Nicholas Green (The Ohio State University Class of 2017) and I (Pennsylvania College of Optometry Class of 2017) both decided to take a year off between undergrad and optometry school. Below you will find our responses to 7 different questions about our unique experiences during our year off.
Kristin: I am working this year as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer In Service To America). When I tell people that I am serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA, they often have no idea what I am talking about. However, most people are familiar with the Peace Corps. I explain that AmeriCorps is often referred to as “the domestic Peace Corps.” Like the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps is a government organization that focuses on fighting poverty in underserved communities. It is basically a full time volunteer position with a modest living stipend. This allows you to experience living at the poverty level.
Nicholas: I am currently working as a Hospital Access Representative in the ER of my local hospital. I update patient demographic and insurance information and collect co-pays. It has been the most fascinating yet craziest job I have held thus far in my life, and I’m very thankful for the experience. I see many things ranging from cardiac arrests to psychiatric issues to simple cuts and bruises, even various eye injuries and conditions. It’s made me appreciate more what I have in my own life.
2.) Why did I decide to take a year off?
Kristin: I decided to take a year off because I needed time to make sure that I wanted to commit to another 4 years of school. Optometry school can be expensive, and I wanted to make sure that it was truly what I wanted to do.
I wanted to have a meaningful experience where I would learn a lot during my year off. I decided that AmeriCorps offered just the kind of unique yearlong opportunity that I had been looking for. I was very involved in community service throughout high school and college. Through these volunteer experiences I saw that there was a lot of need in the community. I wanted to give back to the community that I called home for the past 4 years of undergrad, and this would be possible through my work as an AmeriCorps VISTA.
Nicholas: I did not do so well my first few semesters of college and it resulted in lower grades in some required classes. Since I decided to apply to optometry school very late in my undergraduate career, I couldn’t fit these classes in my schedule before I graduated. I also did not have the financial resources to apply to optometry school and needed to earn some money before I applied.
3.) What are some advantages to taking a year off?
- I was able to confirm that optometry is ideal the career for me. I now know what kind of work I don’t see myself doing in the future. I’m not the kind of person who enjoys sitting alone at a desk all day long. I look forward to having the hands-on career of an optometrist and interacting with different patients every day.
- I never thought I’d say this, but I miss school and I miss studying. I felt burnt out after 4 years of studying in undergrad. After taking a year off, I feel recharged and am ready to take on the challenges of optometry school. I can’t wait to be back in school!
- I think that I have matured a lot. I’ve gotten good practice managing my finances, especially because part of the VISTA experience is living at the poverty level. Living alone in an apartment has caused me to become much more independent. I now feel ready to move to a new city.
Nicholas: The biggest advantage I found was that the application process was less stressful. Since I just had work and one class I was able to devote more time and thought to my application and I think produce a better application. Some of my other friends applied to graduate and medical school during senior year of college and had to balance that out with a full course schedule. I saw how incredibly stressful this was and I am glad I did not do this. I was also able to study much more for the OATs since I did not have a lot of other studying to worry about. Although I had not taken the basic science classes since sophomore year, some of the same concepts had been reviewed during many of junior/senior level biology and chemistry classes. I felt like with this more in-depth knowledge, I had a better understanding of many of the basic concepts tested on the OATs. I felt I did better on the OATs because of that.
In addition, I was able to save some money which I will be able to put towards tuition for the fall and just gain some life experience outside of school. I also had time to regroup and prepare myself mentally for optometry school so I won’t suffer burnout. Some of my friends who went straight to graduate school are complaining of burnout and just needing some time off.
- My VISTA work is not directly related to optometry. Sometimes I worry that I will fall behind other students who have more experience in the field of optometry. I remind myself that someday I will appreciate having some experience in other fields than just optometry.
- Initially, I was concerned that I would be older than my optometry school classmates because I had taken a year off. In fact, many of my future classmates also opted to take a year off between undergrad and optometry school, so I will fit in just fine. I also worry that it will take a little time for me to get used to studying again.
