Should You Take A Gap Year During Medical School

Premed students may take a gap year before medical school for a variety of reasons. The reason could be to gain clinical experiences, pursue a secondary degree, build their school applications/curriculum vitae, or handle unexpected life events. They may also wish to pursue a post-baccalaureate program or gain more experience in a clinical setting. Taking a year off during your undergraduate studies, for whatever reason, is a big move and can be a very expensive decision. Taking a year off will mean delaying your future physician’s salary for another year. However, it may also mean a decrease in time before medical school admission.

Medical students may also opt to take a gap, or “transition”, year from their medical studies. If you’re interested in competitive specialties like dermatology, neurosurgery, or urology considering a year gap to complete clinical research projects for publication can be extremely beneficial. Of course, your test scores, letters of recommendation, and other extracurricular experiences listed on your CV must also be weighed when considering this choice.

Pre-med Benefits for a Gap Year

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges’ 2019 survey of incoming medical students, 43.9 percent of those who were admitted to an academic program took 1-2 gap years. 13.4 percent of the students also took three to four gap years, and 7.9 percent took five+ years off. Taking a gap can help to curb the burnout often witnessed during the academic journey and allow more time to study for the MCAT.

Appropriate gap year plans can prove to be a boon for your medical school application. Using it to fulfill academic and research requirements, gain hands-on experience, and explore other careers in medicine can help you set proper long-term goals.

Medical Student Benefits

It’s not uncommon for those in medical school to take a break. Depending on your school’s curriculum and regulations, a leave of absence for personal reasons or research may be acceptable. This is a great time to re-visit your reasons for continuing down this arduous path and assess if alterations need to be made.

Burnout is a real concern with higher anxiety and depression rates in medical students. A gap before taking the board exams or applying for residency may be just what you need to clear the mind and rejuvenate your ambitions. It also allows for CV-building activities to boost your chance of ranking during the next Match.

Gap Year Opportunities

A. Volunteer Opportunities

Volunteer programs are especially relevant for pre-med gap year experiences. These activities can demonstrate compassion and interest in community service. Searching online or speaking with your school counselor may provide you with many options to explore. Choose one that fits your current schedule but also provides the desired educational experiences.

Volunteering in a medically-related sector may provide valuable experiences. Working with patients or in a public health setting will not only help you to solidify your decision to study medicine, but it will also make you a more informed student. Another great way to get a realistic perspective of different medical experiences and working conditions is clinical shadowing or preceptorships with doctors.

B. Research Gap Year Opportunities

Taking a gap year can be helpful if you believe you won’t be able to juggle between the multiple application components and undergrad college tasks. You can devote all of your time to studying and then focus on the application process during your time off.

Working with professors, doctors, and researchers during this time is a great opportunity to attain a letter of recommendation. The more you build strong relationships and contacts with medical professionals, the better they get to know your abilities, which will ultimately provide you with a strong letter of recommendation.

Trainees can even participate in medical-related gap year programs, scientific research, and other scholarly activities. This time is the opportunity to pursue prestigious research fellowships or science-based Master’s programs to gain unique CV-building experiences. This gives a greater understanding of the various research processes within medical science. Many schools value continuous scholarly and research practices as well. These types of academic gaps are much more beneficial than, for example, working in a non-medically related field during your time away from medicine.

C. Personal Development

Learning to manage money is a crucial life skill, and one many physicians are never formally taught. This time may be utilized to learn effective money management techniques and build a monthly budget. Consider your future educational expenses, travel, materials, exam costs, living expenses, and all other foreseeable financial considerations. Finding a physician-oriented personal finance book or blog can give you insights into the future financial decisions you will have to face.

During your break, take some time to consider your ambitions to become a doctor. Consider starting a journal or voice recording your thoughts. This may not only help you in med school or residency interview preparation and personal statement creation but act as a reference point later on. Reflecting on why you’re interested in this demanding journey can also help you stay motivated when you hit hard times.

D. Work Experience

Pre-med work experience provides valuable training in the medical field and displays an interest in furthering your career in healthcare. It also gives admissions committees a stronger sense of your commitment to the field.

International medical students and graduates (IMSs, IMGs) may also require more clinical experience than their US counterparts. Gaining U.S. clinical experience (USCE) helps demonstrate to residency directors that you have the relevant experience in the current healthcare models to be a great addition to their program. For more details on USCE, read our United States clinical experience by specialty guide.

Will Taking a Gap Year Reflext Poorly?

Taking a year off or more is not a good or bad idea by itself. However, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and have backup plans in place. A gap year should not be seen merely as a placeholder in the career of a student. If this time is not utilized for personal growth and development it may end up being an expensive waste of time. It should accentuate your CV by adding experiences that make you shine. Generally speaking, no one regrets taking a break. The self-discoveries you create during this time can end up shaping your application and specialty choices.

Pros

  • A gap year gives ample time to study for, take the MCAT or USMLE/COMLEX.
  • Pre-meds may take this time to re-take courses with the aim of increasing their GPA.
  • Networking with medical practitioners can be an invaluable resource.
  • It gives time to enhance extracurricular skills and build your credentials.
  • Work experience and research opportunities may assist with funding your future academic goals.
  • Explore other career options and discover a better work-life balance than clinical medicine may provide.

Cons

  • Poor planning can negatively affect your time and financial standing.
  • The time to become a doctor increases with taking a gap.
  • Program rejection after a gap year can take a strong emotional and psychological toll on students.
  • Family and peer questioning about your academic delay can increase stress and feelings of self-doubt.

Final Advice

Always plan ahead if you are considering taking a gap year. A proactive decision is a must, as an unplanned hiatus will usually lead to inefficient use of time. Review all of your options well in advance and take into consideration application dates and deadlines.

Have a backup plan before deciding on taking time off. Things often don’t turn out as we originally planned. Having one or multiple backup plans can save you the stress of juggling current responsibilities while trying to find a new way to increase your medical education.

Whatever the outcome, make sure to take care of yourself first and foremost. A burnt-out clinical practitioner is not only less likely to provide top-notch patient care but also may experience a decreased quality of life. You are an intelligent human being with endless potential. Don’t be afraid to seek help, gain mentorship, fail, fail again, or even decide on a different path altogether. You will be at your best when you find your true passion.

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