Gap Year Before Medical School: The 2020 Guide

Updated: July 1, 2020

Should you take a gap year before medical school? Traditionally, students apply to medical school in the summer before their senior year of undergraduate studies and upon completion of their undergrad degree, they proceed directly into medical school. A gap year is essentially a break of one or more years between undergraduate study and medical school. Taking a gap year before medical school is becoming increasingly common as more and more non traditional medical school applicants see the value in taking time off before committing to the 7-12 years of medical school education and training. Some students plan their gap year from the start and know that they have improvements they'd like to make in their application while others may find themselves unintentionally taking a gap year due to a lack of preparation. So, how can you determine if you should take a gap year before medical school? Let this blog be your source of information as it discusses the following topics:

5 reasons to take a gap year before medical school

Will a gap year before medical school hurt my chances of acceptance?

Do you want us to help you get into medical school?

1. Improve your application.

One of the most common reasons that students decide to take a gap year before medical school is to improve their application. Unless all areas of your application stand out, you likely won't be seen as a competitive applicant, so working to improve any questionable areas is essential for your success. A gap year gives you time to prepare outstanding application components, improve your academic standing, and increase your experience in the medical field. A gap year also gives you time to prepare for the dreaded CASPer test by practicing CASPer sample questions and answers. Before you sit down to write your personal statement, read the best medical school personal statement examples to get some ideas for your own. 

GPA

If you struggled with some of your courses and have a handful of unfavorable grades, you may already be thinking it would be wise to work on improving your marks before applying to medical school. The best thing you can do is to check medical school acceptance rates to see how your test scores and grades compare with accepted students from the previous year. For example, if you have a 3.4 GPA and the average accepted GPA is 3.8 at a school you're hoping to apply to, you likely won't be seen as a competitive applicant, unless of course, you can improve your GPA. Perhaps this school, in particular, is one that you should avoid, however, if you're seeing a trend where you're not meeting medical school GPA requirements or are falling below the average GPAs of successful students, it's time to consider improving your grades before you apply, and taking a gap year to do so may be necessary. Sometimes, it can be as simple as re-taking a course or two in order to see an improvement in your GPA and that's because one or two low grades can really pull down your overall GPA or your science GPA, depending on the affected course. If on the other hand, your entire first year of undergrad was riddled with low marks, you may need to re-take a semester or apply to a post-baccalaureate program to significantly improve your marks. While you can still get into medical school with a low GPA, it's going to be a lot more difficult so considering improving your existing GPA may be easier in the long run.

Medical school prerequisites

Other than failing to meet GPA requirements, if you haven't completed the medical school prerequisites, taking a gap year will be unavoidable. Medical school prerequisites are courses that you are required to take before you can apply to medical school. Sometimes students think that if they've chosen a biological science major, then they automatically meet prerequisites, but this is often not the case. Prerequisite courses are not standardized, meaning that the requirements at one school are not the requirements at all schools. They actually vary greatly, with some schools requiring biology, chemistry, physics and math, and another school requiring those same courses, in addition to social science courses such as humanities and anthropology. While the science courses may be included for a biological science major, you'll likely have to elect to take social science courses. The same goes for students studying majors outside of the biological sciences who may find social science courses are included in their curriculum, but the natural science and math courses are not. For example, Tufts Medical School requires biology, chemistry, and physics, all with lab work, while New York Medical College requires the same, plus one year of English. Students who fail to check the requirements closely before they apply to medical school often find themselves missing courses and have no choice but to take a break between their studies to complete the required courses. As a quick tip, in addition to completing the required courses, it is a good idea to try and take courses that are recommended by each medical school. These recommended courses will likely help you prepare for the courses you'll be taking in medical school, allowing for an easier transition between undergrad and medical school, so try to complete these where appropriate.

Extracurriculars

Another way to improve your application is by maximizing your extracurriculars for medical school. This includes experiences you'll discuss in the AMCAS work and activities section, such as research experience, clinical experience, and volunteering experience. If for example, you only had the chance to shadow one doctor, couldn't get experience teaching or working in a lab, and weren't able to participate in meaningful volunteering, you should definitely consider taking a gap year before medical school. The reason being is that the process of applying to medical school is expensive, time-consuming and exhausting. It makes sense to only do it once, during one application season, if you can help it. Have an honest look at your extracurriculars and put yourself in the admissions committee's shoes. Can you demonstrate a strong passion for medicine that can be evidenced by your experiences? Have you taken the necessary steps to “test-drive” a career in medicine by gaining shadowing experience and other experiences that put you in a clinical setting? If your answer is no, then wait to apply, strengthen these experiences, and apply in the following application season. Remember, the main purpose of your application is to convince the admissions committee that you are ready and suitable for a career in medicine. If you're missing the evidence behind the passion, it won't be enough to convince them, and with thousands of applicants to sort through each season, they're not going to take a gamble on you. Especially as there's a line out of the door of others with the same passion and motivation, but with proof in their back pocket. Have a look at our blog for the best premed gap year jobs that can improve your application.

Letters of recommendation

Letters of recommendation are one of many medical school requirements, with most schools requiring three letters for submission with your application. If you were unable to secure these letters come application season because you couldn't gain good experiences, then you'll have to wait before applying. It is worth mentioning, however, that if you do have letters of recommendation on the way, you can still add letters of recommendation after submitting AMCAS, as this is one of the three sections you'll have the ability to modify after submission. According to an AMA study, letters of recommendation are one of the top 5 factors that admissions committees consider when deciding who should be offered an interview and who should be offered acceptance. It's therefore very important that your letters of recommendation are phenomenal, and can vouch for your suitability to become an excellent physician. Sometimes students decide to take a gap year before medical school simply because they weren't able to secure these letters. This ties in with the clinical, research and teaching experience that is so important to gain before applying to medical school. Forming tight relationships with mentors, supervisors, and physicians will be paramount to obtaining letters that will really showcase your skills, motivations, and suitability for the profession.

