How to Spend Your Gap Year Before Medical School

The definitive guide to choosing the right option and maximizing your admissions odds

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Table of Contents

Introduction

Should you take a gap year?

Gap year options

  • Enrolling in a post-bacc program

  • Enrolling in a Special Master’s Program (SMP)

  • Enrolling in a Master’s in Public Health (MPH) program (or other medically relevant program)

  • Studying for the MCAT

  • Pursuing a professional medical experience (e.g., working as a scribe, EMT, medical assistant)

  • Conducting medical (or medically relevant) research

  • Miscellaneous experiences (e.g., growing your nonprofit organization, working as a medical sales rep, joining a startup)

Final thoughts

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Introduction

Perhaps you’re like many aspiring physicians for whom things haven’t always gone as planned. For instance, your GPA or MCAT score may be lower than you need to get into your top-choice schools. Furthermore, you may have accumulated fewer shadowing, community service, volunteering, patient exposure, or research hours than you need to be competitive for certain medical programs.

Alternatively, you may be the type of student who has the stats and the right extracurriculars but you simply want to take some time off to gain real-world experiences (e.g., working) or pursue a passion, like travel, that you’ll have less time for once medical school begins. Or, you may be ready to apply with respect to academics and extracurriculars but have to tend to personal matters (e.g., a major illness in the family) first.

Regardless of which camp you fall into, you’re not alone. The average age of medical school matriculation is 24 and about 60% of med school applicants get rejected from everywhere during any given year. It’s therefore common to have to decide whether or not to take a gap year—and especially how to spend it.

However, just because a lot of premed students have to decide how to spend their gap year does not mean that the decision-making process is any easier or less stressful. Given how competitive and high stakes the medical school admissions process is, you’ll want to selectively pursue activities before (re)applying.

This guide covers various options for how to spend your gap year, including whether or not each one is right for you. Of course, it’s impossible to discuss every possible path to take during your gap year, but our goal is to provide appropriate filters for evaluating options.

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Should you take a gap year?

Before we get into your various options, it’s worth discussing whether you should take a gap year in the first place. Although the decision is sometimes clear, it’s often not. Here are a few scenarios that warrant or maybe warrant taking a gap year:

Warrant

  • Your GPA or MCAT score is significantly lower than what most MD and DO schools will accept

  • You will not have completed your prerequisite science courses by the time you would enroll in medical school

  • You received your first—or only competitive—MCAT score late in the med school application cycle and are therefore disadvantaged from a rolling admissions standpoint or cannot meet application deadlines

  • You don’t have enough shadowing, volunteering, community service, or patient exposure hours

  • A personal circumstance necessitates you take a break from school or work

Maybe warrant

  • Your GPA or MCAT score is lower than what the schools you’re itching to go to will accept

  • You received your first—or only competitive—MCAT score midway through the application cycle and have not pre-written most essays

  • You have at least the minimum amount of extracurricular hours, but nothing particularly stands out

  • You have to tend to a personal matter that will require significant time and attention

  • You’re completely burnt out from school or work or want to pursue a certain interest before starting medical school

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Gap year options

Our most common response to students who ask whether we recommend they take a gap year is, “It depends on what you intend to accomplish.”

The best way to evaluate how to spend your gap year is to consider the current red flag(s) on your resume and whether a particular option clearly addresses it. Otherwise, you won’t add any new positive information to your application and it will turn out to be a wasted year.

Below are the most popular gap year options, including whether they’re the right choice for you. Keep in mind that some options can be pursued simultaneously during the same gap year.

Enrolling in a post-bacc program

Pros: Post-bacc programs offer an opportunity to complete prerequisite science courses, boost your GPA, and (sometimes) access extracurricular experiences you’re lacking (e.g., hospital volunteering). They can be completed formally (e.g., a program at a university you apply to) or informally. (e.g., taking a number of courses through your local university’s extension program) Additionally, post-bacc courses offer more opportunities to build relationships with professors—and receive strong recommendation letters—in case you didn’t do so during undergrad.

Cons: Post-bacc programs are often fairly easy to get into. Moreover, they usually don’t offer the same level of competition as your undergraduate prerequisite courses, meaning high grades there won’t be viewed as favorably as high grades at your undergraduate institution. In addition, post-bacc programs may require a large tuition payment, increasing your loans before you even begin medical school.

Who should consider it: Students whose GPA is significantly lower than what most MD and DO schools will accept or students whose GPA is lower than what the schools they really want to attend typically accept.

Who should not consider it: Students whose GPA is at least “good enough” to get into the med schools they’re interested in attending.

(Note: Here’s a long list of post-bacc premed programs)

Enrolling in a Special Master’s Program (SMP)

Pros: SMPs are typically much more difficult to get into than a post-bacc program. Furthermore, the classes—which may be taken alongside first-year medical students—tend to be more rigorous than post-bacc programs or even Master’s in Public Health programs. Therefore, a strong performance in your SMP may significantly boost your admissions odds. At some medical schools, receiving a certain SMP GPA even guarantees you an interview invitation. In addition, many SMPs offer research opportunities for interested students. And as with post-bacc programs, you can work on building faculty relationships to receive stronger rec letters than you would from your undergrad professors.

