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How to Make the Most Out of a Gap Year Before Medical School

9 min


A woman on a gap year before medical school volunteering at a lab.


Taking a gap year before starting medical school can be a highly productive alternative to the traditional straight-through route. This time can be used to gain work experience, boost your MCAT score, perfect your essays and compile all components for your medical school applications, and much more! If you are considering taking one or more gap year(s), you might be wondering what you can do to make the most of your time. There are no right or wrong answers per se, but there are certainly important differences among experiences both in terms of how much you will gain and how favorably medical school admissions committees will view them. There are countless lists of possible activities and programs online, but here we have distilled information from professional advising and personal experience to provide guidance on this exact question.


Until recently, taking a gap year between college and medical school was seen as a radical choice not suitable for most applicants. However, students, pre-med advisors, and programs alike now embrace the gap year. In fact, the average age of matriculating medical students has risen to approximately 24, indicating that many students take some time off early in their educational careers. It is now commonplace for first-year medical school classes to be comprised of a relatively equal mix of students coming straight through and those returning from anywhere between one and several gap years.



Deciding What To Do With Your Gap Year Before Medical School


First and foremost, if you are taking time off before entering medical school, you should use it to do something you’ll enjoy. This parallels why you should enter medical school in the first place: because you want to. If you find a gap-year position or program that interests you, the benefits will be many. You will be happier and more productive, and consequently, your achievements will be greater and more apparent. Come interview season, it will also be easier to discuss takeaways from your role if you genuinely enjoyed and learned from it. Finally, positive experiences foster good relationships. It is highly recommended to ask your gap year supervisor to serve as one of your recommendation letter writers, especially if you are there for two or more years. It is always easier to be confident in the quality of a letter if you have a great relationship with the writer.


Start searching for opportunities as early as possible, ideally during the fall semester of your senior year. Unless you know exactly what you want to do with your gap year before medical school, it will likely take time to investigate options and discuss them with mentors, family members, and friends. And even if you know that you want to, say, work as a research assistant in a molecular biology lab, you will be faced with plenty of work to write applications and interview for positions.


Factor typical program/position length into your decision. Occasionally, the type of position you want and the amount of time you want to take off can conflict with one another. For example, most research assistant and lab manager positions are set to two years because it takes several months to train and onboard in a new lab. Be aware though that if you find these are in conflict, there is likely a workaround; you just need to look for one. There are in fact many one-year research assistant positions, but there may be special requirements, e.g., having prior experience in the lab’s research area or familiarity with the methods.



Develop Good Personal and Professional Habits That You Will Carry Forward


Medical school is demanding in many regards, famously due to the amount of content you will learn but also in terms of the responsibilities you will be taking on and the uncertainty you will face. It is different from college in many ways, so you may need to adjust your time management, sleep, and other habits to be successful in medical school. Take advantage of a consistent work schedule to practice more regimented time management. Your future medical student self will thank you!



Taking Time to Boost Your MCAT Score


Consider re-taking the MCAT to boost your score. Alternatively, you can delay taking the MCAT the first time until after college and use the extra time to prepare more thoroughly. This option is particularly advantageous because most people have more free time during a gap year than a typical college year which will allow them to study more effectively, and create a less stressful study schedule (and you don’t have to give up an entire summer for studying). However, this requires that you take at least two gap years, as those who are taking a single gap year before medical school will start the application process in their senior year and will therefore already need to have their MCAT score.



Final Thoughts and Tips for Your Gap Year Before Medical School


Remember that although your gap year should be productive, it doesn’t have to be productive strictly in the academic or professional sense. A gap year is an excellent time to build on your strengths or address certain weaknesses. Medical schools are interested in training people who will become good doctors, that is, individuals who are not only good students but also good people. Taking time off to reflect or learn broadly transferrable skills can be just as productive as working in a lab or as a medical scribe!

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