Should you take a gap year before residency? While many students discuss taking a gap year before medical school, a gap year before residency could have both positive and negative consequences for whether you match with your ideal program after medical school is over. This is a complex decision unique to the student considering it. It is wholly dependent on your situation and what you deem would most benefit your development as a resident doctor.
This article discusses whether a gap year before residency is worth it for graduating medical students and outlines some reasons for why someone may or may not take a gap year before starting their residency. We also cover some tips for what to do during a gap year to improve your application and the benefits of seeking professional residency help to do so.
Disclaimer: Please note: although we have made every effort to provide the most accurate information, admissions information changes frequently. Therefore, we encourage you to verify these details with the official university admissions office. You are responsible for your own results. BeMo does not endorse nor affiliate with any official universities, colleges, or test administrators and vice versa.
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Is a Gap Year Before Residency Worth It?
Provided you make full use of it, a gap year could be a beneficial step in perfecting your residency application. Taking the extra time if you are able to does not seem like a bad idea. However, a year off between medical school and your residency can also harm your chances if you are not careful. In a competitive landscape for graduate medical education, anything can put your application above or below somebody else’s.
Wondering how the residency application process and residency match work? Watch this video:
While match rates in the United States and Canada are generally pretty high, there is always a chance you will not receive a match. Even if you graduated from one of the medical schools with the best match rates, there is a slight chance of going unmatched, whether you have a gap year under your belt or not. All in all, taking a year off from full-time school may or may not be worthwhile, depending on your individual situation.
Why Medical Graduates May Take a Gap Year Before Residency
The main reason medical graduates may take a gap year is to bolster their application in various ways. Figuring out how to prepare for residency applications is not easy. While it is recommended to start preparing your applications as soon as possible, busy schedules and a focus on staying afloat during med school can cause some students to wait a little too long before putting their pedal to the metal. Here are some reasons a medical graduate might consider taking a gap year:
1. Application Components
A gap year could be a great opportunity to improve your application documents, exams, and other requirements. Writing a residency personal statement takes time and several rounds of editing to truly perfect. While it is good to have a standardized personal statement ready, different programs may focus on different aspects they want to see in your statement. If writing is not your strong suit, getting your written documents together during your gap year could help improve your chances overall.
Using your gap year to improve licensing exam scores (such as the USMLE Step 1, for example) is also a viable reason. Many residency programs have a threshold for exam scores that, if not met or exceeded, can get your application discarded immediately. Some institutions prefer your first attempt, while others do not place an emphasis on how many attempts you have. These concrete application documents and scores are usually some of the first indicators that program directors will look at to evaluate your candidacy. Therefore, it is important to make a good first impression to move on to the next round.
2. Specialty Experience
Your final years of medical school are meant for figuring out how to choose a medical specialty and knowing what discipline you are most interested in pursuing throughout your career. If by the time you need to apply for residency you are still unsure, this may become a problem. While you can still go into the more general primary care specialties, such as internal medicine, that have higher match rates, it is still important to be absolutely sure about whatever direction you take. Once you narrow down your specialty, it will be easier to find clinical experiences that will be helpful to your application. A gap year could potentially allow you to garner more professional experience that may make you stand out from the crowd, but it could also imply that you are not as organized as other applicants if you did not choose a specialty in time. Proceed with caution here.
3. By Necessity
Not everyone takes a gap year by choice, especially not before residency. Personal circumstances, such as health, family, and financial issues, can result in a medical graduate taking a year off to recenter themselves before officially applying whenever they are ready. These individuals would likely have to explain any absence in their interview, particular if the gap year was longer than one cycle. Some applicants also do not match in their first round and need to take a gap year before applying again. While this is not the ideal situation, it does not mean all hope is lost, and there are residency programs that accept old graduates. There are concrete measures you can take to improve your residency application after going unmatched. With enough dedication, you will likely rectify your situation and receive a match with your next application.
