Is Med School Year Round? (Do You Get Breaks In Med School?)

Med school in the US, aside from the usual summer break between the first and second years, is year round. Schools outside the US have different policies in terms of breaks and vacation time. For med students however; staying on top of your studies, passing exams and gaining relevant work experience, definitely takes up most of whatever break you may get.

I’ve found this out the hard way as a European medical student. Working on a different medical school curriculum to most of the US, time off actually works quite similarly. Summers after second year are expected to incorporate “summer practice” – a period of work we undertake in clinics or hospitals to get more experience. While winter breaks are spent preparing for exams!

So it’s not like being a “normal” student. Our studies? Pretty much on-going.

Are There Winter and Summer Breaks in Med School?

This depends on your med school and your country of study. Most US-based med schools have breaks that look like this:

  • M1 summer break (usually 8-10 weeks after first year medicine)
  • Thanksgiving (2-4 days)
  • Christmas (1-2 weeks)
  • Spring (5-7 days)

Take a look at John Hopkins Medical University School of Medicine’s calendar for example. Sometimes the length of these holidays can vary.

For the rest of the year students are then either scheduled to be in class or working on clinical rotations.

In European based med schools (like mine), it works like this:

  • Winter break (late December to early February)
  • Summer break (early July to early September)

Depending on where you study, there are also national holidays. Most universities operate in accordance with these; they don’t schedule classes or other commitments on these days. Students should know this scheduling beforehand based on course outlines.

As mentioned before, most of these “breaks” don’t really operate as such. For the most part they’ll be exam sessions scheduled in these periods (especially re-take or make-up sessions), mandatory 2-4 week (or more) summer practice commitments and whatever else students have planned (often paid-work or research projects).

So while these breaks technically exist, they certainly don’t involve sipping margaritas on the beach!

What to Do in the Summer After First Year of Med School?

In the US it’s common for med students to use their summer to get into research programs to improve their chances of “matching” into specialisms further down the line. Some students might shadow or undertake supervised clinical work in this period too. Also with the aim of improving their CV.

This isn’t mandatory however. So students more relaxed about their future might choose to take time out of school commitments possibly to travel or work. But it’s unlikely, given that US medics are expected to take the tough Step 1 component of their USMLE board exams at the end of year two, that they’ll stop studying or revising their medical curriculum’s material.

Outside of the US there’s possibly more flexibility. Students at my school, for example, generally use this time to head back to their home countries, spend time with their families and maybe work to pocket some extra money.

Sometimes we also shadow or look to gain more experience too.

In fact, this is exactly what I did in the summer between my second and third year, shadowing in orthopedic surgery for a couple of weeks.

As the answer depends on the individual, your situation and the country you plan on working as a doctor in, recommendations as to how best to plan your summer can vary.

Here are a couple of ideas that could boost your future career though:

  • Organise shadowing/work opportunities with a local physician
  • Approach your University about research opportunities
  • Find healthcare related temporary work that can pay and supplement yout studies
  • Start an education-type project designed to teach core medical principles (a blog might work!)

Note that there’s nothing wrong with actually taking time out to relax either. Especially if the past year has had it’s fair share of overwhelm!

When Do You Do Exams In Med School?

Exams take place in med school pretty much all the time. Every week or so there’s generally a mid-term, colloqium, class test or something else to study for.

Final exams however, those that mark the successful completion of a course, always happen at the end of a semester. Depending where you study and how your school works, there’s also a “dedicated” exam period too. This inevitably eats into summer and winter breaks also.

In the US the biggest exam of most med students’ careers, Step 1, takes place in the height of summer, in August. In Europe we generally have August free of exams, with the bulk coming in late June or July. It’s again both University and country specific.

My medical school, like many others in Europe, also has an exam period in January.

Do You Get Free Time In Med School?

I’ve answered this before on the site. Yes, you get free time in med school. Even more so if you learn how to organise, study and plan your time effectively.

I’m talking about term time here too. Not the summer and winter breaks (or other holidays) you might get off dependent on your med school and how they are organised.

For ideas on how to get more time (as well as an honest opinion on what to expect), see my article; do medical students get free time?

Final Thoughts

Although you do get breaks in med school I wouldn’t count on them as traditional holidays where you’re not expected to do any work! For most of us, the extra time is an experience to build out our CV’s and better our applications for what happens next after we graduate. It’s also a time to furiously catch up on fundamental syllabus points we missed from lectures and seminars the first time round.

All of this probably serves as a good introduction to life as a doctor however. Afterall, it’s not exactly a seasonal job!

Image Credit: @georgefennelly at Unsplash