Taking Gap Year(s)

 

According to the 2020 AAMC Matriculating Student Questionnaire (MSQ), about 2/3 of matriculants spent at least one year between college and medical school. While the "traditional" path is to attend medical school right after graduating from college, many decide to take time off for various reasons. Below is data from the MSQ on how people have spent their time:

Doing a Post-Bac

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Should I consider taking a gap year?

Everyone's journey to medical school is different. While some feel ready to apply straight through, others may benefit from one or more years off after undergrad. Here are a few reasons you might consider taking a gap year:

  1. Having more time to prepare application materials​​ (MCAT, letters of recommendation)

    • If you hope to begin medical school right after college, you will need to take the MCAT ideally before junior spring, begin the application process at the end of your junior year, and interview during your senior year. ​

    • Taking a gap year allows students to avoid taking the MCAT before finishing relevant coursework or during a course-intensive semester. 

    • If you apply straight through, medical schools will only see your grades up to junior spring when you submit your primary AMCAS. If your GPA is not competitive and you are hoping to show an upward trend, having your grades from senior year included on the AMCAS could be important.

    • An extra year and more time to get to know professors could mean stronger letters of recommendation for some, especially as many schools have senior theses through which students develop close relationships with faculty advisers. People taking more than one gap year off may also benefit from an additional reference from the professional world.

  2. Preparing yourself financially

    • The medical school application process can be expensive with premeds reporting costs ranging anywhere from $100 to $10,000 depending on the number and location of interviews. Working a job before medical school may help defray some of these costs

    • Some may also use this time to pay back undergraduate loans or build credit score

  3. Filling in the gaps

    • Whether academics, clinical experience or leadership, some may benefit from an extra year to fill the "gaps" in their medical school application. For example, students who did not take the required science classes in college and those with low GPAs may enroll in a post-baccaulaureate premed program, while someone lacking clinical experience may pursue gap year employment or volunteering in the hospital setting. 

  4. Collecting your thoughts

    • Not everyone is ready to fully commit to medicine by spring of their junior year of college. If you are having trouble answering the question "Why medicine," it may be beneficial to give yourself extra time to explore your interests and decide whether medicine is truly right. Gap year experiences can also help in developing and articulating answers to other behavioral questions you will be asked in your secondaries and interviews.

  5. Personal growth

    • Wanting to gain real-world experience (in any sense of the term), taking care of family, having time to travel or simply needing a break: ​all of these are valid reasons to consider a gap year. If you're ready to start medical school right after college graduation, that's great! But if you're feeling burned out, have family/personal issues to take care of, need to work or want experience outside of medicine before you commit to school full-time, be honest and grant yourself the time you need.

What should I do during my gap year?

 

During your time before medical school, take time to think about what is the best for you. Asking yourself the following questions may be helpful:

  • Do I need to improve my application in any areas to be competitive at my schools of interest? Here are some examples and roles students might take on to address the gaps

    • Academics: A post-baccalaureate premed program​, university-affiliated hospital employment while taking classes for credit part-time

    • Research (if interested in MD-PhD with little to no research experience): A research assistant position at the NIH or an institution-affiliated lab with opportunities to publish

    • Clinical experience: Scribe, patient advocate/navigator, phlebotomist, EMT, hospice or hospital volunteering

  • Are there any other areas of interest I want to take time to pursue or explore?

    • Potential pursuits include biotech, consulting, business, global health, writing, teaching, music, faith, service, sports, or other hobbies

  • What skills do I want to develop/what knowledge do I want to gain during my gap period?

  • How much will I have to earn to afford the application process and/or support myself (and family) financially before I can realistically commit to 4 more years of schooling? 

  • Once medical school starts, there will be much less flexibility to take time off and travel. Is there anyone I want to visit or anywhere I want to travel beforehand?​ 

  • What opportunities are available in the area(s) I want to live?

    • If you're hoping to live at home ​with your family and close to your relatives/friends, look for local opportunities based on organizations, hospitals and businesses you know in the area.

Additional Considerations

Where to live:  When searching for gap year opportunities, try to formulate a preliminary school list. If you are applying to schools primarily located in the East Coast, living in Chicago could make interviewing much more expensive than living in Philadelphia or NYC. If you're on a tight budget, one strategy is to look for jobs near your schools of interest. Of course, this shouldn't be the limiting factor in the job offer you choose because other considerations such as salary, experience, resources and vacation policies are very important too! However, living within driving distance or in metropolitan areas with more expansive public transportation could make a significant difference in some people's interview cycle costs.

