Here’s a question we’ve all surely been premeditating for quite a while. Should I apply directly to medical school during senior year, or wait until after graduation, when I can perhaps supplement my academic and extracurricular performance with some feat of achievement in the “real world.” After debating it thoroughly myself and seeking the advice of countless direct and non-direct applicants, I think the individualized route still best. No one can say for sure whether you are more likely to get into the medical school of your dreams, or whether your career as a doctor will prosper more if you reserve a year post-graduation helping out the poor and needy in Somalia. The myth that taking a year off automatically qualifies you as a more mature candidate is simply not true. I once read somewhere that medical schools were beginning to look favorably upon applicants with families, but I think that’s going too far. What matters is not tailoring your experience during your year(s) off according to the sometimes fickle preferences of admissions deans, but rather asking yourself: would taking a year off and doing research/volunteer work or traveling truly leave you with no regrets by the time you officially step on the ceaseless treadmill that is the US medical profession.
Examine your enthusiasm for med school
Last year, one of my Chem 27 TF’s got into Duke University’s highly prestigious medical school. When questioned about his decision to apply direct, he replied unblinkingly, “Why the delay? Med school is too fun to miss out.” Now before we make haste to brand him a Martian dispatched to Earth to brainwash the Harvard premeds, we might pause to think about the attractions of the medical profession. Extensive medical knowledge of the human body, hands on experience with dissections (distasteful to some but highly fascinating to others), exposure to world-ranking physicians through shadowing and hospital volunteer work, and finally at the end of the long cycle of training, the authority to help patients in need themselves. Premed cynics would find these attractions hard to deny. More often, we are inspired to take on the challenges posed by this profession because of a family member’s illness or extremely inspiring high school or college clinical research. The phenomenon of not being to wait until medical school truly exists. Proof: I am applying direct and I can’t wait to go to med school.
Examining your motivation to do volunteer work, research, or travel in your year off
A year off does not mean sitting on your couch and flicking the remote control at regular, disciplined intervals, hoping to absorb priceless knowledge from the Discovery Channel. Watching a year’s worth of NOVA episodes does not qualify as an enlightening experience or highlight on your resume, no matter how much quantum physics you end up learning while munching on Doritos. Although this sounds highly cliché, inevitably med schools would like to see you gain some travel experience (preferably in a country you’ve never been before to demonstrate your courage and enthusiasm for exploration), or volunteer experience (whether in a hospital/nursing home setting, or in a third world country in need of aid), or research experience expanding your thesis results and carrying your findings in senior year further.
Let’s examine each of these options separately. The couch potato situation will inevitably cause irreparable damage to your application. Now what about traveling abroad? Most scholarships like Fulbright require you to either study, teach, or do research in your time abroad. Although this does not preclude simply merely sight-seeing and being exposed to the different cultures, in general med schools like to see that you have done something meaningful with your time in that country, unless, of course, you embark on a world tour, or you are like Laura Dekker and sail around the world in 366 days exact (http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/celebrities/137861008.html) , just in time to return for your next med school interview. More than simply studying abroad, med schools probably prefer you to take up a humanitarian cause, such as rebuilding the earthquake-shaken debris in Sichuan, tsunami stricken Japan, or war-torn Sudan and Somalia.
If you don’t feel up for the task of volunteering in a foreign country, especially facing the challenges of subpar living standards, the spirit of volunteer work and humanitarianism can still be carried on back home in the US. Some Harvard volunteer groups extend membership to alumni. Mihnuet, for instance, welcomes post-grads on its trips to nursing homes, especially since those post-grads are more likely to be familiar with the residents and staff there. PBHA programs such as CRANC (the Cambridge Rehab and Nursing Center) frequently have graduated members who lost their junior status as a Harvard undergrad but not their attachment to the residents. These volunteer groups can actually be more rewarding than volunteering at a large hospital like MGH, where young volunteers frequently get relegated to reception and secretarial work.
The least exciting route, besides perfunctorily greeting patients at MGH, is often continuing with your existing research in lab. With the senior thesis already a major milestone, it is often difficult to produce something truly original and groundbreaking beyond your thesis conclusions in the course of one year. And don’t forget that you’ll be writing application essays and flying to different states for interviews in the midst of labwork as well, so experiments are often difficult to run continuously on a day to day basis. That’s not to say important discoveries haven’t been made by post-grads in university labs before. It’s just that science is a slow process, for the grad students who devote decades, rather than a mere year off, to their neverending projects.
I realize now that I’ve neglected mention the simplest choice of all, getting a job after graduation. A brief stint at a consulting group or pharmaceutical company or even a short software engineering internship may make all the difference in your perspective of medical schools. Who knows, maybe after finding the delights of a stable nine to five job with a sizeable paycheck already in your wallet, you may decide that you really are too faint of heart for the cadaver dissections. But that’s beside the point. Real life experience is always desirable on a med school CV and for personal growth as well.
For Those Who are Applying Direct
I think the challenges for people applying direct nowadays is that too many people are not applying direct. It’s a simple matter of peer pressure and often has little to do with what you truly want with your medical career. Not only do med school interviewers question your eagerness to transition directly into the medical studies because it has become so common to explore a bit after graduation, it also becomes more difficult to convince yourself that you are making the right decision, albeit a bit more hastily than some of your friends. But I think that overlooks one very important point, a genuine interest and passion for med school itself. Although I might not be all that thrilled to review organic chemistry all over again in excruciating detail, I am genuinely looking forward to anatomy and clinical practice, to donning that white coat in the opening ceremony, to taking on all the challenges that make a med school student proud of being in their profession. And I have enough friends who applied direct and ended up at amazing medical schools and are happy with their choice not to wait.