Whether you’re about to embark on a gap year or you’re still deciding if taking a year off is right for you, this guide will help you make the most of your time off. We’ll begin with reasons to take a gap year, then discuss what you can do during a gap year, and finish off with tips for utilizing your time wisely (based on your personal needs).
This article focuses on taking a gap year before medical school. We have a separate guide dedicated to taking a gap year while in medical school.
Reasons to Take a Gap Year
Improve Your Application
When premeds take a gap year, they are able to apply to medical school outside of the traditional premed schedule. Instead of preparing to apply at the end of third year and throughout your fourth year of college, you can begin applying as you finish college and focus your efforts on your application after you graduate. This extra time can allow you to focus on secondaries and interviews without the pressure of keeping up with your studies at the same time.
If you are worried about the strength of your application and you know you have weak areas, you’re far better off to wait than to apply when you’re not ready. We can’t stress this enough—do not apply thinking you can simply do it again if you don’t get an acceptance. Reapplicants are at a disadvantage because you’ll need to prove that you have improved your application, and you’ll need to begin the draining, tedious process all over again after you’re already burnt out.
You’re much better off waiting a year, even two if you need to, in order to apply with a strong application. Waiting longer to begin what is already a long journey may sound daunting, but it will be worth it if you really do need the extra time. As we say time and time again, applying early is the best advantage you can give yourself.
If you can’t submit your application soon after the application deadline, you should strongly consider taking a gap year.
If you are struggling with an aspect of your application, it may be time to speak to a one-on-one admissions consulting expert who can guide you in the right direction. With a few small but powerful changes, it’s possible you could be on track for acceptance.
If you choose to take a gap year to improve your application, ensure you actually do that. What areas of your application are the weakest? How can you become a more well-rounded candidate? What can you do with your time off to help you stand out?
Gain Industry Experience
Gaining industry experience will give you a feel for what your future career could actually be like. While you won’t be as actively involved as you will be during your clinical rotations, an industry-related job will give you a sense of what’s to come.
Do you enjoy being in a medical setting? Do research opportunities intrigue and excite you? Do you feel good about the hands-on experience of helping others? You may be well into your doctor journey already, but it’s best to find out if you have what it takes and if you enjoy the work before you go down the path even further.
Job experience is also a huge asset on your application. It shows that you are serious about becoming a doctor because you’ve actively pursued jobs related to medicine. Plus, this experience gives you something to talk about in your secondaries and during interviews.
Take Personal Time
Many students choose to take a gap year for their own personal reasons. You might take a gap year due to health concerns, to take care of a loved one, to pursue a passion project, or to travel the world before you’re tied down with medical school.
These reasons to take a gap year before medical school can be difficult to sort through for premeds. It’s a tough decision to make. The drive to push on and remain with your peers is very strong. It all comes down to assessing your own personal situation, needs, and goals. If you have a strong reason to take time off, one year is not a long time in the grand scheme of your doctor journey.
Your own health and the health of your loved ones will not wait for you to finish medical school and residency. What are your goals? What are your values? What’s most important to you in life?
If there’s a project or passion outside of medicine that you’ve always wanted to pursue, this may be the ideal time for you to do that. While not impossible, taking a gap year during medical school or residency is more complicated, and it will be more taxing to adjust to.
Or maybe you’ve always wanted to travel the world but haven’t had the chance to yet. Once you start medical school, it will be difficult to get time away for extended travel opportunities.
Are There Downsides to Taking a Gap Year Before Medical School?
There are absolutely downsides to taking a gap year before medical school or at any time in your doctor journey.
Firstly, you can lose momentum while taking a gap year. Whatever you choose to do with your time will likely be a lot different than being in school, and this can slow down all of that drive and determination you built up in college. Losing momentum can lead to procrastination, distraction, and loss of motivation.
You may begin to build back bad habits while not in school. Habits take time to build, and if you’ve put in the time to develop them, they should be fairly ingrained. But one year is a long time—certainly enough time to redevelop bad habits.
With extended time away from your studies, you may find the transition to medical school even more difficult than if you enter straight out of college. First year of medical school is a tough year to begin with. Getting further away from your prerequisite classes and MCAT means you won’t be as fresh on the topics you’ll be expected to have a deep knowledge of when entering medical school.
Often the most glaring negative for premeds is that it will take longer to become a doctor. You’ll add at least a year to the already lengthy doctor journey. Additionally, by taking a year off, you won’t be entering medical school alongside your peers, which can cause jealousy and anxiety to develop.
It’s important that you assess both the pros and cons and deeply consider your options. Do plenty of research and seek guidance if you need help making the decisions that are best for you. A gap year can be an incredible opportunity if it makes sense for you and if you make the most of it, but you must continue to work hard during this time—you must not lose sight of your end goals.
What to Do With a Gap Year (Specific Examples)
1 | Gain Experience
Gaining real work experience in a medical field is an ideal way to boost your application. Specifically, look for employment opportunities in areas you have little experience with to establish a more well-rounded Work and Activities section.
If you are lacking in research experience, seek out opportunities as a research assistant. You may be able to get a publication out of it, but always put the job first, and don’t be too pushy about wanting a publication, especially early on.