4. International Medical Graduates
If you are an international medical graduate (IMG) wanting to match in the United States or Canada, the residency application process is a little more difficult for you. It may require more time to achieve the necessary clinical experience and letters of recommendation that are not from within your country of origin. Taking a gap year to complete that experience in the US or Canada could be what makes or breaks your application as an IMG. Gaining the right IMG electives and clinical experience could take some time after the completion of your medical degree. You may have to contact institutions yourself to receive a worthwhile externship that will support you, but this could possibly be a good use of your time during a gap year. You will also need to find out what requirements you need to apply for residency in a foreign country, or search for residency programs that don't require ECFMG certification.
Why Medical Graduates Do Not Take a Gap Year Before Residency
Just as there a few pros of taking a gap year after medical school, there are some cons as well. Here are the main reasons that students seek to match to a residency program as soon as they can:
1. Saving Time and Money
Medical students have spent many years in undergrad and now medical school preparing for residency. They are often extremely dedicated to helping patients, being exposed to the profession, and starting their careers. Taking a gap year would mean delaying that natural trajectory by another year. Once again, this is not the end of the world necessarily, but it is one year less of professional experience that could get them closer to their dreams. The answer to “how long is residency?” can also depend on whatever specialty you are applying to, so expediting that process is usually a good move.
As for financial reasons, students who take a gap year before residency are inherently losing money as well. When you factor in how much do residents make, those taking a year to perfect their applications would also be missing out on a year of salary as a resident but also as a future doctor. It is truly up to the individual student whether or not a gap year would be beneficial to them in the long run.
2. Less Anxiety
If there is a group of people who knows how stressful applications can be, it is medical students. Less time to worry about getting matched sounds pleasing to many residency applicants, who have already dealt with intense university and medical school applications in the past. For many future resident doctors, the security of a residency match can be reassuring. While there is still a residency program to come, knowing that the next part of your future is already accounted for can provide a sense of relief to medical graduates. For some, a gap year could produce more stress during the months they will spend applying to residency programs, conducting interviews, and writing exams that could have been completed earlier on.
3. Lower Match Probability
In some cases, having a gap year or multiple years before residency can affect your odds of getting matched. Many medical graduates opt to not have a gap year simply because they do not want to risk taking that chance. As with medical school, when it comes to residency applications, research is your best friend. The information you need to apply strategically is out there for you to find.
Look into how many residency programs to apply to and what universities or health centers place importance on how recent a graduate you are. The programs you apply to and their specific requirements will ultimately affect your match probability. Some will have very strict cut-offs, while others will be more liberal in their approach to who they accept. Your goal with all of this information is to enhance your chances of success. When submitting your residency rank order list, the institutions that are less selective about graduation year should be placed near the top.
What To Do During Your Gap Year
If for whatever reason, you need to take a gap year or you feel like it is the best path, you need to make it count. Making the most of your gap year will return you to the residency application pool as a stronger candidate instead of the other way around. The following are some concrete measures you can take to maximize your match chances during a gap year:
1. Familiarize Yourself with the Match
One of the very first things you want to do is get acquainted with how the match process actually works. This can be a great way to start using a gap year to your advantage. Even if you are currently on a gap year, you will likely have peers who are now starting their residency who have been through the same process. Ask them whatever questions you need to achieve some clarity. This is even more beneficial if they are in your exact specialty of choice. Many institutions also use specific residency match services. Learning how these work can be a great help to medical graduates who want to make the application process easy for themselves. They often organize all your documents and keep them in one place so that applications are submitted correctly. In the US, ERAS is the main application system, while a majority of Canadian programs use CaRMS. Their websites provide resources and application help that can be valuable tools for learning about the ins and outs of applying to residency.
2. Perfect Your Application
If you want to take a gap year to work on your residency application, make sure to do just that. Invest in some residency personal statement editing to tell your story in the best way possible. While grammar and spelling have to be immaculate, focus on what you are saying as well. Have a detailed residency CV that really showcases why you are a standout candidate due to relevant past experiences. Fill in any missing gaps that you could not complete during medical school. Get clinical experience and/or shadowing hours in your field. These will not only act as an addition to your impressive resume, but be a great way to network with other professionals and physicians. These connections can make for great writers for an ERAS letter of recommendation or a CaRMS reference letter. People you meet during potential gap year clinical rotations can be excellent references when the time comes.
