When is a gap year a good idea?
What you really want to know is, how will adcoms view a gap year, and as such, when is a gap year a good idea? Which of these assumptions will they make:
(1) it’s evidence of personal failure (assuming you didn’t get an acceptance the first time around);
(2) it looks like a sneaky way to take a nice, long break and maybe even an extended vacation;
(3) it makes you a more attractive candidate, and one more mature; or even
(4) it puts you ahead of the curve especially if you use it wisely for things like post-bacc classes or a SMP (special masters program).
You’re not alone: lots of “gappers”
The average age of med school applicants has inched up a bit recently: last year it was age 24-25. I know a new med student this year who has four kids and ran his own construction business for years, who’s starting med school at the ripe old age of 34.
In reality, the best strategy is to apply when you’re ready, not when the calendar tells you to. Here are some of the things that could make taking a gap year a good idea:
You need to improve your GPA. If you aren’t happy with your undergrad GPA, taking some extra science classes can make you more competitive. Instead of re-doing classes you took in undergrad, jump into some upper-level courses to expand your knowledge base. There are post-bacc programs and even one-year SMPs (special master’s programs) that give you the ability to demonstrate your competency in the sciences. Some of these SMPs are affiliated with medical schools and could give you an extra nudge into a specific school.
Your prerequisites are skimpy. There are differing prerequisites at each medical school, and you may be missing a prerequisite or two called for by one or more of the programs you’re interested in. If so, you can create your own custom post-bacc program by taking a semester or two of extra prerequisites, expanding into useful areas like physiology, biochem, microbiology, molecular cell biology, immunology, and genetics. Beefing up your science quotient is highly encouraged.
You just couldn’t fit in MCAT prep during school. It can feel like a “zero sum game” in your junior/senior year trying to study for the MCAT while giving full attention to your coursework. In order to do one well, the other suffers. It may be a good strategy to finish up your coursework and then turn to the MCAT. Giving yourself the time to prep sufficiently for the MCAT (and therefore avoid taking it a second time!)
Your extracurriculars are thin. Your med school application will dictate: is a gap year a good idea?…do you have enough hours volunteering in a medical setting, doing research, shadowing doctors, and generally making yourself more well rounded than just a MCAT/GPA set of numbers. Taking an extra year to fill in these holes will not only look good on your application but will prepare you for your future as a physician.
You could use a mental health break.
This may seem counterintuitive, but with all the pressure you’ve been under for the last four years, you may benefit from taking a year to bounce back if you’re suffering from burnout. You don’t have to spell that out to the adcoms; just show them you’re still on the path towards your ultimate goal by adding in some of the activities above. Then take some time to rest, meet personal goals, and maybe even travel, as you ready for the tough journey ahead.
You need to pay down your school debt or put some funds away for medical school tuition. This is your last chance before taking out some substantial loans, and it may give you a clearer path to finishing medical school to know you can knock out some of your school debt now.
No one can answer the burning question: “Is a gap year a good idea?” but you! But the reasons above should help you realize it’s not always a bad idea and could actually be the perfect choice for you!
To see our post on some great ways to spend your gap year, see this post here.
Here are some other posts that may be helpful: