According to a 2021 study conducted by the American Medical Association, 68.5% of first-year medical students surveyed took gap years. Most students who took gap years did so for 1-2 years (44.8%), followed by those who did so for 3-4 years (15.2%), followed by those who did so for 5 plus years (8.5%). Clearly, the take-away from this study is that more medical students accepted for 2021 admission took gap years than those who did not, and most gap years were brief, 1-2 years.
Reasons to take a gap year before medical school
Rather than fret whether to take a gap year, determine what will turn a gap year into a growth year – and plan accordingly. Many premed students use the gap year to make up for what they see as their weakest application credential. A gap year can afford the opportunity to retake the MCAT, enroll in a postbac program to improve your GPA, volunteer, or gain clinical exposure. During a gap year, some premed students become EMTs. Others work to save money, in an attempt to decrease their future medical school debt, while still volunteering or performing community service. Others research or engage in medical mission opportunities abroad to bolster their experience with diverse populations and global health.
Should I take a gap year before medical school?
Clearly, the admission committees do not look down upon gap years. As I said above, in 2021 most accepted med students reporting having taken them. Here is the catch: whatever you do during your gap year needs to make sense for you – as a future doctor. What you do during the gap year should seem organically right. For some that means staying practical – what do I need to do? For others that means being inspirational – what else do I feel intuitively to do that facilitates my growth as a person and/or a future doctor? Take care of an ailing family member? Get a certification in Acupuncture? Study Latin? For others that means being aspirational – what else can I do to achieve my goal of becoming a doctor, something that in the end serves humanity and grows one’s humility? Should I go on an international trip to service the health needs of people in a country/culture/language other than mine?
Addressing the gap year in your med school application
Medical school applications ask applicants to explain what they did during their gap year. So, it is a good idea to take notes about your experiences, and take the time to write-up these experiences mindfully, making connections between challenges and growth. In the end, you will need to articulate these experiences, in writing or in person. Practice writing about these experiences. Show how the gap year was time well-spent and full of growth. Explain how these experiences changed you and have made you a great medical school applicant and future physician.
Also, if you have any ambivalence about becoming a doctor, a gap year or two makes perfect sense. Medical students who suffer a change of heart professionally find themselves unhappy and stressed. Research shows they demonstrate a progressive decline in empathy, which is a red flag. Should they drop out of medical school, often they do so with sizeable debt. So do your personal inventory. Examine your reasons why you want to be a doctor. Should you need time to figure out whether being a doctor is truly the right path ahead, take the time to figure this out before applying. Take the gap year or two or whatever to explore your commitment to medicine, patient care, leadership, motivation, dedication, and compassion to the profession.
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Dr. Mary Mahoney, PhD, is the medical humanities director at Elmira College and has more than 20 years of experience as an advisor and essay reviewer for med school applicants. She is a tenured English professor with an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a PhD in literature and writing from the University of Houston. For the past 20 years, Mary has served as a grad school advisor and essay reviewer for med school applicants. Want Mary to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!