What To Do During Your Gap Year Before Medical School
- May 02, 2022
- MCAT Blog
- Reviewed By: Liz Flagge
Taking a gap year offers you the opportunity to gain new experiences, understand new perspectives, and learn new skills, while providing you with a break from an ongoing academic schedule. Gap years before medical school have become very common. According to data from the AAMC 2021 Matriculating Student Questionnaire, over two-thirds of matriculants took at least one gap year before starting medical school.
If you use the time during a gap year productively, it can definitely help you become a stronger applicant. A lot of pre-medical students use this time to improve on their weaknesses, study for the MCAT, conduct research, or gain other relevant experiences. Before you decide on taking a gap year, make sure you’re intentional about what you want out of your gap year and understand what your strengths and weaknesses are as a medical school applicant. If you’re considering taking a gap year, here are 10 potential opportunities to explore:
For a medical student, gaining research experience is one of the most common ways to spend your gap year. If you’re especially interested in attending a top-tier medical school, doing research fellowships in these institutions during your gap year can be tremendously helpful in networking and becoming a stronger applicant.
When pre-medical students hear about research, they sometimes start groaning and worrying about having to do laboratory grunt work and basic cell cultures. This doesn’t have to be you! If you plan on doing research, pursue a project that relates to your interests. Basic science research experience is certainly a great idea for some prospective applicants, but if you’re passionate about a specific area like health inequity, for example, you might pursue public health and epidemiology research. Or maybe you’re interested in the intersection of healthcare and AI. You can explore research regarding how software tools can improve physician workflow pipelines. Ultimately, when it comes to the medical school application, having a strong, coherent theme in your overall activities that align with your passions can make you stand out and help you in answering important medical school interview questions.
2. Study for the MCAT
If you haven’t taken the MCAT or you’re not satisfied with your current score, a gap year is the perfect chance to dedicate more time to test preparation and focus on getting your target MCAT score.
If you’re taking the MCAT for the first time…
Thinking about how to approach the MCAT can be really overwhelming. If you’re lost on where to start, check out Blueprint Prep’s free half-length diagnostic MCAT exam, free full-length MCAT practice test, and other resources. The AAMC also offers free planning and study tools that you can use to gauge your current strengths and weaknesses. Also, check out our blog post about how to get started with MCAT prep.
If you’re retaking the MCAT…
Take this time to thoroughly analyze and review your previous study patterns. It’s not enough to just study “harder.” You need to think about your past successes and mistakes so that you can study for them specifically. If you need some guidance on how to most effectively review MCAT practice tests, check out this blog post or consider getting one-on-one help from Blueprint’s MCAT tutors.
3. Work in a Clinical Position
If you want to gain some clinical experience while getting paid, working as a scribe or an EMT could be your best option. With these jobs, you can get meaningful, first-hand clinical experience in working with other healthcare professionals. Similar to shadowing and clinical exposure through volunteering, it will give you a good idea of what being a doctor is actually like. This can also be a good opportunity to get a solid letter of recommendation from a healthcare professional that you worked with.
Note that while these positions can often be incredibly meaningful and transformative, they can also be stressful and have a large time commitment. Therefore, be sure that the other aspects of your application are solid before considering these jobs. Research, meaningful community service, and good GPA and MCAT scores should be a top priority.
4. Shadow a Doctor
Shadowing is a great way for a medical student to learn about the day in the life of a doctor. Many people describe shadowing as being a “fly on the wall,” because you’re usually spending your day quietly observing physician-patient interactions as the doctors care for their patients. This is another opportunity to get a great letter of recommendation.
If you do get the opportunity to shadow a doctor, make sure that you’re professional, on time, and show genuine interest by preparing some insightful questions before you walk in. In addition, try your best to observe carefully and formulate good questions that show your ability to think critically.
This is a broad category, as there are so many ways to volunteer. Think carefully about what genuinely interests you and how you want to make a real impact. A common mistake a lot of pre-meds make is pigeon-holing themselves into health-related positions just because they think it will “look good.” Again, it’s important to have a coherent theme in your overall activities and application, and it will show if you’ve pursued a volunteer activity with your own unique purpose and interest. Passionate about creative writing? You can teach middle school students how to better read and write! Or maybe you’ve always been interested in the intersection of medicine and public policy. See if you can work with local legislators to enact health-related reform. Take initiatives and be purposeful when it comes to volunteering, and show that you’re not doing it just to cross it off of your checklist.
6. Take Classes
While a gap year can give the time to step away from academic work, depending on your circumstances and needs, you may want to further your education by taking additional classes.
If you are in the process of changing your career, missing some prerequisite courses, or looking to improve your GPA, a post-baccalaureate program might be for you. These programs act as a bridge between undergraduate and medical school, and they typically offer accelerated coursework in basic science ranging from 18 to 24 months. AAMC provides an extensive list of current programs to consider. Some programs even offer MCAT prep and built-in volunteer activities. Others are affiliated with certain medical schools and can provide opportunities to network with different programs.
Specialized Master’s Programs (SMP):
An SMP is similar to a post-bacc program in that it offers opportunities to improve your GPA. However, SMP’s are more difficult to get into, and you need to have completed your prerequisites before you can apply. The program itself is rigorous and challenging, and the courses that they offer will be similar to what you’ll take in medical school. It is a high-risk and high-reward program. If you do well in these courses, it will be impressive to admissions committees, but if you don’t, the (large amount of) money you spent for the program goes to waste.
If you’re interested in a particular academic field of study before entering medical school, you can pursue a master’s program. A lot of students get a master’s degree in health-related fields such as global health, public health (MPH), and health administration. However, similar to SMP’s, master’s degrees can be costly, and you should carefully think about whether it’s an investment that is actually worth it for you.
7. Participate in Gap Year Programs
There are lots of paid gap year programs and fellowships offered by the government, non-profit organizations, and more. Here are just a few:
Americorps is a government agency that works with local and national partners to help solve some of the most pressing issues in the country.
City Year is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving public education.
The Fulbright Program, one of the United States Cultural Exchange Programs, is a prestigious and competitive program that is only open to U.S. citizens. Fulbright scholars pursue graduate study, conduct research, or teach English abroad.
Teach for America
Teach for America is a non-profit organization that recruits members that will teach for at least two years in a public school in a low-income community.
8. Work in Industry
You may consider working in the industry by, for example, joining a healthcare startup or a healthcare consulting firm, if you have a previous business background. Although this is a nontraditional route, this can definitely make you stand out if you already have great stats and no other major weaknesses in your application.
9. Pursue a Passion Project
A passion project is another way you can stand out. A good example is a student interested in disability medicine who teaches himself American Sign Language and starts a non-profit organization dedicated to helping disabled patients.
10. Have fun and take care of yourself!
The most important (and overlooked) part of a gap year is to take a breather and have some fun. It’s easy to overwork yourself and put too much on your plate for your gap year. You’ve got a long road ahead of you, so it’s crucial that you take this time to build sustainable healthy habits. At the end of the day, a gap year may be the only time when you’re free from an academic schedule. So make sure to give yourself a break and enjoy the time off from school.
Gap years have become routine for undergraduate medical students. The break can give you a chance to volunteer, develop your passions, and build new skills. You can show admissions boards that you’re serious about your career, gain work experience with cutting-edge research, or prepare more completely for the MCAT. Most importantly, it can give you a chance to gather yourself and recharge before you head into med school.
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