Taking a gap year during college is becoming more and more mainstream, and is proving to be especially popular and useful for pre-med students. A staggering 44% of medical students chose to take a gap year or two in 2019, according to a survey from the Association of American Medical Colleges. While some reported using this year away from the classroom to work on their medical school applications, others used it to improve their finances, recharge or volunteer abroad, for instance on a gap year program.
Are you wondering if taking a gap year before med school is the right path for you? We’ll talk you through the benefits, gap year options and other common questions we get asked a lot from pre-med students, to help you decide whether or not a gap year is a good idea.
What Is a Gap Year?
A gap year is a semester or year of experiential learning. Students will take a break from college for a certain amount of time to pursue their interests, dreams and passions. Gap years can be taken for varying durations and at any stage, whether that is right after high school, before med school or after college.
There is no one right way to spend a gap year, it’s totally up to you! Some students want extra time to study or more opportunities for extracurricular enhancement related to the medical field, while others wish to discover new cultures and do volunteer work on a gap year program abroad. Still others choose to combine travel, work and study, all within the same gap year.
Benefits of Taking a Gap Year Before Medical School
1. Time to study for the MCAT
The biggest reason students choose to take a gap year before medical school is to improve their med school application and their MCAT score. It's hard to prepare thoroughly for the MCAT with a full course schedule, and taking a gap year can give you some much needed time to study or even take an MCAT prep course in order to get a higher score.
2. Focus on yourself and prevent a burnout
Students are often focused on making their gap year extremely productive, making sure their time away from school was well-spent. That’s entirely understandable, but sometimes it’s also important to keep part of your gap year free from the stresses of academic life, and focus on your mental wellbeing by taking some well-deserved time off to travel, have fun, rest, reflect and get ready for the road ahead.
3. Gain real-world medical experience
Medical school admission departments look for more than just academic achievements. Research experience, volunteer work and medical extracurriculars are proof of your commitment and beef up your medical school resume, making you a strong applicant with a higher likelihood of being accepted to the medical school of your choosing.
4. Save money
Tuition for medical school is no joke, so taking a year off can give you some time to boost your financial situation by getting a job to pay down some existing student debt, or by researching and applying for scholarships to cover part of the cost. This can of course also be done without taking a gap year, but many find it overwhelming to navigate this scholarship process in the middle of medical school applications, coursework and extracurriculars.
Gap Year Ideas for Pre-Med Students
1. Study up
College is a very intense experience, and your course load might have led to a less-than-perfect GPA or MCAT score, or you only decided late in the game to get into medicine. A gap year is the perfect opportunity to raise your GPA and retake the MCAT, making you a stronger competitor in the medical school application process. Talk to your admissions department to figure out which post-baccalaureate programs could help you boost your profile.
2. Volunteer and travel the world on gap year program
Most gap year students choose to focus part of their year on preparing for med school by studying or gaining valuable work experience, and combine this with some time for themselves. Gap year programs are a great way to fill in that time. They range from 6 to 10 weeks in time, allow you to travel the world, grow as a person, challenge yourself, make new friends and do some volunteer work (which again looks great on your med school resume)!
3. Get a job or internship in the medical field
When looking for a job or internship to spend your time on, for instance by working as an EMT, medical assistant, clinical observer or researcher, don’t make the mistake of only thinking about what an admissions committee would like to see on your application. We recommend instead to choose opportunities that are in line with your goals and aspirations in the medical field.
Being passionate about your extracurriculars is so much more important and that will show in your interviews, whether that experience was clinical shadowing or working as an EMT, medical assistant or researcher. It also gives you the opportunity to have some hands-on experience with the work field you’re interested in, so you can decide whether it’s a right fit for you or not.
Will a Gap Year Before Medical School Hurt My Chances of Acceptance?
Absolutely not! You might have been told that taking a gap year could have a negative effect on your future, or at the very least on your admission into med school. We’d like to put that misconception to rest once and for all because, guess what, most colleges absolutely love it when students go on a gap year before they start medical school.
What’s important for them is knowing you spent your time away productively, so as long as you can explain what you did and what you learned from it, taking a gap year will be seen in a favorable light.
Whether you are gaining experience in the medical fields, taking additional courses, or volunteering abroad on a gap year program, it will pay off to take notes about your experiences and time away, reflecting about your challenges and growth along the way. On organized Gap Year Programs, this is already part of the self-development process.
Medical school admissions are looking for students that are trying to grow as a person and as a future physician, not just trying to make themselves look good to get into med school, so whatever you do, just be honest and be yourself!