Other examples of gap year jobs include being a medical scribe, medical assistant, EMT, or nursing assistant.
We covered gap year jobs extensively in a previous article. Check out that post to get a better sense of what jobs would be the best fit for you based on your current skill set and what your application is lacking.
2 | Work to Improve Your Application
Even if you are taking a gap year for personal reasons, if you plan to apply to medical school, your application must continue to stay top-of-mind.
What areas of your application could be improved? What are your shortcomings? If you received a 510 on the MCAT, sure, it could be improved, but a generic personal statement, tepid letter of recommendation, or significant lack of research or clinical experience is much more serious.
Do you have a varied list of experiences that will attract admissions committees? Have you sought feedback from qualified mentors who have also served on admissions committees themselves about the uniqueness and effectiveness of your personal statement? Have you invested significant time in building relationships for strong letters of recommendation?
A gap year is an ideal time to address any weaknesses in your application. Take the time to seek advice from mentors or admissions consultants to determine where your application could be improved for the greatest chance of success.
3 | Pursue a Passion
You’ll be in medical school for four years, followed by three to seven years of residency, depending on your specialty. In other words, you’ll have loads of time to study medicine. Plus, once you do become a doctor, you can count on long and/or irregular hours.
Is there another area of academics or a personal hobby you’re extremely passionate about? Have you always been interested in music, languages, photography, aviation, travel, entrepreneurship, economics, etc.?
Your gap year is potentially the only time you’ll have during your medical education and early career to actively explore your interests outside of medicine. An additional benefit is that pursuing another passion gives you something unique and exciting to talk about in your application, secondaries, and interviews.
These sorts of learning experiences can actually make you stand out to admissions committees because you’ll have unique skills and perspectives to speak about. They show you’re a well-rounded applicant who is passionate about learning and committed to wellness.
4 | Explore the World and the People in It
Traveling provides you with the opportunity to gain a better understanding of people and cultures different from your own, and this is extremely useful, as you will be working with diverse people and communities in your future medical education and career.
And this is something medical schools will take note of because they’re looking for globally-conscious candidates who will add to the diversity of their program.
In addition to being an asset to your future medical career, traveling also presents a vast range of skill building opportunities you’ll be able to use throughout your entire life and memories that will last a lifetime. Plus, you will likely be able to use some of the unique experiences you collect in your future applications, interviews, and essays.
Here are just a few of the benefits traveling provides:
- You can build practical life skills.
- You’ll be able to practice real-world problem solving.
- You can practice your networking and social skills.
- You will expand your network and may make lifelong connections.
- You will earn an enhanced understanding of other people, cultures, and viewpoints different from your own.
If you want to learn more about traveling during your gap year, read our comprehensive guide: Traveling Before Medical School—Decisions, Options, and Travel Strategies.
5 | Donate Your Time
As an aspiring physician, you likely care about people and their wellbeing. Donating your time through volunteer activities can provide a wealth of experience while giving back to your own community or another community in need.
While you won’t be paid, you’ll gain valuable skills and work experience that can be applied throughout your future and discussed within your medical school application. Volunteering some of your valuable time illustrates how passionate you are about getting involved in the medical field and how much you care about the wellbeing of other humans.
Where you volunteer depends on your interests, what people or populations are in need of your help, the time you have available to commit, and where you want to spend your time. It’s possible that you can combine a humanitarian effort with travel so that you can help others while experiencing another part of the country or world.
When considering any type of volunteer opportunity, be clear about the time you have available, and don’t overcommit. You may want to give more of your time so that you can help, but saying you can offer more time than you have available won’t benefit you or the people running the philanthropic effort. Developing a clear plan for how you will spend your gap year will help you accurately assess the time you have available to donate.
6 | Prioritize Your Physical and Mental Health
You cannot succeed in medical school and beyond without your physical and mental health. Sure, students push the limits on this all the time, but when they do, they become much less efficient and more prone to making mistakes.
You know your body, and you know yourself. There is absolutely no shame in taking a gap year for your own health and wellbeing. With this extra time, you can apply next year with a fresh mind, reducing some of the anxiety that comes with submitting your application during your final years of college.
Tips for Gap Year Success
1 | Take Time to Make an Educated Decision
The first step to making an effective decision is completing thorough research, and research takes time. The larger the decision, the more research is required.
Is your MCAT score competitive when compared to the scores of matriculants at your top-choice schools? Have you received educated feedback on your personal statement? Is it the best it can possibly be? How strong are your letters of recommendation? Are your extracurriculars vast and varied, or have you clung to what you’re most familiar with? If there are significant weak areas in your application, it’s much more sensible to delay your application and spend the next year beefing up your experiences and qualifications.
Check the MSAR to compare your stats with those of recent matriculants. Reach out to your mentors, professional acquaintances, as well as other students to get inside information on how a gap year can help or hinder you. Follow online message boards to get a lay of the land from those who have been in your position before. That said, remember that your situation is unique, and what worked for someone may not be the ideal path for you.
