By: Ryan Kelly
The last thing you want is to waste a year of your life. Becoming a doctor already requires four years of med school and another four of residency, so unless you want to get a real paycheck before you’re 30, you’d better get a move-on. Right?
We hear this line of reasoning from lots of pre-meds, but it most often comes from parents, who know that the biological clock is ticking. In their eyes, if you want to have kids and have a life, you’d better get through medical school as soon as possible.
All things being equal, of course you would want to follow your life-long dream starting right now. Why wait?
Life doesn’t work that way. You don’t just get whatever you want whenever you want it. Life isn’t hypothetical.
Applying badly can ruin your chance of ever getting into medical school. Once you’ve applied, schools will look at a second application more skeptically, trying to figure out what’s changed and why you’re BETTER than last year (the assumption being that last year there was something wrong with your application).
Applying to medical school is expensive ($4,000-$6,000). So in addition to “wasting” the year, you’re running up a small fortune in application expenses.
The suicide rate in medical school (not to mention the dropout rate) is a huge problem, and a major problem that medical students face is forgetting why they’re there. Taking an extra year of your life to make sure this is the path for you can prevent major problems down the line.
The bigger question for success - both in medical school and as a doctor - is what unique perspective and purpose you bring to your medical school career. If you already know what that is, then great, you’re ready to get on with the application process. But many (most?) students don’t, so taking an extra year to explore the world a bit and gain additional experiences that will help you once you become a physician can be critical to your success in medical school and beyond.
In short, the year off isn’t wasted. It can be crucial to your chances of getting in, and to your success once in medical school.
How do you know whether you should take an extra year off before medical school? We’ve identified four excellent reasons to consider taking time:
#1 Reason to Wait - MCAT and GPA
We’d like to think these are the obvious ones, but we’ve encountered quite a few pre-meds who lack perspective on how they stack up statistically.
If you take a look at this data from the AAMC, you can clearly see where the acceptances spike in terms of MCAT score and GPA. You can also see the number of applicants and acceptances that correlate to your own stats. We’d recommended applying only if the acceptance rate for applicants with your stats is 40% or greater.
MCAT and GPA are primary filters for schools when selecting candidates, so if the odds are stacked against you, applying can be a huge waste of time and money. Imagine pouring your heart and soul into the application process, only to be automatically tossed into the slush pile due to shoddy numbers.
Remind yourself, your parents, or your friends that applying to 25 schools costs about $4,000, not to mention the time-sucking endeavors of essay writing, filling out apps, and preparing for interviews.
To make the application a wise investment, you should take the necessary time to boost your GPA and MCAT to more competitive levels. This could mean retaking some classes or allocating several months exclusively to test preparation (both less costly than the risky alternative). If you have an extra year, you’ll have plenty of time to do these things while also strengthening your application in other ways.
#2 Reason to Wait - Insufficient Time
My most successful students start their primary application in December or January. Six months seems like a lot of time, but even the early birds sometimes struggle to finish everything on time.
Most of the non-academic reasons students get rejected - lackluster letters of recommendation, hurried secondary essays, and a poorly selected school list - result from students not giving themselves enough time to produce quality work.
Read the Top 5 Non-Academic Reasons Students Get Rejected from Medical School if you need more convincing.
If you’re reading this article in the late winter or early spring, and you haven’t begun the essential steps - studying/taking the MCAT, writing the personal statement, updating resume, securing your letters of recommendation - then you should consider holding off until you have a wider window of time.
Download this useful application timeline as an example.
#3 Reason to Wait - Insufficient Experience
You’ll want a few hundred clinical hours to make sure you’re seriously considered by admissions committees. But sometimes hitting the quota is not enough; maybe your exposure was too concentrated, or too broad, or too passive and peripheral to be worth writing about.
This can be a tough thing to recognize about yourself, so it’s smart to run your application by some kind of “mock committee” (pre-health counselor, doctor, admissions professional). It’s usually easier for an objective outsider to assess whether your experience is impressive, or at least sufficient. If there’s a reasonable doubt, it’s probably smart to wait a year.
If you don’t have a mock committee, this quiz is the next best thing:
Need more proof? Here’s some further anecdotal evidence to build your case:
One of my former students recently earned acceptance to a few prestigious programs in California. Several years ago, he was told by his pre-health advisor to wait an additional year so that he could supplement his application with more clinical experiences.
At first he was annoyed and felt like this idea was ruining his “plan.” He thought he could get by with the clinical experiences he already had. Plus, he was a statistical juggernaut who had gotten A’s and crushed his MCAT. Wasn’t he a shoe-in?
Looking back, he’s grateful that he swallowed his pride and followed the advice. As a result, he gained more clinical experience and collaborated with like-minded scientists and healthcare professionals. He also found a job during the off-year that boosted his application and let him explore his true interests at the intersection of medicine and computer science. This made writing his primary and secondary essays a lot easier because he had more meaningful experiences and lessons to discuss. So overall, it was tough advice for him to hear at the time, but a really smart decision for his application and future career.
His story is one of many; the vast majority of students who decide to wait are happier down the road. If you don’t believe me, ask around and see what testimonies you find from past applicants.
#4 Reason to Wait - Unfinished Business
Speaking of my past student, he’s also a good example of someone with “unfinished business.” He had started a personally meaningful project of creating a healthcare smartphone app alongside a team of clinicians, but there was no way to finish it before he’d be consumed by the application process. This ultimately helped him decide to wait a year. Since he was vital to the project and invested in its success, he opted to finish it before starting medical school.
This project eventually became his application’s “Capstone Project” - the centerpiece and culmination of his clinical experiences and computer science skills.
I recall another student whose bioengineering startup had patented a medical device, but not yet implemented the device in its target Mexican community. He also waited a year to apply so that he could see his project through to its completion. Besides his attachment to the project, there was a logical rationale behind the choice - it was a key experience he wanted to highlight in his application, but it would be far less impressive as an in-progress or abandoned activity. Not to mention that applying would mean juggling two monstrous endeavors simultaneously.
Your unfinished business might not be a medical device or smartphone app. It could be an extensive medical immersion trip overseas, or any kind of international/local volunteering effort that’s important to you. Unfinished business could also involve improving on an application weakness (see: Reason #3) or building on a current strength.
Does this sound like you? If so, you can add one more tally to the “pros” of waiting a year.
If you decide a gap year is indeed a good idea, then click to read: What Should I Do During My Gap Year (To Stand Out For Medical School)?
At this point, you have some quantitative and qualitative evidence that should help you weigh your decision. If you believe you need an extra year, use my evidence to your advantage when explaining your plan to others. If you’re the one who needs convincing, then use these criteria as an objective test of whether it’s in your best interest to wait.
I know there’s a lot at stake, so best of luck with your decision!