Four Reasons to Take a Gap Year

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Nathan Wilson, Assistant Director, Duke University Career Center
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Taking a gap year (or two) before entering medical school is becoming increasingly common. While some refer to the gap period as time off, this is misleading. Taking time between your undergraduate experience and medical school can be a worthwhile investment in yourself and thus, your future. Gap periods can be spent in any number of ways depending on your strength of candidacy, life goals, and professional aspirations. Here are some considerations for how to use your gap period, many of which can be done concurrently:

1. To Improve Your Credentials

Perhaps the most obvious choice would be to use this time period to strengthen your credentials for medical school. Before considering anything else for your gap period, make sure your GPA, MCAT score, and other application materials are where you want them to be.

Taking time to address any perceived shortcomings or gaps in your application can be tremendously beneficial to your chances of getting in. If you need more shadowing, clinical experience, or face-to-face patient contact, the gap year is a great time to get those hours. EMT and scribe positions are familiar options, though the possibilities are infinite. Shadowing hours can be obtained in many different facilities, and medical schools like to see shadowing experience in a variety of settings.

If your GPA is lower than you would like, you may consider re-taking some classes. If there are just a few grades you want to improve, it might make more sense to retake those courses individually versus enrolling a post-bac program. It is no secret that these programs can be very expensive, and they are not always the silver bullet that some students make them out to be. If you are lacking in healthcare/clinical hours in addition to a borderline GPA, then a post-bacc may be a worthwhile option. If you decide to retake classes individually, be sure that you are taking them at a four-year institution.

While students often assume that research is one of their only options, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, the degree to which medical programs prioritize research experience varies greatly. If you are applying to MD-PhD programs, research will be important. If you’re not, however, research doesn’t have to be your default gap year experience.

2. To Explore Other Fields

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To satisfy your own intellectual curiosity or to develop skills and knowledge you can take with you into medicine, gaining experience in other fields can be a great option. The world of medicine is a complex one, and medical professionals can use knowledge about fields like economics or education in their practice. Some students stay within healthcare during their gap year, but from a different angle. For example, working at a medical nonprofit or policy-related organization may give you a more thorough understanding of the healthcare field by approaching it from a different perspective.*

A common misconception is that your application will suffer if you spend your gap period away from the world of medicine. This is certainly not the case. Medical schools want critical thinkers and diverse perspectives. Pre-med tracks are often cut-and-dry, which can disincentivize exploration into different fields. If all of your experiences are in STEM and medicine, though, it can be challenging to articulate why medicine is the right path for you. How could you know if you’ve never tried anything else?

*An important note: It is extremely unethical to mislead an employer about how much time you plan to take off before entering medical school. If you decide to pursue full-time employment during your gap period, be mindful of the fact that employers are typically seeking a commitment of more than one year. You will need flexibility when the time comes to interview, which often requires extensive travel. If you are only taking one year, then you may not even be finished with training at your full-time job before you need to take time off for interviews. If you were dishonest with your employer about this, you may find yourself in a very difficult situation. Honesty is always the best policy, particularly to the folks signing your paycheck!

 3. To Get Ahead on Your Professional Credentials

Some students take a year or two to pursue a master’s degree based on their intended career path. It is not unheard of for an applicant who intends to start their own practice to obtain an MBA before entering medical school. Global Health and Public Health master’s programs are also options, though it is wise to research the medical programs to which you are applying first. Some schools offer combined MD-MPH programs, for example, or have global health offerings which may render a separate master’s degree superfluous.

4. To Focus on Yourself or Tackle Your “Bucket List”

When most of your energy and time is spent fulfilling pre-med responsibilities, it can be easy to lose track of the big picture. Pursuing a career in medicine requires you to be “all-in.” It is a long, difficult path that won’t leave much room for other life goals that you may have. If your credentials as a medical school candidate are solid, taking some time to pursue other interests before matriculating may be the best course of action for your own wellness and fulfillment. Moreover, it may give you interview material for when the time comes, and it may show a degree of confidence that you took some time for yourself and focused on your own goals before diving into medical school. Burnout is a big problem for medical students and professionals, so recharging is imperative for your own success.

A year or two may seem like forever right now, but you have a lifetime ahead of you to be a medical professional. It will be much harder to drop everything and do something out-of-the-box when you are in medical school, residency, or a fellowship. By then, you may have a family and further professional obligations that will make that “bucket list” item nearly impossible to complete. Remember, you are only young once! Your own well-being is worth prioritizing, for both reasons both personal and professional.

Whatever You Choose, Be Intentional

There is no magic formula for a gap period because every student’s situation is different. Therefore, it’s crucial to reflect on your own goals and to be strategic about how you use this time. Define what you hope to achieve in this period without losing sight of the ultimate goal. It may be “time off” from school, but it is certainly not time wasted.

Duke Health Professions Advising can work with you to assess your strength of candidacy, which should be your first step in planning a gap year. You can also sign-up for their newsletter that has lots of good Gap Year opportunities. In addition, the Association of American Medical Colleges has a great Gap Year page as well.

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