Are you truly ready to dive headlong into medical school straight out of college without taking the time to explore a hobby you’re passionate about or to travel the world? Where are you considering traveling to? Traveling anywhere also requires plenty of research, as an overlooked detail could interfere with your experience and timing. What about your other hobbies? Do you want to pursue them before you’re in medical school and won’t have as much of a chance?
Deeply consider what you want your future to look like in the short and long term. Taking a gap year means that’s one more year before you can become a doctor, but considering your medical education is already going to take anywhere from 7 to 11 years, adding another year is only another drop in the bucket.
Once you’ve completed your research, how do you feel? What does your gut tell you? While your gut feeling should never be your only consideration, it’s vital to listen to that gut feeling. If you end up choosing the path you or your parents, partner, or friends think you should take instead of the one you really truly want, you’ll feel resentful once you start down it, which will hinder your chances of success.
No one can make this decision for you. No matter how thoroughly you’ve researched every option and no matter how much advice you’ve received, this is your decision. What is the right choice for you?
2 | Commit to Your Decision
Making a decision one way or the other and committing to it is sometimes the only way forward.
Once you’ve made a decision, don’t go back and forth on it. You have enough to worry about without regret. Both paths have pros and cons, and dwelling on the other choice and second-guessing yourself after you’ve made a decision will zap your energy and ruin the experience. Yes, it’s true that you may discover there are more benefits to a different decision, but once you start down the path you choose, do all that you can to stick with it.
Indecision will keep you walking in circles, jumping between two worlds, never taking a step forward in either direction.
After the decision is made, fully commit to it and give it everything you’ve got. Yes, your life might look different if you choose path #2 instead of path #1, but that’s not your concern now. You’re on path #1, and there’s no going back. Own your decision and move forward with what you have to work with.
Regret is toxic. If you go straight to medical school but find you still really want to travel or pursue a passion, it’s possible to take a gap year later on in medical school. If you take a gap year but find you really want to continue your studies, focus your energy on building a stellar application that will get you into your dream school.
3 | Pinpoint and Focus on Your Weaknesses
Even with a gap year, your time is limited. Determining your weak areas is the key to making the most of your time.
Assess your application. Which piece of your application are you the most worried about? Share it with trusted mentors and ask for feedback. If it’s within your means, it’s also important to seek out one-on-one advising so that your application can be reviewed objectively. People you’re close to may see you through rose-colored glasses or try to spare your feelings.
Do you have the time, and do you need to retake the MCAT? Would it help to enhance other application materials? Remember—a lukewarm letter of recommendation will do nothing to impress admissions committees and could easily make them reconsider offering you an interview.
Once you understand the aspects of your application that can use the most improvement, it’s important to determine which enhancements will make the most impact.
4 | What Will Make the Most Impact?
It’s vital you consider the effort it will take to accomplish something vs. the result. What improvements will make the most impact on your application, skill set, and wellbeing?
For example, studying to retake the MCAT takes considerable time and energy. If you have a decent but not spectacular score currently, you may be better off spending your efforts on other areas of your application that will result in a larger impact than a slightly higher MCAT score.
Consider both the impact of your choices and the effort each decision will take. An impact effort matrix is a simple decision making tool that will help you visualize your priorities.
The impact effort matrix has four quadrants.
- High impact, low effort
- High impact, high effort
- Low impact, low effort
- Low impact, high effort
What decisions will leave the largest impact, and how much effort is required to achieve each result? Ultimately, you’re looking for goals that offer high impact at low effort. High effort, high impact tasks are sometimes worthwhile, as are low impact, low effort tasks, but low impact, high effort options are ones you should definitely avoid.
Learn more about making educated, effective decisions with our guide: How to Make Tough Decisions — 7 Strategies for Better Decision Making.
5 | Build a Clear Plan
Our final tip for this article cannot be overlooked during a gap year. You absolutely must go into your time off with a plan. Though there can be time to enjoy yourself, it’s not a year-long vacation if you plan to attend medical school within the next 1-2 years.
Even if you are taking time off for a passion project, travel, or personal reasons, you need to keep your goals top-of-mind throughout the whole year. You don’t want to wind up in the same place you were when you started or wishing you got more out of it.
A gap year can be an incredibly valuable opportunity if it is organized with care and strategy.
Why are you taking the gap year? What do you hope to accomplish? What do you need to accomplish to prepare yourself for medical school?
Work backward to create a plan of action. Be honest with yourself about the time you have available—a year will go by faster than you expect.
Be as specific as possible about how you will spend your time and what milestones you need to reach along the way. Breaking your larger goals into smaller, more attainable tasks will help you stay on track and make it easier if you need to make adjustments to your plan along the way.
Design Your Ideal Map to Medical School
Need help deciding if a gap year will help or hinder your path to medical school? Med School Insiders will pair you with a physician advisor who best fits your specific needs. We can answer your questions about what to do with the time between your studies, how to make the ideal decisions for your own needs, how to transition into your first year of medical school, and how to succeed in applying to medical school.
Reach out to our team to learn more about our services, and follow the Med School Insiders blog for the latest how-to advice, strategies, and personal stories for premeds, medical students, and residents.