Cons: The degree itself—Master’s in Medical Sciences or Master’s in Medical Physiology—carries almost no weight. Therefore, if you enroll in an SMP and don’t do well, you will have paid a significant amount of money or amassed a lot of debt with substantively very little to show for it. Moreover, the bar to get in is set much higher than a post-bacc program. Finally, some SMPs require two years to complete.

Who should consider it: Students whose GPA is lower than what the schools they really want to attend typically accept but is competitive enough to get into an SMP orstudents who want to boost their GPA and accumulate more significant research experiences.

Who should not consider it: Students whose GPA is significantly lower than what most MD and DO schools will accept orstudents who will likely struggle academically in their SMP.

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Enrolling in a Master’s in Public Health (MPH) program (or other medically relevant program)

Pros: Public health coursework interests many prospective medical students and the degree itself can open doors if you choose to work as something other than a physician. In addition, you’ll be able to take a “public health angle” across your application materials.

Cons: MPH programs can be fairly easy to get admitted to and do well in, so their GPAs may carry less weight than SMPs. Additionally, MPH coursework largely does not overlap with premedical prerequisites, so doing well in them will not necessarily reassure adcoms that you’re fit to excel in the types of courses you’ll encounter during med school. And as with post-bacc programs and SMPs, MPH programs can require a significant financial investment.

Who should consider it: Students who want to demonstrate recent strong grades and who have a genuine interest in public health.

Who should not consider it: Students who have not yet taken all of their perquisite science courses.

Studying for the MCAT

Pros: Studying for your MCAT during your gap year can be much less distracting than doing so during your undergraduate years. By going all in, you will increase the odds of receiving your best-possible score.

Cons: While studying for the MCAT can be done alongside other activities, exclusively preparing for the exam may mean not being able to pursue other activities, like accumulating patient exposure hours, that are lacking on your resume. Moreover, there’s never a guarantee that you will achieve a certain score on the MCAT, no matter how much time you put into it. It’s difficult to understand the opportunity cost without knowing what your eventual score will be.

Who should consider it: Students whose GPA is at least “good enough” to get into the med schools they’re interested in attending but who have not yet taken the MCAT or have a relatively low score.

Who should not consider it: Students whose MCAT is at least “good enough” to get into the med schools they’re interested in attending. 

Pursuing a professional medical experience (e.g., working as a scribe, EMT, medical assistant)

Pros: Gap years can provide a great opportunity to catch up on patient exposure hours. Moreover, you will demonstrate your commitment to medicine to adcoms by continuing to pursue medically relevant experiences. In addition, you can actually make some money rather than take on massive loans before starting school.

Cons: As long as you have a GPA and MCAT score that are competitive enough for the medical schools you’re interested in attending, there are few downsides to pursuing professional medical experiences full-time. Moreover, you can pursue any of these experiences part-time if you also need to boost your GPA or study for your MCAT.

Who should consider it: Students whose GPA and MCAT scores are or nearly are “good enough” to get into the med schools they’re interested in attending but who lack sufficient patient exposure hours to stand out.

Who should not consider it: Students who have accumulated the required patient exposure hours but whose GPA or MCAT score is significantly lower than what their medical schools of interest typically accept.

(Note: We won’t devote a separate section to shadowing or community service. The rule of thumb for those is: if you don’t have enough of those hours, get them. And make sure to accumulate some DO physician shadowing hours if you intend to apply to DO programs.)

Conducting medical (or medically relevant) research

Pros: While research is technically not a medical school requirement, most competitive applicants accumulate research experience during their undergrad years and beyond. Therefore, research is somewhat of an unspoken requirement to which gap years lend themselves well. In addition, if being a top researcher is an important selling point on your application, spending more time on your work and ideally publishing a paper or two can go a long way to boost your admissions odds.

Cons: Doing research well can be very time consuming. Therefore, it may be difficult to meaningfully pursue research while adequately addressing other red flags on your resume. Additionally, you may be the type of person who simply does not like research.

Who should consider it: Students who have “good enough” stats and extracurricular experiences but who are either lacking in the research department or want to continue completing important work to stand out.

Who should not consider it: Students who have significant red flags on their application (e.g., low GPA) that take precedence over conducting research.

Miscellaneous experiences (e.g., growing your nonprofit organization, working as a medical sales rep, joining a startup)

Pros: It’s nice to pursue something simply because it brings you fulfillment, meets your goals, helps you make a bigger impact, or broadens your horizons. In addition, miscellaneous experiences can add a unique richness to your application (e.g., personal statement, Work and Activities section, secondaries, interviews).

Cons: As with professional medical experiences, it’s hard to pinpoint cons as long as your GPA and MCAT scores are competitive enough for your target medical schools.

Who should consider it: Students who have the requisite stats and extracurricular experiences to get into great medical schools but who want to explore a new area or complete an existing project.

Who should not consider it: Students who have outstanding red flags that they need to address.

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Final thoughts

It may or may not be necessary for you to take a gap year before applying to medical school. In making your decision, consider any missing pieces or red flags on your application and how you can use your gap year to address them.

It’s also critical to note that there are no “magic bullet” gap year experiences. In other words, you should first honestly assess how you need to bolster your application before asking, “What should I do during my gap year?” A great gap year decision for one student may be a really poor choice for you.

Regardless of whether the opportunities you’re presented with were specifically covered in this guide, we hope you now have a framework for appropriately evaluating them. By using your gap year wisely, you can significantly increase your admissions odds during the following application cycle.

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