Is It Bad to Take A Gap Year Before Medical School?

Pre-meds at the beach during their gap year.

By: Ryan Kelly

“Back in my day, we didn’t take a gap year before medical school.

In fact, we all had to graduate two years early just to have a chance. There was one homemade pipette for a dozen researchers, and our lab notebooks were made out of papyrus. Not to mention traveling hundreds of miles in the snow, on foot, just to make it to our interviews.

A gap year? Sheesh. Kids these days have it so easy.”

One thing that’s inevitably passed down from generation to generation is a resentment towards the younger generation. Just take some time to read the news on social media, and you’ll see countless articles about what’s wrong with millenials, how Gen Z’s are all screwed, or (perhaps most apt in this case) how baby boomers are out of touch.  

If you’re applying to medical school and want to take a gap year, odds are some older, baby-boomer doctor has told you (in so many words) that you’re a wimp who needs to toughen up or that you’re falling behind the curve. It’s true - there are thousands of people who apply after their junior years. Those people are clearly more committed, right? Many of them have achieved four years’ worth of work in just three years, so why would medical schools choose you over them?

We’ll admit, we’re older than the average pre-med, and sometimes we’re tempted to throw around the “kids these days” argument as well. But not when it comes to a gap year.

The truth is - it’s a NEW WORLD in medical school admissions. The competition is way more intense as the list of requirements grows longer, so unless you enter college certain of your decision and nothing goes wrong, you’ll probably need a gap year.

In fact, you’ll probably need two gap years (somewhere a curmudgeonly baby boomer just fainted in exasperation). It’s true - although the “traditional” timeline is applying after junior year, the facts show otherwise. Currently, the average age of applicants is 24 years old, suggesting that the majority of candidates take ~2 gap years.   

Okay, but rather than simply justify the decision as “average,” let’s discuss three reasons why it’s useful to take a gap year.

3 Reasons Why It’s Useful to Take a Gap Year

Reason #1

Take a Gap Year for Better MCAT Results

If you take a gap year, you can take the MCAT over the summer, as opposed to the spring before you apply.   

As we’ve said in past articles, it’s wise to give yourself ample time to enter the “MCAT Cave,” where you can exclusively study for several months at a time. The MCAT is already challenging, and it becomes even tougher when balancing your preparation alongside other responsibilities like school, extracurriculars, research, etc.

So, if you know the MCAT will be an especially difficult hurdle for you, taking a gap year could be the best way to ensure optimal results, since you’ll be able to compartmentalize it and give it the proper focus and attention. This might lead to a rather dreary summer break, but that’s way better than rushing the test and ending up disappointed.

Reason #2

Take a Gap Year to Show an Upward Trend in Grades

If you take a gap year, you’ll allow medical schools see an additional year of grades, hopefully showing your steady, continuous improvement over time.

It’s no secret that your GPA is an important factor for your admission into medical school. Along with your MCAT, it’s one of the primary ways that medical schools filter down the pool of candidates.

So, you want to put your best foot forward when representing your academic cred to medical schools. If you’ve had a few rough patches in your grades in the past, then it’s wise to wait and let your stellar senior year grades shine.

There’s also a subset of candidates who feel like their grades aren’t up to snuff, even with senior year included. Again, a gap year or two can be their greatest ally, allowing them to retake classes, pursue a master’s, or apply for a post-bacc.  

Reason #3

Take a Gap Year to Help You Stand Out

If you’re scrambling to ace all your classes, crush the MCAT, and meet the standard pre-med checklist before the end of your junior year, you might find yourself with a rather generic looking resume. Sure, you might have the research, volunteering, and leadership you need, but will that make you stand out from the pack of equally qualified candidates?

At The Savvy Pre-med, we champion the idea of standing out. So, for people considering a gap year, we have an important question: do you have a compelling answer for how you stand out or show distinct value? If you struggle to answer this question, the gap year could be a great way to fill this void in your application.

One of the best ways to stand out is through a “capstone project.” A capstone is a self-initiated endeavor that explores a personal interest and solves a problem in your community.

Capstones are super impressive to medical schools because they show leadership, creativity, communication skills, follow through, ambition, and many other important qualities. In essence, they show you as someone who leaves things better than you found them, which is the exact investment a medical school wants to make. Click here for sample Capstone projects.

As the capstone concept illustrates, your gap year should not merely be a placeholder in your life. It’s not helpful if the time is uninspired. It needs to be used to bolster your GPA, improve your MCAT, or enhance your resume with stand-out activities.

If not, you’ll just be fitting the “kids these days” stereotype - some kind of snowflake who needs special treatment - and the last thing you want is to prove those old fogeys right!