What to do during a “Gap Year” Prior to Medical School

Balancing school, clinical and community service work and research is difficult enough. Throw in the MCAT, med school applications and interviews and the task can be truly overwhelming. A year spent working, volunteering or doing community service prior to applying to medical school,  known as a “gap year,” can be a good option for some applicants caught in a time crunch. If you decide that taking a year off before med school is the best route for you, then spend that time addressing  areas relevant to your application that you did not have a chance to explore during your undergraduate years.   In addition,  you can also earn money to finance your medical education and further develop outside interests.

My focus in this entry is on taking a year or more prior to medical school to spend on activities other than a post-bac program. For applicants who don’t have the necessary pre-requisites for medical school or who need to strengthen their academic credentials, a post-bac or special master’s program is a good route. You can read about these here.

Here are some of the major ways in which to spend a gap year:

  • Research – Working in a lab or volunteering in one on a part- or full- time basis is an excellent way to explore another facet of medicine and to enhance your application. Research jobs can be hard to come by for one year only, but a volunteer position can turn into a paid one. If basic research does not interest you, consider a position helping with a clinical study.
  • Clinical employment or volunteer work – Time spent in a clinical setting will give you more insight into the field of medicine. You will also have the chance to meet physicians; let them know that you are a pre-medical student and are interested in job shadowing them once or on an ongoing basis. If you end up working in a research lab or other non-clinical environment, then you should still volunteer in a clinical setting regularly. A year or more away from clinical experience could weaken your application.
  • Classes – Even if you have a strong academic record, consider taking a class or two to stay in the study mode for med school. Take a course that you did not have a chance to fit in during college but that will help you succeed in medical school, such as anatomy or physiology.
  • MPH or other degree program –If your plan is to get both an MD and an MPH at some point, you may choose to do the MPH first. Other options are a master’s in public policy or even a hard science degree. In general, an MPH won’t help your application as much as science course work will, so the reason to pursue such as degree should be career and personal interest, not just to improve your application.
  • Travel and other interests – Part of the point of taking time off is to enjoy yourself and do a few things that take you beyond the world of academics and medicine. Get deeper into a hobby or develop a new one or spend some time traveling.

Secondary applications often ask applicants to describe how an applicant has spent time while not a full-time student. You don’t need to have a  nine to five  job; however, you should be able to account for your time. A combination of part time employment, volunteering and classes works well. What committees generally don’t like to see is that an applicant spent a year doing little more than working on med school applications.

On a personal note, I took a year after college to spend working in a research lab prior to starting medical school. That year was a welcome breather from tests and studying and it was nice to get a glimpse of the “real world” before delving back into academia. This path is not for everyone, but if you choose to take it, plan ahead so that you can make the most of your time.

Need the help of an M.D. experienced with medical school applications? Contact Dr. Eaton at (626) 768-2154 or info@prehealthadvising.com for a free 20 minute phone consultation.

78 Responses to "What to do during a “Gap Year” Prior to Medical School"

  1. Hi Palak,

    Once your AMCAS application is submitted, you can’t update the application with new grades; however, you can send transcripts or an update letter directly to the med schools (except for schools that request that no updates be sent). Waiting until after you have taken the classes to apply would leave you with another gap year, but it would also give you the benefit of having the classes completed and on the primary application. However, some benefit will be derived from the schools knowing that you have classes in progress and getting updated on those. If your GPA is not competitive as of the time you submit your primary application, it may be beneficial to wait until you have finished a year of classes as a post-bac student; however, that depends on your particular numbers and situation.

  2. DR. Eaton,

    Thank for this post. I have found it quite useful. I am a student that has decided to take a gap year before applying to med school and obviously want to spend some of this time collecting work experience and volunteering. I understand what sort of things one can do as work experience however, I was wondering if there are any organisations for gap year students that you could recommend. There are many that turn up on search engines however I do not know how to be sure about whether these organisations are reputable or not. Is there anything that you could recommend?

    Thank you,

    Camilla

  3. Hi Camilla,

    I am glad that this post was helpful to you. I do not post recommendations for specific organizations, but one way to evaluate organizations is to ask to speak with students who have used the organizations. I am not sure if you mean organizations that coordinate volunteer groups abroad or domestically, but in either case, check references.