3. Brush up on Your Interview Skills
While as a medical student you may believe you are used to interviews, it is never a bad idea to practice your conversational skills and how you articulate your passion for medicine. Residency program directors also ask specific questions that are meant to evaluate your suitability for their program, now that you’re about to officially become a licensed, working medical professional. Reading sample residency interview questions and answers is one way to prepare yourself for when you do eventually walk into that room or virtual setting. Knowing what type of interview each program conducts, whether traditional, panel, or multiple mini-interview (MMI), is also quite important to your preparation. Each interview type has their own pros and cons, and they may need different modes of preparation. The most efficient way to prepare for any interview type is by using a residency mock interview. This would ideally be conducted with a trained expert who could then provide tailored feedback meant to help you succeed. A gap year could be the perfect opportunity to train yourself on how to answer even the most dreaded residency interview questions.
The path from student to practicing doctor is not a smooth one. What to keep in mind about the residency application process is that, while you do have to focus on getting matched as soon as you can, there are options for you to ensure this happens. As discussed, taking a gap year could be life-changing if done the right way. One of the best ways to ensure your gap year is worth it is to seek professional help in the form of academic consulting from a certified residency prep company. Trained experts can lead to the inception of a stellar residency application. Having the support of knowledgeable coaches who know what program directors are looking for is always better than doing everything yourself. It can take a lot of pressure off your shoulders as you prepare to start the professional career you have been striving for. If a gap year is in your future, why not do everything you can to make it valuable?
1. Should I take a gap year before residency?
This is dependent on your situation. Unless absolutely necessary, it is probably more in your best interest to get accepted into a residency program as soon as possible. If that process is delayed by a year for whatever reason, this is not the time to panic. Instead, focus on perfecting your application so that you secure yourself a match in the next cycle.
2. When should I start preparing my residency application materials?
The most ideal time to be thinking about your future residency application materials would be right when you start medical school. Throughout your MD program, you are essentially building toward your specialization and residency training. Always be anticipating what the next step will be. By the time you are in your third year of medical school, you should start constructing your application materials and getting everything together, as residency applications are now on the horizon.
3. How much do resident doctors get paid?
The exact amount depends on the specialty or individual program, but most residents start off around $60k USD in the first year, with slight increases in every subsequent year.
4. What’s the most important part of a residency application?
Every part is important, but your personal statement and exam scores such as USMLE or MCCQE Part 1 are what will likely be viewed first by program directors. Your application could get passed over if you do not meet the criteria in these aspects.
Strong letters of recommendation from attending physicians, professors, or any other professionals you have worked closely with are also very important. Since they are a direct communication from one faculty member or practicing physician to another, they can be rather persuasive and hold a lot of weight in your application.
5. What is a residency rank order list?
Your residency rank order list will be the ranked list of the programs you most want to match with until the program you least want to match with. Program directors also create the same type of list, and a match occurs when both parties rate each other highly. Part of your gap year can be figuring out what programs best suit your needs and how to rank the programs you are applying to.
6. I am an IMG on a gap year. Do you have any additional tips for applying to residency?
Make sure to learn how to get into residency programs as an IMG, as you may have to navigate additional obstacles due to having completed your medical degree abroad. Work on getting clinical experience in the US or Canada, perfecting your personal statement, doing well on exams, and practicing your interview skills to further increase your chances.
7. I didn’t match. What should I do?
It is important not to lose hope right away. There are still options for you, even if you did not match this time around. You can obtain a position through alternative methods, such as a Supplemental Offer Acceptance Program (SOAP). Become acquainted with SOAP residency interview questions to give yourself the best shot. If you do not match at all, work on compiling the best application to get matched the next cycle. Use that time as a gap year to work on creating the best application you can to showcase your candidacy for residency.
8. How can academic consulting help with my residency application during a gap year?
Academic consulting services, such as those from BeMo, can be useful for ensuring your application is in tip-top shape. Whether it is help with writing a residency letter of intent or acing situational judgment tests such as CASPer, consultants can assess you at every step of the application process and provide tips on how to proceed accordingly. After prep courses or residency interview coaching sessions, they will give you expert feedback that is specifically tailored to you. This will be your best shot at improving your application by the time your gap year is over and you are officially applying to residency.
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