The New Gap Year, Pre-Med Style

Pre-meds are beginning to think twice about diving into medical school

Asking for more information isn’t a request often made by Orgo-burdened premeds.

But after working at the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) this summer, Lester Y. Leung ’06 decided to avoid what he saw as a familiar problem for students contemplating medical school—not having enough resources to help them decide if they wanted to pursue careers in medicine. Leung explains that there is currently a hostile culture to doctors today that did not used to exist as a result of malpractice suits, health care policy and declining pay.

After partnering up with some of his former summer bosses and a few Harvard undergraduates, Leung helped launch nextgenMD.org to provide such a resource.

And while the national numbers for applications to medical school recently spiked after several years of decline, the number of Harvard’s undergraduate applicants has continued to drop.

This trend is seemingly out of step with the national picture, where the number of applicants to medical school increases during a shrinking or sluggish economy. But where the figures for undergraduate matriculation to medical school have fallen, the alumni numbers have picked up the slack. From 1996-2002, the trends in application numbers for alumni and graduating seniors are roughly parallel. As undergraduate numbers decreased in 2003-—the most recent data available—the alumni applicants increased 16 percent from the previous year. Overall, 2003 actually saw an increase in the number of Harvard affiliates applying to medical school, which is consistent with national data.

These numbers point to a growing phenomenon that has become more acceptable among the budding Noah Wyles—taking a year off before hitting the books again in medical school.The extra time off not only helps the recent graduates buff up their résumés—it also gives them some time to figure out if seven years of training is worth it.

“Years ago, if a premedical student wanted to wait a year before applying to medical school, there was concern on the part of the medical schools that this delay reflected a lack of motivation on the student’s part,” Lee Ann Michelson ’77, the Office of Career Services (OCS) Director of Premedical and Health Care Advising, writes in an e-mail. “That attitude has changed dramatically and med schools now often prefer the older applicant.”

“A lot of people have told me, ‘Oh, it’s great to take a year off,’” says Eugenie C. C. Shieh ’06, President of the Harvard Pre-Medical Society (HPS). “It gives you some time to go explore something else.”

In fact, the buzz of activity within various student groups seems to indicate a growing interest in medical school. The founding of nextgenMD.org, the 91 percent increase in undergraduate membership on the HPS mailing list in the past semester and the general excitement about the Harvard Hippocratic Society (HHS)—whose main goal is to organize a conference exploring a certain health topic once a year with its MIT counterpart—all point to a resurgence of wannabe doctors.

Leung, Shieh and Lisa M. Wiese ’07, the Public Relations Chair of the HHS, all said they were interested in taking a year off. Other students, such as psychology concentrator Stephanie L. Sawlit ’07, have decided to pursue the courses necessary to apply to medical school post-college, further inflating the number of alumni applying.

“I really want to be a doctor,” Sawlit says. “I want to be with and help people.”

Optimistic idealism may contribute somewhat to the application numbers, but pragmatic concerns definitely do. The increased hostility to doctors over the past couple of years—including the growth of malpractice suits and decrease in average salary for doctors—has also forced some to take more time to reconsider their career plans. Some premeds even pointed to the prospect of a universal health-care system as a disincentive to wanting to proceed immediately to medical school.

“It doesn’t work in England, it doesn’t work in Canada, so why would it work here?” says Maureen F. Moan ’07, a biology concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

Although Moen also indicates that the higher tuitions at private schools would lead her to a state school, the exorbitant cost of going to medical school does not seem to have much of an effect on Harvard undergraduates. “I do not hear from my students that cost is a major factor in whether or not they apply to med school,” Michaelson writes.

Where it used to be standard to charge directly into medical school following college, more students are taking time to step back. As Michelson says pragmatically, “You don’t want to discover [during] the third year in med school, when you are $75,000 in debt, that this is not the right path for you.”