Should you take a gap year before medical school? How should you spend your time between your undergraduate studies and medical school? Will a gap year hurt or help your chances of acceptance? These are questions you should ask yourself.
Taking a gap year before medical school is becoming increasingly common as students use that time for various reasons. Some non-traditional applicants take a gap year to complete science coursework and gain relevant experiences. Some traditional applicants also take a gap year to bolster their application and mentally recharge before the 7-12 years of medical school and training.
This blog reviews everything you need to know about taking a gap year before medical school, including the pros and cons, if a gap year is right for you, and tips for what to do during your gap year to maximize your chances of acceptance.
The traditional path to medical school is that students apply the summer before their senior year of undergrad. By the time they graduate with their bachelor’s degree, they can proceed immediately to medical school when the semester begins.
A gap year, or multiple gap years, gives students a break between their undergraduate studies and medical school. This option is becoming increasingly more popular. According to the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges), the national average age of matriculated medical students is 24.
In a recent study by the AAMC, 44.1% of matriculants took a gap year before attending medical school, and 33.7% went straight to medical school after college. This means that more matriculated students took a gap year. There are numerous pros and cons of taking a gap year.
The best way to decide if a gap year is right for you is to assess where you stand with medical school requirements. If you focus on areas of improvement or gaps in your application, you will strengthen your candidacy.
There are other reasons to take a gap year. Perhaps you need to take a mental break and recharge before attending years of challenging medical school courses and training. Perhaps there are extenuating circumstances that you need to resolve before applying to medical school.
The most common reasons for taking a gap year include:
If you fall into one or more of the categories above, taking a gap year would be beneficial. The most important consideration is that the gap year should help you get into medical school, not hold you back. So, if there are glaring inconsistencies or areas that you fall short in, a gap year is the right decision.
To make the most of your gap year, consider the following tips:
If you’re applying to allopathic medical schools, you will use the AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service). In the AMCAS, there are several components that you can improve. For example, the work and activities section is critical to demonstrate your employment history and relevant extracurricular activities.
Be sure that the work and activities section lists substantive experiences and focuses on quality over quantity. You can also rewrite or revise your personal statement. A compelling personal statement highlights your qualities and answers why you want to pursue medicine.
For Texas medical schools, you will use the TMDSAS (Texas Medical & Dental Schools Application Services). In the TMDSAS, you can boost your employment and activities section and you can revamp your personal characteristics essay.
For osteopathic medical schools, you will use the AACOMAS (American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service). In the AACOMAS, prioritize your experience, personal statement, and achievements sections.
Medical schools are highly selective, and the competition is fierce, so your academic performance and test scores should be top-notch. Your overall GPA will be reviewed, but your science GPA is especially critical. According to the AAMC, here are the average GPAs for applicants and matriculants.
Furthermore, medical schools have a minimum required GPA. You should aim higher than the minimum, and either fall within or exceed the school’s median GPA. You can improve your grades by retaking courses where you received low marks.
If you struggled for a semester or two, consider retaking them altogether. When you retake courses, many schools will combine your previous and new grades for a final average. Be mindful that low marks will not necessarily be replaced with your new grades.
Medical school exams are also paramount. You should do your best on the MCAT and the CASPer (for schools that require it). The average medical school applicant spends at least 300 hours preparing for the MCAT.
The MCAT tests students on biological and biochemical foundations of living systems, chemical and physical foundations of biological systems, critical analysis and reasoning skills, and psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior.
The CASPer (Computer-Based Assessment for Sampling Personal Characteristics) is a situational judgment test that assesses students’ behavioral reasoning. The CASPer test evaluates behavioral characteristics such as collaboration, communication, empathy, equity, ethics, motivation, problem-solving, professionalism, resilience, and self-awareness.
You can prepare for the CASPer by taking practice exams and practicing for the MMI (Multiple Mini Interview) format of medical school interviews, as both similarly analyze behaviors.
Medical schools have required prerequisite courses that students must complete before attending. Every school’s prerequisite requirements are different, so be sure to check with the school to which you’re applying.
If you need help scheduling coursework or ensuring you will complete it in time, speak with a pre-health advisor. In general, prerequisite coursework includes:
There may be variations and additional required courses, depending on the school.
Well-rounded applicants with diverse backgrounds of experiences are the strongest candidates for medical school. You should participate in relevant extracurricular activities that boost your application and prepare you for medical school and training.
The following extracurriculars foster professional and personal growth: clinical experience, research, medical shadowing, and volunteering.
Clinical experience is vital to have as an applicant. It shows admissions committees that you have experience in a clinical setting and have interacted with patients. Clinical experience shows you the ins and outs of the field, and it helps you decide if medicine is truly right for you.
Additionally, clinical experience can help you narrow your focus and areas of interest. In short, clinical experience will determine your readiness for medical school by giving you hands-on experience and training.
Clinical experience can be paid or unpaid. Paid opportunities include becoming a hospital scribe, CNA, phlebotomist, LPN, EMT, pharmacy technician, or emergency room technician. Unpaid opportunities include volunteering in hospice, as an EMT, in an emergency room, or at a medical center.