  • A note on international fellowships: Although paid fellowships and service opportunities such as Princeton in Asia, Princeton in Africa, Fulbright and Peace Corps are great opportunities that make it financially feasible for ​students to live abroad, consider the logistics of applying to medical school as you plan your gap year(s). While it is definitely possible to work internationally during your interview cycle, recognize the potential restrictions. For one, cost of flights and interviewing could be higher than if you were to remain in the States. Students living abroad during the application cycle can reduce expenses by trying to coordinate all of their interviews into one U.S. visit. However, medical schools will have varying levels of accommodation for students wishing to schedule interviews in a restricted time range. If you are considering living abroad during your application cycle, make sure to consider the following:

    • How much vacation time does my position provide, and is the vacation time flexible? For instance, some ​teaching fellowships have designated vacation days based on school holidays. If your first 1-2 week opportunity to fly back to America isn't until February or March, this will greatly restrict your possibilities as many admissions committees stop interviewing in December and January.

    • How much will I be paid, and how much will I be able to save? Some fellowships will only pay enough for living expenses in the host country. If your stipend is only a few hundred dollars a month to cover food and rent, then financing your interview season may be difficult without additional savings.

    • Are the medical schools I'm applying to accommodating to students living outside of the U.S., or will I have to forfeit interview offers if I am unable to fly back for the initially proposed dates? This is information you might find by talking to a premed advisor, friends with experience applying while abroad, or contacting admissions offices directly. A few examples of schools that are friendly to interviewees working internationally are Columbia, Weill Cornell, UChicago, Mt. Sinai, Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Duke.

    • If you only have one two-week period to fit all of your interviews, be aware that coordinating your travel may take a lot of luck, communication, persistence and perseverance.

  • Because of the limitations and additional financial burden, some students decide to take more than one gap year if they wish to live abroad. Depending on individual circumstances, some may choose to accept an international position but spend an additional gap year in the U.S. afterwards to interview. When possible, this is something to discuss with your premed advisor or students with similar experience.

Finances: If you have undergraduate student debt, you may seek out opportunities that either allow you to defer your loans or significantly pay them off.

Employee Benefits: Pay attention to employee benefits when evaluating job and fellowship offers. Insurance, premed advising, flexible vacation time and loan deferment may be relevant factors to consider. Some universities such as Penn also offer tuition benefits so that employees can take classes part-time.

What have other students done?

In a way, time spent between undergrad and medical school is a "Choose Your Own Adventure" based on your circumstances, interests and financial needs. In case it's helpful, we've provided some examples shared by students of what gap years can look like below:

  • "I started at Columbia Law School. I needed to take pre-med classes so I looked for work at schools who had pre-med post-bacc programs so I could use tuition remission and save on the costs. You can look for jobs at any college with pre-med classes and ask if they offer tuition remission. I found a volunteering opportunity at an emergency department through the pre-med post-bacc through word of mouth. I learned about my second job as a research assistant in emergency medicine through my volunteering position. I added on jobs to pay for tuition and application fees as needed."

  • "I worked in biopharma mergers and acquisitions at Centerview Partners (falls under the umbrella of "investment banking"). I worked at this firm during my junior summer and received an offer to return full-time after graduation. I'm fortunate that I went to a school where many finance and consulting firms would recruit students."

  • "I did a post-bac research program at Hospital for Special Surgery."

  • "I did a year of consulting. It was part of school's on campus recruiting so might want to check with your career services."

  • "I worked for a year as a research assistant through the NIH IRTA program. The NIH was great because they provided insurance and had an office (OITE) that offered advising to people applying to graduate school. My lab was also very accommodating and flexible, which made it easy to schedule and attend interviews. In my free time, I baked, pursued my hobbies and spent time with my roommates and friends (the NIH Bethesda has so many postbacs that there is always something going on). I used some of my savings from what I earned at the NIH to travel before the start of med school."

  • "During my senior year, I applied and was accepted to the Johns Hopkins Doctoral Diversity Program (DDP). The DDP is a 1-2 year program that gives students from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds an opportunity to enhance their medical/graduate application by encouraging them to engage in full time, paid ($28,000/yr) research. The program also provided the Kaplan MCAT Prep Course for free (also can pay for the DAT, GRE, etc). They will also pay for some classes (at the SOM) if you need them as part of your requirements. I valued my time at Hopkins as it allowed me time to mature as a young adult outside of academic classes. Moreover, it helped me become more financially secure. Overall, the program was a safe space for me to study for the MCAT and attend my interviews without losing out on pay. I highly recommend this program to anyone looking for more research experience or even just a nurturing environment in which you can thrive. I have made lifelong friends and mentors along the way."

  • "I spent a year teaching English in South Korea through a Fulbright Scholarship. Although I have experience and passions in education and mentorship, my year abroad was deeply important to my own personal growth as I was able to explore my heritage and learn the only language that most of my extended family spoke. With a lot of planning and enough luck, I was able to work with my travel/work schedule to interview while abroad (pre-COVID) and was able to enroll in medical school in the fall after returning from my grant year."

  • "I volunteered in Peace Corps and taught English and science at a rural high school for two years. It was an amazing, funded opportunity to spend time outside of schools to be in a new culture and meet amazing people. Because I was volunteering in an education sector, I could not take time off during weekdays to interview. So I took a third gap year for the application cycle, working as a scribe. (But there are Peace Corps volunteers in other sectors who apply during their second year of service)"

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