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 post 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 more about these in our post-bac posts .
Here are some of the major ways in which to spend a gap year before medical school:
- 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 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.
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