  4. I have a question in regards to my gap year as well. I did well on my MCAT after taking a Kaplan prep class and have spent the last year tutoring students in Biochemistry, Organic Chemistry, Molecular Biology, and Genetics while in College. I believe I have been successful as a tutor and could do well teaching a class for Kaplan (and have successfully applied for a position), but was wondering about how doing so would look to medical schools. I would likely work part time for Kaplan and work part time either clinically or in a lab setting. I have heard from some people that medical schools often look down upon Kaplan and Princeton Review and other “for profit” organizations and just wanted to make sure that doing so wouldn’t be a major detriment. (I haven’t found too much information on this previously published anywhere on the internet)

  5. Hi Mark,

    I have worked with numerous successful applicants who have taught MCAT prep courses and this type of experience has value in that you will be teaching and reinforcing your own knowledge of science. Teaching is a skill that is applicable to medicine because as a physician you will have to explain diagnoses and treatment plans to your patients. This is paid work for a for profit company as you mentioned, so it would not count as community service/volunteer work, but there are other ways to gain that. If this is something that you are interested, then do it. I do not think this will be a detriment to your application.

  6. Dr. Eaton,

    I am a recent college graduate (May 2012). I applied and got into a bunch of MPH programs and never applied to MD schools because I wasn’t sure that my application was strong enough. However, I just don’t think I can commit two years to an MPH program when it’s not what I want. After reading that an MPH really doesn’t strengthen an application like I thought, I’ve decided not to pursue it.

    My question is – in this gap year, what are my options? I think it is too late to apply to any post-bacc or special masters programs, so how can I strengthen my application? Both my MCAT and GPA are less than stellar, but I have great extra curriculars. I have a job lined up at a hospital for a unit clerk in the nurse’s ward, but will this even look good on an application?

    Hinna

  7. Dr. Eaton,

    I will be a 2012 graduate and I believe that my verbal section that I just took on my 7/6/2012 MCAT will be subpar( well below practice scores). I have a high gpa, but I do not want to spend money applying to scores feeling very poorly about my MCAT verbal score. A late August retake will do no good for this year’s cycle as most medical school already have applicants selected for interviews by then and my odds will have dropped significantly. I have no problems waiting a year and applying then, but I am very concerned about trying to obtain a research position. Through my experience, I have found paid research positions nearly impossible to come about and I have little confidence in obtaining one even with my good academic performances. I do have limited research experience and will be taking a research class under faculty for credit this upcoming year, but again I am very unsure about obtaining a paid research job. Are their any websites that post research job openings that you know of? I have searched a couple websites posted by my school and very few or none show up. I am willing to go anyway in the country to work and I am asking you for your advice. I do not want to be stuck working at Wal-Mart or Mcdonalds after four years of hard work, volunteering, and thousands of dollars spent on a college degree. I am currently seeking out all options well in advance.

    Thanks,
    Anthony

  8. Hi Anthony,

    I do not have specific websites to recommend for job postings; however, I do have some recommendations for you in your job search:

    1. Contact your professors or other researchers that you know. Let them know that you are seeking a position in research and ask if they have an opening in their lab or if they may know of a colleague who does. A contact is often the best way to find a job of any kind.

    2. Broaden your search to include jobs in industry if you have not already, rather than just focusing on academia.

    Finding one’s first job after college can be a challenge, but the fact that you have some research experience already will help. Continue to get more even if it means volunteering in a lab as you conduct your job search.

  9. Dear Dr. Eaton,

    I will be a senior majoring in Biomedical Engineering this year, and I have been hesitant about applying because I did not have enough time to study for the MCATs and I feel I may not be prepared to take them yet. I’m currently finishing up an internship for the summer and I have had 2 semesters of research under my belt (Muskuloskeletal lab) and 2 more semesters this senior year. If I do well on my MCATs (plan to take in late August/early September) and my current GPA is 3.76, I have been shadowing a doctor, volunteered in a hospital, and did a mission to Honduras with Global Medical Brigades, is it still plausible to apply this cycle or is it better to just wait to get more experience in to strengthen my application? My plan for that year would be to complete a 5 year accelerated master’s program for Biomedical Engineering. Thank you!

  10. Dr. Eaton,

    I will graduate college a year early in May of 2013. I am a double major (history & biology) and took all the required med school courses. My GPA is okay (3.86) but I feel that I can raise it back up to over a 3.9 my final year. I have been volunteering in a clinical setting for five years. I am also shadowing a physician over the summer and will continue to do so during my senior year. I have been conducting cancer genetics research at my University since the summer of my freshman year. This summer I got accepted into a paid research fellowship. However, I was supposed to take my MCATS early this summer but honestly I have no time to study for it. I realize that it’s too late to apply to medical schools for the fall of 2013. Therefore, I am planning on taking the MCATS in January 2013. That would give me about 6 months to study for it. However, that would mean that I will have a gap year between college and medical school. I DON’T know what to do during that year. Also, my parents have a problem with me taking a gap year and want me to go to a med school in Europe. ( We lived in Europe for 10 years) I really don’t want to go to Europe and risk getting into a residency program back home. What do I do? How am I supposed to convince them that it is better for me to take the gap year and apply in the spring to med schools? Also, what should I do for the gap year? I would definitely want to work and earn some money since I will have to pay for med school on my own. But who will want to hire me for one year?

