and perfect are now ruined. ICL saved a space for me for 2021, I could travel and enjoy a year out knowing I’ve got a place at a great university for me when I return… but life has a habit of reshuffling your decks when you seem to have everything going for you. What if this is a blessing in disguise? Maybe I’ll have the best first year and think about how happy I am that I decided to start this year instead. Maybe I’ll get to travel in the future but with friends that I’ve made at university and the memories will be even more special.
I contacted ICL and requested to start this year, but they cannot confirm if there are places for me for the 2020 entry until UCAS decisions have been made on the 18th June. With news articles being released detailing how university education will be different when courses start this autumn, with Cambridge University revealing that all lectures will be online, I am concerned about how much of the university experience I will be able to get.
Others in the same situation as me have chosen to continue with their gap year because they do not want to start university this year with all the changes that will bring. But then at least if I start this year, I will be joining with people who are in the same boat as me, with having not sat our A Level exams and worrying about whether freshers will be as enjoyable. A big reason for me wanting a gap year initially was the break from studying, and lockdown has most definitely given me the chance to do that. The thought of having another entire year off with no academic goals depresses me, so I am itching to start my degree as soon as possible.
When I made the decision to request to start this year and not have my gap year, I thought about the ways that I could still achieve what I wanted to do in my gap year but at another time. University term times are short, meaning I have a good 3 months’ summer holiday for me to travel, and I would be able to travel with the friends I’d have made rather than alone. I could feasibly do my yoga teacher training course in the holidays too. And regarding all the little things like learning skills, I know I will have the time to achieve these during my degree but it’s down to me to manage my time well and, for example, use my study breaks to learn how to code rather than scroll through Instagram. The COVID-19 pandemic has also motivated me in a way to get cracking with my medical career too to join the workforce of doctors and medical professionals.
Lockdown has brought me some positives: from giving me a chance to slow down (looking back at my busy hectic lifestyle before has made me realise that is not the normal I want to go back to), learn new things and actually *read* which I hadn’t perceived to have had the time before to do. I’m also fortunate enough to be able to continue with my part time retail job with extra hours meaning I have saved quite a bit of money for the future, as well as having something to keep me busy during lockdown.
So overall, I’m upset that I haven’t been able to do what I planned to do, but in the grand scheme of how many things the pandemic has affected, my worries are insignificant. I recognise how lucky I am despite this situation and the privileges I have that I even get to be making this decision: 1) being able to consider the idea of a gap year and all the expenses that come with that and 2) being able to decide to start my degree out of choice, not to have to jump into the world of work out of financial necessity.
I hope this post has informed some of you about gap years and the logistics regarding applying to medical school wanting one, and perhaps you’ve found it fascinating to read anyway! Let me know in the comments below if you are in a similar situation, or you simply found this insightful.
The Conscious Medic