“Should I take a gap year before medical school?” is a question many premeds face. But just because you’re not alone doesn’t make this monumental decision any easier. Do you power through and push on? Is your current application good enough for an acceptance at your preferred schools? Will you regret not taking some time off later in your life?
A gap year is not a setback; it’s an opportunity to build up your experiences and fine-tune your application. It’s far better to wait until you are ready than to struggle through the application process, burn yourself out, and then have to reapply the next year. There will be more expectations on you as a reapplicant, plus you’ll waste a lot of time and money applying twice.
Wanting to take time off before you dive into 8+ years of medical school and residency is another consideration. Have you always dreamed of backpacking across Europe? Do you want to donate some of your time to humanitarian aid before your next round of school? Are there things you want to accomplish with friends or family before you prioritize your career path? Regret is not a burden you want to take with you into medical school.
There’s no right or wrong answer here. The path you take to becoming a doctor is completely your own and depends on your preferences and current circumstances. Let’s dig into some of the reasons you might choose to take a gap year before medical school and the common pros and cons of this big decision.
Reasons to Take a Gap Year
Your Application Has Weak Areas You Need to Improve
It’s time to be brutally honest with yourself. Is your application strong enough to get you an acceptance at your top choice schools? Have you put enough time and effort into your application, and are you positive you don’t have any weak areas?
Have you taken the time to build relationships for strong letters of recommendation? Did you write, rewrite, gather feedback, edit, and review your personal statement? Is it a unique one that will stand out amongst the sea of other premed personal statements? Do you have a varied list of experiences that will entice admissions committees? Is your MCAT score competitive enough for the schools you are applying to?
While it is possible to reapply, the process is more difficult. Don’t go into application season thinking you will try your luck this year with a weak application and simply reapply next year if things don’t work out. Thinking it’s a good idea to gain experience with the application process is a mistake many premeds make.
More is expected of you when you reapply to medical school. Admissions committees will be looking at how you’ve improved your application since the last time you applied, and you’ll need to specifically address being a reapplicant. What have you learned since you applied last time? How has your application improved? If you weren’t ready for medical school before, why are you now?
These are all questions and implications you can avoid when you apply only once. And in addition to those expectations, you’ll very likely be burnt out on the application process. It could take you a full year to find out whether or not you were accepted into medical school, and by then, you need to be focused on reapplying.
We always recommend premeds enter the application cycle with a strong application they are confident will earn them acceptance. It is possible to improve areas of your application along the way, especially if you seek outside help from mentors or a tutoring service, but overall, you need a strong application across the board to compete with other applicants.
If you know you have a weak area of your application, taking a gap year to address it can ensure you get into the schools of your choosing the first time around. It’s far better to spend a year gaining more experience and fine-tuning your application than to waste your time and money applying twice.
Carefully consider the strength of your application and what you might be able to improve. Would another year do you good? What would you be able to accomplish for your application during your gap year? Again, there is absolutely no shame in taking another year to improve your application. In fact, it illustrates self-awareness and can give you an edge against hasty applicants who choose to rush through the process before they are ready.
Your Application Won’t Be Ready In Time
You may have a stellar application nearing completion, but that won’t do you any good if it’s not ready on time. What does ‘on time’ mean? When it comes to applying to medical school, on time means as soon as possible.
When you look at the technical deadlines on the AAMC website, you’ll see that you have all year to apply, but this is far from reality. In order to compete with other applicants, you must submit your application as soon as the portal begins accepting applications, which is late May to early June.
This is due to rolling admissions. Medical schools review applications as they come through, moving from one phase to the next. If someone with an application equivalent to your own submits theirs in June and you submit yours in September, they will have a notable advantage. By September, the early applicant will already have completed their secondaries and will be beginning the interview process. Schools will be considering them for acceptance before you’ve even submitted your application.
We strongly advise all premeds to apply right away—at the beginning or middle of June. If something happens and you need to submit your application a little bit later in July or perhaps August, it is still possible to find success, but any later than that is questionable.
Once you get to the end of the summer, it’s far better to take a step back and refocus your efforts so that you can apply right away at the beginning of June of the following year. Rushing through the application process late in the game will hinder your chances of acceptance and could force you to be a reapplicant. By then, you’ll be behind once again and exhausted from the previous year’s application cycle.
If you’re notably behind or running out of time, don’t rush things. The wiser choice is to take a gap year and apply on time with confidence for the following cycle. You can use your gap year to further prepare yourself, improve your application, and ensure you have all aspects of your application ready as early as possible.
In order to excel during the application process, premeds must be in the right headspace, have a clear plan in place, and submit materials early. Learn more: Am I Ready to Apply to Medical School?
You Want to Travel or Take Other Personal Time
The decision to take a gap year may be a personal one rather than academic. Medical school and residency will take at least eight years to complete, and you will have very little free time. And once you become a doctor, you’ll be jumping into a complex career full of long or irregular hours.
If you have a deep desire to travel, donate your time, or complete some other project, taking a gap year may be your ideal chance. So long as you are able to submit a quality application on time (early) for the following cycle, taking a gap year can prove to be an asset for your application.
Exploring a part of the world, offering up your time to help others, or pursuing a passion of yours gives you something else to talk about in your application, secondaries, and interviews. Those types of learning experiences can actually make you stand out as an applicant. What did you learn from these experiences, and how are you a more well-rounded individual?
While you may feel pressure to push on with the application right away to stick with your peers, take time to assess your own goals and aspirations. Starting your career one year later isn’t all that different in the grand scheme of things. Having regrets will only make you resentful, and it could distract you from putting your best foot forward in medical school.
Gap Year Pros and Cons
Taking a gap year is a personal decision, and there are many pros and cons to both options. It all depends on your specific situation, whether or not you are ready, and what you hope to accomplish before jumping into medical school. Here are some common pros and cons to consider.
- You can ensure your application is ready as soon as application services open.
- You can take time to improve weak areas of your application.
- You can retake the MCAT if you don’t have a competitive score.
- You can continue to build connections for strong letters of recommendation.
- You can pursue missing extracurriculars to create a more well-rounded Work and Activities section.
- You can take time to recharge and prioritize your mental health.
- You can find a job and make some money to offset the staggering cost of medical school.
- You can travel, donate your time, or pursue other interests before entering medical school.
- You may lose momentum taking a year off.
- You won’t enter medical school at the same time as your peers.
- It will take one year longer to become a doctor.
- You could get used to the freedom, which will make it difficult to return to the rigors of medical education.
- You may spend more on experiences and travel than you’re able to save.
- If you don’t use your gap year to improve weak areas of your application, admissions committees will take notice.
Making Tough Decisions
Struggling to make a tough decision? Whether you’re narrowing down your final list of schools or deciding whether or not to take a gap year, decision making strategies will help you make informed decisions you can feel good about for years to come.
Read our 7 Strategies for Better Decision Making.
Med School Insiders offers one-on-one advising that pairs you with a physician advisor who best fits your specific needs. It’s our goal to help you create a future that aligns with your vision. We can help you craft an ideal medical school list, provide advice on whether or not a gap year is the best option for you, and more.