  11. Hi Jani,

    I cannot comment specifically on whether or not you should apply this year versus next as I would need to review your transcripts, specific experiences including dates and hours and other information in order to provide an educated analysis of the situation; however, a late August or early September MCAT will mean that your scores will not be available until late September or early October, by which time interviews are already underway at many schools. That is a factor to consider when deciding to apply this year versus next. Your cumulative GPA is competitive, and you have a good range of activities, but the MCAT and the timing of the application are important factors as well, so it depends on if you want to try for this year but later in the cycle than is ideal or strengthen your application some more and be ready to apply in June 2013 at the beginning of the cycle.

  12. Hi Anna,

    From the information you have given me, it sounds like you are a strong applicant. You were wise to not rush to take the MCAT when you were not ready, as this is such an important factor in admissions. Taking a gap year has become very common and there are various options for that time. Some jobs, such as ER scribe, are often filled by premedical students and the expectation is only for a one or two years commitment. This type of position would allow you to work in a medical setting and to be open about the fact that you will only be working for a year. There are companies that hire scribes and then place them in hospitals that have contracted with them, or some hospitals have their own scribe programs. Also, some research positions are only for a year as that is the amount of time a PI may have funding to pay for the position or needs extra help on a particular project, or is simply willing ot hire someone short term. Another option is a volunteer program with a stipend such as Americorps. Graduating from a U.S. medical school will make it much easier to get a residency position in the U.S. This is especially important if you end up going into a highly competitive specialty. Although taking a gap year will delay the start of med school for a year, it may be the better choice in the long run in terms of your career.

  13. Dr. Eaton
    I will be entering my senior year of college as a chemistry major, biology minor. My current GPA is 2.9 and I want to become a pediatrician. I planned on going to a post-bac program but I am not ready to take the MCAT and this last year of college will be difficult and studying for the test this year dosen’t seem possible. What are your thoughts on me taking a year off to work before doing a post-bac or medical school. I know my GPA is not stellar so my MCAT score needs to be. I am just not ready to apply and get to medical school and fail. I am very serious about becoming a doctor I think I need a year to focus and apply.

  14. Dr. Eaton,

    I’m planning on taking a year off before Medical School, but I need to find a good job so that I can save up enough money to backpack through Europe the summer before Med School. I already have about 100 volunteer hours at a hospital, am currently shadowing a heart surgeon, and will graduate with a double major in Microbiology and Psychology. Is there any job that you can recommend to me that will allow me to support myself for that year and allow me to save money for my trip to Europe, that is also medically relevant?

    Or would it be alright if I just got a regular job and continued to shadow the heart surgeon during my free time?

    I’m also great at Math and writing papers. I was considering tutoring students during that year to make money. I just don’t know what to do. Any thoughts?

    – Kaitlin

  15. Dr. Eaton,

    I graduated a few months ago, and I decided to take a year off from medical school due to financial reasons– mainly to help out my family since my mother was unemployed for the past year. My GPA is not so great, but now it might be quite late to enroll in a program in universities. Should I try to enroll in just a couple of classes? If so, what would you recommend? I would really like to show the medical schools that I am applying to this year that I am persistent in being accepted. Aside from this, I have already signed up to volunteer weekly with a local hospital and am currently looking for a job in a healthcare setting. Please let me know what else you would recommend me to do.

    -Emma

  16. Hi Dr.Eaton,

    I have submitted secondary application for every school for about two weeks. In fact, I started submitting my secondary application since the end of July, but I have not heard back from most of the schools (16 out of 18), and I have heard that other people have received the invites for interviews. What should I do at this point? Do the medical schools just send out the interview invites for the most competitive students? And when do interviews usually peak? I am just getting a bit nervous here. Thanks for the help.

  17. I was in the dual admissions program from high school, when I asked my advisor for medical school I was confused when I had to submit everything because I am a senior in college she sent me a letter outlining everything. I spoke to her on August 15 and from that letter it basically said Nov 15 so I took my mcat September 6 and now I have been kicked out of the program because I did not meet the deadline which states before classes resume which would have been August 22. What should I do?

  18. Hi Dr. Eaton,

    I am confused whether to enter med school or continue working abroad. When I was still in college, I thought I was sure to become a doctor. However, now that I have begun working overseas, I am having second thoughts on becoming one. My parents are persuading me to study medicine but I just don’t know what to do. I am caught up between work and studies. Please help.

    Thank you very much.

  19. Hi Jacob,

    Before you make a decision, consider doing some more shadowing and clinical volunteering as well as speaking with physicians if that is possible to do while abroad. I don’t know how long you’ve been out of school, but if it’s been a while, it may help to get back to being exposed to medicine before you make your decision. Whether or not to ultimately go to med school depends on the career you want for the long term and if medicine is your calling and the job abroad is something you want to do short term, or if that or another career path is more attractive to you. This question is a personal one that each individual needs to make for him or herself.