According to the AAMC, about 60% of students had research experience before matriculation. Research experience is important to strengthen your critical thinking and analysis skills, allows you to publish work, and connects you to an on-campus scholarly network. Substantive research experience is also crucial if you plan to pursue post-graduate degrees or dual degrees like the MD PhD.
Experience medical shadowing, or physician shadowing, is beneficial to have if you want to know the day-to-day routine of a practicing physician. Medical schools highly recommend that students dedicate a substantial number of hours to medical shadowing.
While there is no set number, matriculants reported having between 100-400 physician shadowing hours. Use your best judgment here, as it is about the quality of the experience more so than the number of hours.
Volunteering is significant because it shows admissions committees that you are altruistic. Volunteering is also a great way to strengthen your skill sets while gaining relevant experience.
Schools recommend at least 100 hours of volunteering, but many matriculants exceed this number. Again, it’s about having a meaningful experience rather than racking up numbers just to look good.
It’s not required to volunteer in a medical setting. For example, you can tutor in subjects like writing or math. You can volunteer at a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, domestic violence shelter, or a non-profit.
However, it is recommended that you have some volunteering experience in a science or health-related location. Visit the AAMC’s recommendations for volunteering to learn more.
A gap year will give you extra time to network with supervisors, employers, instructors, and mentors. After gaining substantial experience with your network, you can secure strong letters of recommendation.
Recommendation letters are vital because they showcase your personality, qualities, and skill sets in the best light. Your letters should come from those who know you and your work well and are enthusiastic about helping you reach your goals.
Yes, you should always be honest and forthright in your medical school interviews. Framing your gap year as a positive growth experience is essential. Don’t refer to it as “time off.” Rather, you should demonstrate what you did during your gap year to improve your skills and knowledge to become a better physician.
After completing undergrad, you will have a grace period of 6 to 9 months where no student loan payments are due. After that, you will have to start making payments if you’re not in school or work with your loan servicers to postpone payments.
To learn more, visit the Federal Student Aid website and contact your loan servicers. If you’re not ready to make payments after the grace period, you can request a deferment or forbearance. Your servicers will work with you based on your circumstances and options.
Simply put, don’t waste time. You can certainly use some of the time to recharge mentally and enjoy hobbies and activities. However, your gap year shouldn’t only be about personal interests that contribute little to your education and professional goals. Make sure you find a balance between rest and substantive, altruistic experiences that strengthen your candidacy for medical school.
That said, there are instances when extenuating circumstances force candidates to withdraw their applications and take a gap year. For example, if there is a medical emergency, illness, or death of a loved one, it is understandable to take a gap year and address these issues.
Just be honest with the admissions committee and frame negative experiences positively as much as possible. You can speak about overcoming adversity, gaining maturity, and developing emotional intelligence in empathy. These are all desirable qualities for a leading physician.
It’s completely acceptable to take a gap year before reapplying to medical school. The rejection shows that there are areas in your application that could use improvement. Use your gap year to address these areas, and work on your weaknesses. Rejection is tough, but if you use the time wisely and build upon your skills, you will increase your chances of acceptance when you reapply.
No, a gap year will not hurt your chances of acceptance, as long as you use the time productively. You should demonstrate how your gap year was beneficial and the best choice for your self-improvement to become a physician.
Taking a gap year should not be a frivolous, last-minute decision. Gap years are calculated, well thought out decisions that consider factors such as getting work experience in a medical setting, completing prerequisite coursework, preparing for tests, conducting research, shadowing a physician, and more. All of these experiences require time and planning, so your gap year should reflect that.
The desirable qualities of a physician are just as important as all the things you do to get accepted into medical school. The AAMC lists the core competencies in the following areas for entering medical students: interpersonal, intrapersonal, thinking and reasoning, and science.
To see how successful matriculants demonstrated these core competencies for medical school, read about the anatomy of an applicant. The interviews with these matriculants will shed insights on how to develop desirable qualities for a physician. Examples include showcasing compassion, resilience, positivity, and commitment to service.
Taking a gap year before medical school is a big decision that requires honest reflection of your application materials and areas that need improvement. There are various pros and cons of taking a gap year, so you should assess your candidacy and go from there.
If you are not a competitive candidate and have disparities in experience, employment, or academics, then perhaps a gap year to pursue these requirements is what you need to improve your chances of acceptance.
Remember to spend your gap year wisely—it should not be treated as time off. Instead, focus on the areas that will give you a competitive edge. You should prioritize productivity during your gap year but also strike a balance to mentally recharge and pursue some hobbies or personal interests.
When you apply to medical schools, be sure to showcase your achievements and growth during your gap year. What did you learn? What did you experience? How was your gap year essential to your development as a physician?
Nearly 50% of matriculants take a gap year to maximize their chances of acceptance. With this in mind, if you decide to take a gap year, be sure to make the most of it. We wish you luck with your future endeavors.