- Oftentimes the purpose of a year off is to save up money before optometry school. Working as an AmeriCorps VISTA doesn’t leave you with much extra spending money to put into your savings account. While I am grateful for the volunteer experience I have had as a VISTA, there is something to be said for building up your savings during your year off. Optometry school is expensive, and every little bit helps!
Nicholas: I felt that from the time I got my undergraduate degree to the moment I got my first acceptance letter, my future was in limbo. I did not have a solid back-up plan if I did not get into optometry school. It was very stressful to look for employment in the meantime but I was lucky to find something within a month of graduating college. It pays the bill but it is certainly not something I want to do for the rest of my life.
5.) How did optometry school admissions committees react to my year off?
Kristin: Optometry school admissions committees responded very positively to my service year as an AmeriCorps VISTA. While many people don’t know what AmeriCorps is at first, once I explain the work that I do, they are very impressed and interested in my projects. Volunteer work is generally well-respected. Although my work isn’t directly related to optometry, admissions committees saw that I had gained invaluable life experience.
Nicholas: I think my year off was a positive for the admissions committee. The key is to be able to tell your interviewers how you grew from your year off and how it relates to your desire to be an optometrist. In one of interviews, I was asked why I did not want to be an ER physician since I had worked with them. I had told them I did not want to be one since I wanted to solve the medical problem like optometrists do, and not merely alleviate what is acutely wrong and then refer out to a specialist like what ER physicians have to do. I think taking a year off also demonstrated a certain level of maturity that admissions committees liked to see.
6.) What did I learn in my year off that will help me in optometry school?
Kristin: I think that I have matured significantly over the course of my year off. I have developed my leadership skills and become more independent. I have built two successful volunteer programs from the ground up, all on my own. I have confirmed that I can accomplish a lot when I set my mind to it. I am confident that I will succeed in optometry school and that it is the ideal career path for me. I am very grateful for everything that I have learned during my service year as an AmeriCorps VISTA.
Nicholas: I learned so much it’s hard to pick just a few things! The most important clinical skill I learned was communication. Originally I learned a lot of canned responses for common questions which were not always effective especially in explaining concepts such as insurance responsibility and HIPAA. I had to alter my verbiage and the way I talked (speaking slowly, projecting my voice, etc.) depending on the patient to make sure they got my message. I also learned that explaining all the gritty details is sometimes not necessary, and that a simpler overview can suffice. Listening was key as well. Many times I was a patient’s first contact in the ER and had to take down their chief complaint and other details. Even if that particular day I was not interested in their whole life story, they would occasionally mention something that was clinically relevant and I had to relay this to the triage nurse. The details can sometimes be super important.
In addition, I became much more aware of the healthcare delivery system and the significant need for primary care providers. Many patients come to the ER for minor things that could easily be addressed with a primary care provider. This included patients with minor eye conditions such as conjunctivitis, dry eye, or general eye pain which could be addressed by an optometrist. Many of these patients reported being unable to get a primary care provider either because local doctors had too many patients or they refused to take on patients with Medicaid for insurance. In the future, I hope to serve these patients as an optometry student and as a practicing doctor.
7.) Any advice for people who want to take a year off?
Kristin: Taking a year off before optometry school is one of the best decisions I have made. I think it should be viewed as a positive opportunity to really get things in order before attending optometry school for the next 4 years. A service year is often overlooked, but I think it provides a really unique year long experience. I would definitely recommend looking into AmeriCorps VISTA positions to anyone who is considering taking a year off before optometry school.
Nicholas: Always stay positive and don’t dwell on the uncertainties. Many people have successfully completed a year off, and as long as you remain focused on your goals, it will work out. Also you do not necessarily have to work at an optometrist’s office or Lenscrafters during your year off. Kristin and I did very different things on our year off and we still got into optometry school. As long as you are doing something, that’s all that matters.