Is It Okay to Take a Break From Medical School?

Daniel J. Egan, MD

Disclosures

April 04, 2011

Question

I'm thinking about taking a year of from medical school. Do you think that's a good idea?

Response from Daniel J. Egan, MD
Associate Residency Director, Department of Emergency Medicine, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, New York, NY

This question is a bit of a challenge to answer. The most important consideration among those who will be reading your application to residency in a couple of years will likely be why? As you can imagine, there are reasons for taking a year off from medical school that some would consider good, and others that some would consider bad.

My global answer to your question is that a year off in most situations will not work against you or your future application. However, this advice comes with the disclaimer that an objective is in place, and that you'll have some sort of product to show for your time (eg, research publications, advanced degree).

I have to insert something here for those who might be reading this and thinking about time off for your mental health or overall well being. I want to make it clear that I think balance and well being are critical to your ability to take care of other people. I routinely tell residents who come to me with problems that in order for you to provide care to others, you have to make sure that you are taking care of yourself.

If you are taking time off, I would advocate that you do this in consultation with an administrator or dean at your school. Any interruptions in your training will become part of your application for residency later, and you will need to explain what happened. Most residency directors understand that some interruptions in school are unavoidable, but you want to avoid being the "red flag" applicant, especially in those specialties that are highly competitive, and those who are reading the applications are forced to try and find any reason to weed someone out of the huge numbers.

With that out of the way, I think there are many reasons to consider time off from school. Remember, this time off does not always come with funding and make sure that you have evaluated that situation as the accumulation of debt can become all too easy.

Having just completed an interview season, I can tell you that there are many students who have chosen to extend medical school for the pursuit of other interests. In many cases, this includes a second degree (eg, MPH, tropical medicine, MBA), which enhances the overall package of their applications. In other cases, students wanted to have a more prolonged international experience than the typical 1-month interval scheduled for an elective. Some students recognize that perhaps their grades are not at the top of their class, and they really desire a career in a very competitive specialty. A year of research in that field leading to abstracts, presentations, and hopefully publications may show commitment to the specialty and sacrifice to become more highly qualified (at least on paper). I would argue that most program directors reading an application filled with any of the above items would be impressed. The experience may help you stand out among a group of peers who are also very successful and accomplished.

In summary, time off from medical school should include a meaningful experience. However, I strongly advise you to carefully discuss your situation with your student affairs office to make sure that you continue to meet your graduation requirements and to have their support.

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