A gap year between college and medical school can be a career-enhancing, life-changing experience for some students and an academic necessity for others. Meanwhile, some choose to go straight through without a break.
Dr. Ali Lofti, founder and director of Admissions Helpers, an academic consulting and support company for aspiring health professionals, says he mostly sees students in their junior year of college who worry about whether they are competitive enough to get into medical school.
“The question is: ‘Should I apply or should I wait to become more competitive as an applicant?’ They would have time to improve grades, study for the MCAT or gain experience in health care,” Lofti says. “When it comes to gap years, the thing we see most often is people trying to figure that part out and navigate that.”
And there’s not necessarily a “right or wrong” answer, Lofti says.
“You can do it either way and succeed and become a good doctor. If they feel they are ready to continue and their gut is telling them not to take too much time, then perhaps it’s not necessary to take a gap year. Whereas, if they feel like ‘I want to take my sweet time, experience a few other things, travel, and want to do that between college and medical school,’ I think it’s totally reasonable to take a gap year for those reasons.”
Advantages of a Gap Year
Some experts estimate that as many as half of all medical students take a gap year between college graduation and starting med school.
“When you go into medical school, you deal with a lot of heavy issues, and you need that maturity that perhaps a gap year could give,” Lofti says.
With uncertainty in the labor market and the world, many students are taking a break for mental health or financial reasons, says Shalin Jyotishi, a senior analyst, writer and strategist at New America, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
“I have certainly experienced that in my own family and my own social network, and certainly the broader landscape of workforce development,” he says.
Some med school hopefuls have outside interests and take a gap year to explore them.
“Medical training is a very long and arduous process,” Lofti says. “There’s often little time for exploration. Even if it’s something’s that not fully related to medicine – for example, pursuing an interest in the arts – the soft skills you learn from whatever it is that you do can help you in medicine.”
Some students take a gap year because their medical school application isn’t ready, says Dr. Kathleen Franco, a longtime adviser to aspiring med school students and emeritus dean at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, a program of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Ohio.
“It might be because they don’t have grades that would allow them to look good on the application,” Franco says. “It might be they haven’t done volunteer activities which are really required, or shadowing physicians – another general requirement by most schools – or they haven’t done enough research if they are trying to get into a top-tier school. Usually, they have to make up one of those things.”
Franco adds that there’s another group of students “who do not have to do a gap year but aren’t sure they want to go into medicine, so they want to try something else. They may want to try Teach for America or volunteering or teaching in a foreign country, so they take a gap year.”
Jyotishi, who is also a fellow at the World Economic Forum, suggests saving money and gaining business, financial and entrepreneurial skills by doing some reading during a gap year.
“I think it’s important for premeds to gain business skills,” he says. “Many will want the autonomy and lifestyle that private medical practice affords, but they forget the fact that running a business is complicated and not taught in medical school.”
Those who want to start med school right after college typically apply during their junior year. Some students are forced to have a gap year because they decide too late to begin the application process, Franco says.
“They decide toward the end of their senior year,” she says. “They haven’t had a chance to study for the MCAT. So they need to do whatever it is to get themselves ready. Doing a gap year may give some of them a chance to go to grad school, although graduate school grades don’t improve your undergraduate GPA, which is recorded by the medical school.”
Thus, it may be wise to spend a gap year studying for the MCAT, or retaking it to get a more competitive score, Franco says.
“Now, if they don’t study more, if they don’t put the time in, if they don’t take a six-month prep (course) or whatever they feel they have to do and their score drops – that’s not good,” she says. “They have to make sure they put in the time and study hard and take a lot of practice tests.”
If you get a good MCAT score, don’t wait too long to apply to med school, since most schools want to see a score from within the last three years, Franco says.
Experts say a gap year is also a good opportunity to add research to a resume, which can boost med school applications.
“If you want to get into a higher-ranked school, they will look for experience in research,” Franco says. “It should be experience where you not only helped somebody with their project, but you also took on a part of the project yourself – your independent research effort.”
Volunteering is another important piece of the med school application that can be beefed up during a gap year, experts say.
Sometimes students have done little or no volunteering. Medical school admissions committees look favorably on consistent, sustained volunteerism in the same place, as well as doctor shadowing in person – such as in emergency departments or at outpatient clinics – rather than virtually now that the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided, experts say.
Jyotishi suggests volunteering somewhere in the U.S. where there is a worker shortage.
“In rural regions and urban regions, a premed student is more likely to get an authentic glimpse into the reality of American medicine if they spend their gap year volunteering right here,” he says. “Local communities are likely to benefit, too, from that. In our increasingly fragmented society, volunteering in different parts of the country can still bring the benefits of expanding a student’s horizons.”
A gap year can also be used to practice different types of interviewing. Later, if you get an invitation to interview with a med school, Franco says, “you want to make sure that interview counts.”
Disadvantages of a Gap Year
Some aspiring doctors rule out a gap year because they want to finish med school as soon as possible, Franco says.
“They have to get into med school, do four years, and then do a residency anywhere from three to 11 years. They are thinking, ‘It’s going to be a long time I’m going to be in school and I don’t want to procrastinate.’ If a person is older and they want to start making money as a physician, they’ve got to get in there and do it. If the cost of medical school is an issue and knowing the debt will increase, they don’t want to delay. “
Sometimes, she adds, a gap year “turns into more than you thought. It can turn into two years or three years due to financial setbacks or inability to get things done to prepare before applying again. I’ve seen students end up with three or four or five or six gap years.”
There’s another drawback to a gap year or years: The delay may result in a shorter medical career, Jyotishi warns.
“One year of delay can impact your bigger-picture earning cycle – one year less of a physician’s salary.“