Deciding when to attend medical school—and therefore when to apply—is one of the most important decisions that you’ll face as an applicant. Sometimes, taking a gap year before applying can be a beneficial decision, both personally and academically. To make the best use of a gap year, students should reflect on their career goals, and use the time to both confirm their interest in medicine and strengthen their candidacy for medical school.

According to Washington University in St. Louis, students should choose gap year activities carefully, and seek ways to grow as a competitive, interesting applicant.

“For example, a student with a marginal GPA would be best served by using that GAP year to strengthen his or her academic record more than taking time off to travel abroad to engage in volunteer work. Likewise, someone with strong academic credentials but no experience in medically related activities would best be served using that time to engage in activities that demonstrate a capacity and passion for such work. Either way, it’s best to always “stay connected” to medicine during this year off. Unless you are an academic superstar with a stellar record in every way, I would be very careful using your GAP year to simply travel the world and nothing else. Use your time wisely. For a great list of ideas, check out GAP Year Resources.”

Taking a gap year or years before medical school is common and encouraged. In 2015-16, the mean age of applicants at anticipated matriculation to medical school was 24 years old for women and 25 years old for men (AAMC).

Robert J. Mayer, faculty associate dean of admissions at Harvard Medical School, has noticed an increasing trend of applicants taking a gap year over his ten years in admissions at HMS. “[When I first started] about 60 percent were coming out of college. Now, it’s about 35 percent.”

According to Duke University, more than 75% of Duke students apply to medical school after they graduate, and the average age among the incoming Duke Medical School class is 24. Duke’s Office of Health Professions Advising states, “Students who engage in a year or more of experiential activity after graduation and before entering a health professions school are more mature, resilient, confident, and accomplished… and competitive.”

Northwestern University’s Academic Advising Center notes the struggle pre-meds face in managing the application process alongside the responsibilities of being an upperclassman:

“Balancing school, extracurricular activities, clinical volunteer experience and research is difficult enough. Throw in the MCAT, medical school applications, and interviews and the task can be truly overwhelming. A year spent working, completing a post-bac program, volunteering or doing research prior to applying to medical school, known as a “gap year” or a “bridge year” can be a great option! In fact, about 60% of NU students who are accepted to medical school take at least one (sometimes more!) gap/bridge year(s).”

In addition to taking a break after college to recharge and reflect, there are a number of ways you can use your gap year to make yourself a stronger applicant.

Strengthen Your Academics:

Improve your GPA. Most students see their academic records improve during their senior year; you have more control over the courses you take, you’re used to the college environment, and more of your courses are within your chosen major. The transcript you submit to medical schools during your senior year might look different than the one you’d submit a year later, after you’ve finished your undergraduate coursework. Waiting a year to apply to med school gives you an additional semester to take extra and/or high level coursework that could strengthen your academic record. Moreover, taking extra time gives you the opportunity to enroll in a post-bac program (more on these below) to improve your GPA during the year you are applying. If you are concerned that you may be applying with a less than ideal GPA, here are some more helpful tips.

Study for the MCAT exam. Studying for the MCAT while balancing a full-course load, an internship, and the rest of your many responsibilities can be quite challenging. Taking time off can be a great way to give yourself extra study time. Most importantly, it allows you the flexibility to retake the test if you are unhappy with your results the first time around.

Gain Medically-Related Experience

Gaining real-world perspectives on medicine can reinforce whether medicine is the right path for you; and if so, help you explore which areas of medicine most interest you. In addition, it can also strengthen your admissions chances. There are many ways in which you can gain experience in the field. Here are some the best:

Research: Participating in laboratory or clinical research is a phenomenal way to explore the field of medicine with an especially scientific focus. While many students pursue research while on campus during the school year, there are also numerous research opportunities at medical schools and research centers over the summer and beyond. Just like finding the right job or internship, it is important to find a research position that is a good fit for your abilities, interests, and goals. So do your research!

Volunteer Work: 
Medically-related volunteer opportunities are a great way to give back while also gaining hands-on experience. Working with patients in a clinical setting is beneficial for your own professional development and in the application process. Almost all volunteer efforts will help you to develop communication skills, motivation and teamwork. And sometimes, they’ll provide you with a good reference!

It can be equally beneficial to work for a local organization, such as a hospital or community clinic, or a national organization, such as Americorps or GlobeMed; it depends on the particular opportunity available, and whether it matches your interests. There are many resources to help you find volunteer opportunities, including the American Medical Student Association (AMSA), and the International Medical Volunteers Association. As always, the trick is to find an opportunity that matches your interests and rounds out your experiences.

Post Baccalaureate Programs:  Post-bac programs are especially useful for students who need to bolster their GPAs. They also allow college graduates to fill gaps in their academic record by taking one or all of the courses required to apply to medical school. Some post-bac programs cater to career changers (those who need to complete most or all of the science core), and others to academic enhancers (those who have completed the core but are taking advanced science electives to improve their science GPA, or prepare for the MCAT), and some accept both. Programs are offered across the country, by colleges large (e.g. CornellUSC) and small (e.g. BrandeisBryn Mawr)

Additionally, some programs, such as those offered by Columbia University and NYU, offer “linkage programs” with their affiliated medical schools. These programs help especially competitive students “link” directly into the university’s medical school following the completion of the post-bac program. 

Pay Down Debt

According to the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), the median debt for medical students graduating in 2015 was $183,000.  It’s important, therefore, to try to limit any other debts you might have beforehand. A recent US News article recommends paying particular attention to credit card balances, as having a high amount of consumer debt can limit your ability to borrow money to pay for medical school.

There are many reasons, both personal and professional, to take a gap year before applying to medical school, and there are a variety of ways to use that time productively and effectively. For more information, or to talk about the best options for you, contact Collegiate Gateway. As always, we’re happy to help.