  20. One outstanding opportunity is the Horseshoe Farm Fellowship. This competitive one year/gap year opportunity is geared to towards outstanding recent college graduates with an interest in community health/community based service leadership. The Fellowship is now in its 4th year and we will be accepting 5 new Fellows for the coming year (application deadline is January 31). Fellows receive an educational grant of $600/month and free housing. Please go to http://www.projecthorseshoefarm.org for more information – we will be updating our website in the next couple of weeks).

  21. Hello Dr. Eaton,

    I realize that this thread has lost its recency, however upon reading your comments I feel that you have knowledge and advice that can benefit me. I, as many others in the comments above, have just about definitively decided to take a gap year (by applying to medical school immediately after graduating from my undergraduate institution). All things considered in the medical school admissions process, there are quite a number of issues one can be worried about, but I have a rather unconventional question. Do you know, or are you at liberty to share, whether or not the reputation of one’s undergraduate university has any effect on the admissions process? I’m mainly interested in this question given that two applicants are hypothetically equivalent in all other areas, but one student went to a more sought after undergraduate university. I ask this because I have heard a lot of rumors around my campus (I’m currently in the Ivy League, at UPenn) and I have been searching for some validity to put to (or remove from) these words. Any information you have will be very helpful. Thanks!

  22. Hi Dr. Eaton,

    I am a recent graduate from a post-bac program and was looking to apply to DO schools. I did not get a very good GPA in the program but I do have a good academic standing from my bachelor’s degree. I did not fail any classes in the post-bac and have learned how to study more effectively for the types of classes I will encounter in medical school. I am also currently employed full-time as a ER scribe and am getting good connections with physicians and learning a lot from seeing so many patients. So i haven’t completely veered away from the medical field. My question is with this year that I have until I have to apply to medical school, will improving my MCAT score be enough to get me into med school or will my post-bac GPA be my downfall?

    thanks,
    Lauren

  23. Hi Dr. Eaton,
    My son finished his degree last April with a double major in Biology/Classics with a 3.73 GPA. He scored 36 on the MCAT, shadowed our family doctor, volunteered in Emergency and Surgery at the hospital, worked at a genetics lab dissecting fruit fly larvae for one year and was a teacher’s assistant for a semester. He applied to 17 medical schools (early), but has not gotten one interview. He has received rejections to about half. We had a friend (who is the director of a pre-med program at a local college) review his application with no suggestions, and he was sure he would get several offers. Do you have any suggestions? He is currently working as a lab assistant and really has his heart set on medical school. It is important to point out that this is his dream, not ours!

  24. Hello,

    I am an undergraduate junior right now, planning to take a gap year. I wanted to pursue a post-bac program while applying to medical schools, so that I will be able to attend a school as soon as I finish a 1-year program. However, you said that the grades from the post-bac will not influence your application…so how would doing this program be beneficial? I wanted to pursue a masters degree while applying, but I wanted the grades to improve my application and GPA. I guess I am just conflicted as to how this is going to benefit me without having to take another year off.

  25. I have a question that has appeared to show up a few times before, however I wanted to fully understand. As a current junior, I have a GPA/SGPA of ~ 3.4/3.5, which is not all that great. My major, Biomedical Laboratory Diagnostics, does not count towards the science GPA apparently, which I just recently discovered, adding to my decreased GPA. Given that, I have 2 or 3 classes my senior year which will count towards my science GPA and hopefully increase it, so I would like to take a gap year to include those grades when I apply. Given the situation that my overall GPA does not significantly increase after senior year, what should I pursue in the gap year? Taking an additional one or two classes – where at? Will these be at my current university or at a community college? How will that look when I begin applying (June after my senior year)? I have a well-rounded application otherwise, but want to make my GPA far more competitive. Thank you!

  26. Hello ,
    My 11th grade result was not that good . I goted grades ranging from A to C . I have my own reason for that .
    Apart from this my SAT and SAT2 scores are near to perfect , and I am doing well in my school as well (I am in 12th grade now) .

    Should I apply to colleges with my poor 11th grades and satisfactory 12th half term grades ,
    or should I take a year off to do some volunteering work and impress the admission officer with my grades and resume ?

    PLEASE HELP

  27. Hi Dr. Eaton,

    What is the standard protocol for applying to medical schools while having a gap year in mind? I’m a junior chemistry and music composition double-major with a 3.83 GPA and lots of extracurriculars/shadowing/volunteer hours. I also am scheduled to take the MCAT this July.

    I’m wondering when to complete/submit primary applications because I have been informed that people who take gap years don’t apply to med school until after they graduate college. Please let me know your thoughts and advice.

    Thank you!

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