One year from today, your life will be over. When you start medical school, you will be consumed by academic and extracurricular responsibilities, and your free time will effectively end. And of course, while it's hard to think about that day when we haven't yet gotten in, it's important to plan for it nonetheless.
So what should you do with this year? Not to be too obvious, but this is YOUR year. Medical schools won't tell you, "you should definitely do these things." You are the one who has to decide what's right for you.
Having said that, we think there are four principles that if you follow them, your gap year will be amazing and help you get into medical school.
Principle #1 - Do something to address a weakness.
Most applicants have a weakness, whether that's low grades, limited exposure to medicine, no research experience, few leadership experiences, or whatever. You probably know what that weakness is., and if you don't, you can probably ask a pre-med advisor who can give you a sense for how you stack up against other applicants.
Once you've identified your weakness, a year is a nice amount of time to work on it. You probably won't turn that weakness into a strength, but you will be able to show medical schools that: a) you realize what your weakness is and b) you're working on it. You will want to update your medical schools about your progress during the year that you're applying, so working on this weakness will give you something to say in your update letters.
Principle #2 - Build on a strength.
It's easy to think that you should spend all of your time fixing weaknesses, but beyond a certain point, spending time on weaknesses is counterproductive. To show you why, let's examine a few questions:
Would you rather do something you're really good at or something you suck at?
Are you going to be more motivated to focus on your weaknesses or your strengths?
Most importantly, in what type of activity will you be most likely to make an impact? An activity that you're already good at or one where you're a complete beginner?
After reading those questions, most applicants prefer building on a strength, and if done well, this can put your application over the top.
Principle #3 - Do something just for yourself.
Yes, it seems that life does indeed revolve around getting into medical school. But just because you need to have one eye toward getting in does not mean that you have to spend all of your time obsessed with getting that white coat.
This year is your chance to do whatever is on your bucket list. Have you always wanted to travel? Ever wanted to learn to surf? To record an album of your own songs? Now is the chance to do it.
The single coolest gap year we've seen
A student I sat down with years ago once told me his plans for his year off:
a) over the summer, he was doing zero gravity research with NASA (he didn't have a lot of research experience)
b) when he was in the United States, he was going to work on the nonprofit he founded several years ago, hosting events and fundraising (building on a strength)
c) for two months right around Christmas, he was planning to fly to the tip of Argentina and bike back to the United States
This gap year hits all of the principles, and every piece of it sounds interesting and fun. It's flexible enough to allow the student to fly around the country for interviews while having plenty of ammunition with which to update medical schools throughout the next year.
Principle #4 - Don't try to do everything.
As you start to brainstorm what you want to do for your gap year, it will be easy (and indeed, lazy) to simply try to do everything you think of. You will have so many good ideas that it will be hard to choose the ones that are actually the most impactful and meaningful. By trying to do everything, however, you will fail to do the truly important things.
So, pick your top 3 things and get cracking. After all, it's the last free year of your life.