2. Save money and pay down debt.

Medical school tuition is astronomical, with students spending $37,000 on average at public schools and $62,000 at private schools. Did I mention that is just for one year of tuition, fees and health insurance? These figures don't even take into account the expense of books, transportation, accommodation, and food. Students that borrowed money to attend medical school come out with an average debt of $200,000, so it's no wonder that some students decide to take a gap year before medical school to save money and pay down existing debt. This can be a very smart decision for some, and a necessary decision for others. When determining whether it's right for you, you'll have to assess your financial situation now and in the future. If you have funding opportunities through scholarships, grants, parental support or loans, you may not find the financial benefit of one year of work worth the delay of beginning your career. However, if one year off allows you to pay off or a make a significant dent to your existing debt, or allows you to save money for accommodation and apply to grants and scholarships, then it definitely can be worthwhile.

3. Study for the MCAT.

Seven and half hours is no joke, and if you don't know when to start studying for the MCAT, you could find yourself with an unfavorable MCAT score. In addition to your GPA, how you score on the MCAT will have a huge impact on whether or not you're invited to an interview and offered acceptance. According to the AAMC, the mean MCAT score of US matriculants is 511.5, so how does your score compare? More importantly, how does your score compare at your chosen medical schools? For example, even though the mean MCAT score of matriculants is just over 511, a school you want to apply to may have a mean accepted score of 517. This is why it's so important to use our medical school chance predictor so you can determine your chances of getting accepted at medical schools you're interested in based on your current GPA and MCAT. If you struggled with the MCAT test, you may find yourself re-taking the MCAT to try and improve your score and let me tell you, you won't be alone. In fact, 24% of all individuals who take the MCAT re-take it which speaks to the difficulty of the test and the number of test-takers that are unhappy or uncompetitive with their current scores. Taking a gap year before medical school would allow you the opportunity to dedicate more study and preparation time for the MCAT so you can work on improving any unfavorable scores. If you haven't taken the MCAT yet, but know that school, work or other obligations will negatively affect your study time and ability, it's best not to take it. As a general rule of thumb, you should only take the MCAT when you are 100% ready and prepared to take it and are scoring consistently well repeatedly.

4. Take a mental break.

Prioritizing your mental health is imperative to your success as a medical doctor. Just like when you're on a plane watching a safety video and they tell you to put your own mask on first before helping others, the same principle applies. In order to help other people, you'll have to first help yourself. If you're feeling exhausted and burnt out, you may not be able to handle the extensive workload, time and stress of medical school. In this case, it's better to take a break now, before you apply to medical school, rather than having to drop out halfway through because your stress levels are out of control. Medical school will involve many challenges, both mentally and physically, so you want to ensure you're in the right mental space to get through it and come out successful on the other end. Each of us is unique and over time we develop and strengthen coping mechanisms for handling stress and overcoming adversity, whether it's playing the piano, exercising at the gym or listening to music. However, sometimes there are factors outside of your control that may also require you to take a gap year before enrolling in medical school. Students sometimes take a break or withdraw their application due to extenuating circumstances such as the death, illness or injury of a loved one. What's important is that you're tuned in to your body and mind's needs, if you need a break, or want a break to best prepare for medical school, then take it.

5. Combat rejection from medical school.

Facing medical school rejection is difficult for all students and it's totally acceptable to take some time off before reapplying. What's important is that you dissect your application to try and determine why you were rejected. If you're going to take a gap year before re-applying, you need to formulate a plan so you know what you're going to do during this break. With an honest critical look at your application, you may determine that your GPA and MCAT score wasn't competitive, you didn't have enough experience in the medical field, or even that you rushed your application and didn't consult a medical school advisor. If you applied too late in the application cycle, you may have been placed on a medical school waitlist simply because all the interview spots were already taken, and in turn, most offers of acceptance were already handed out. What's important is that you are proactive in your decision-making approach. Don't wait until the last minute to decide whether or not you're going to take a gap year because if you decide too late, you'll be completely panicked trying to find other opportunities. For example, many volunteer and employment opportunities will be secured months in advance, often early on in the year for summer start dates. If you left it too late to apply because you weren't sure what to do, not only will you be taking a gap year, but you may have missed out on these options. Take the time to re-group, strengthen your weaknesses, and re-apply with a stronger, better application.

Will a gap year before medical school hurt my chances of acceptance?

A gap year won't hurt your chances of getting into medical school as long as you used this time productively. So, I'd like to first ask, what is your reasoning behind taking a gap year? What are you trying to accomplish? What are your plans during this break? If you took a gap year to learn snowboarding in the Swiss Alps, you're not going to convince anyone that this time was well spent in terms of your pursuit of medicine. Sure it may have been fun, and maybe now you're an expert snowboarder, but it doesn't show your dedication to improve yourself as a physician. A gap year shouldn't simply be thought of as time off. Make sure that you have a reason for taking a gap year, and you can demonstrate to the admissions committee why it was beneficial for you to take it in the first place. Self-improvement is key and will always be held in high regard. So whether you're gaining experience in the medical field, participating in important research, improving your MCAT score or volunteering in your community, as long as you can explain what you did, what you learned and why it was beneficial, a gap year before medical school may be the best thing for you.

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