PMY 209 : Taking a Gap Year Before Medical School? Should You Do It?


Session 209

In this episode, Ryan talks about taking gap years, the pros and cons, what to look at, and what to think about. He specifically mentioned similar questions from two students regarding their concern about taking gap years. Should you take it or not?

Here are the highlights of this episode:

One student was getting great grades but was concerned about his extracurricular activities. He/she is currently working as part-time scribe and part-time barista. He/she asks about what he/she can do between now and the 2017 application cycle to make himself the strongest candidate possible?

This other student is applying to postbac premed programs for the next term (May 2017). Being a non traditional student, he/she doesn't intend to have a gap year. Is it necessary? If not, what steps do you need to take and apply to med school without having taken the MCAT?

What is a Gap Year?

Generally, gap year refers to the time you're taking to delay or defer your application into medical school. In other words, you're just starting medical school later than you normally would have.

The normal time frame for students:

Apply at the end of Junior year > Senior year to do interviews > Get accepted > Start medical school a couple months after you traditionally finish your undergrad degree

Reasons a student may want to take a gap year:

Reason #1: When you need to reapply

Just like Ryan's story, for instance, he applied to medical school when he was a Junior in college but didn't get in. So he was forced to take a gap year because he wasn't accepted the first time around. He did not have any choice but to reapply so he had that period of time in between right after graduating from college and starting medical school

Reason #2: To take a breather

If a student simply wants to take a break because he/she is burnt out, taking a gap year will help you recollect your thoughts and make sure you're on the right path.

Reason #3: To get some experience or grab an opportunity

If you have great grades but not having a lot of extracurriculars, a gap year gives you some time to get that experience because you either “need” it for the application or you're taking an opportunity that you can't pass up.

Things to consider when thinking about gap years:

  • Don't think about this as what will make you look good on your application.
  • Ask yourself what you're interested in that is somewhat medically related so schools understand you're bought into this career and not bumming around.
  • Don't think about what the admissions committee would want to see on your application.

Reason #4: To take another class and boost your GPA

You can take a gap year to take a fun, extra class that you've always wanted to take. Work and pay your bills and take a fun class. Or take another upper level science course to boost your GPA, if needed or just to keep your mind sharp.

Reason #5: To work and save some money or pay off debt

Use your gap year to work and save some money and help pay for some expenses during medical school so you don't have to take out as many loans as you would normally. Or start paying down the debt that you have. Start medical school with as little debt as possible.

Working as a scribe can give you clinical experience, work, and build relationships with physicians and other members of the healthcare team. Being at EMT is a great thing to do as well.

The Glide Year

For postbac programs, you're not really taking a gap year but you're forced to take a year between when the program ends and to when you're applying to when you can start medical school.

When you can skip a glide year:

There are postbac programs that have linkages to medical schools that allow you to apply to medical school earlier on in the program so you go straight into medical school right after graduating from the program.

The cons of taking a gap year:

  1. It's a year of your life.

Yes, you may be delaying your career by a year, but in the grand scheme of things, a year is nothing.

  1. Forgetting how to be a student

Taking years off can be a struggle once you get back to school since you need to get back into the mindset of studying all the time.

Solution: Take at least one science during gap year just to keep your mind sharp so it's better to transition into medical school.

Some pieces of advice for premed students:

Don't travel the world just to goof off. Whatever you do, stay in touch with the medical world during your gap years.

Links and Other Resources:

Harvard Crimson article

The OldPreMeds Podcast

Elite Medical Scribes



Dr. Ryan Gray: If you're a nontraditional student, check out the Old Premeds Podcast over at

This is The Premed Years, session 209.

Hello and welcome to The Premed Years, where we believe that collaboration, not competition, is key to your premed success. I am your host Dr. Ryan Gray, and in this podcast we share with you stories, encouragement, and information that you need to know to help guide you on your path to becoming a physician.

Now this week's podcast is going to be me talking to you about gap years; the pros, the cons, what to look at, what to think about. This subject came about because within two days of each other I think, I received two different emails from two different people asking about gap year advice, and I realized that it's not something that we've talked about a lot here on the podcast. And so I wanted to talk to you about that today. Let me read you the questions and then we'll talk about some gap year information, and then maybe answer the questions at the end.

The first one is from a student that says, ‘I graduated from college with a BS in Food Science. My undergraduate and science GPA were both 3.93,' which is phenomenal. ‘While my GPA is probably good enough to gain admission into most programs, I am concerned about my EC activities. I spent a semester tutoring general and organic chemistry, was fairly involved in an honor fraternity, though no leadership role, and was a modestly active member of nutrition club and AED pre-professional club.' Since graduating this student has traveled to Europe for a month and attended an EMT program, and they're trying to find an EMT job but haven't been able to find one yet. And now they're working part time as a scribe and part time as a barista. And they're preparing for the MCAT soon, they want to go to their in-state school which is a great school, however they understand it's competitive and he's saying here, ‘It seems most matriculants have a dizzying amount of impressive ECs on their resumes.' So the question, ‘What can I do in the time between now and the 2017 application cycle to make myself the strongest candidate possible? I have a strong desire to do some medical volunteer work abroad, but I also see the merit in saying local volunteering in my community. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.'

Alright so that was the first one that came in, and then the same day another one came in, and this one from a student who says, ‘I am applying to postbac premed programs for the next term, May of 2017, due to the nature of being a nontraditional student I don't want to have a gap year. Is it necessary? And if not what are the steps I need to take? Specifically how do you apply to med school without having taken the MCAT? Is it possible?'

Gap Years and Reasons for Them

Alright so let's talk about gap years. What is a gap year? So a gap year in general terms is time that you are taking to delay entry, delay your application really, into medical school or any graduate school, but in our case medical school. And I guess let me rephrase that too, it doesn't have to be necessarily delaying your application because you can apply and then defer and say, ‘I would like to take a gap year after you've been accepted.' So it doesn't necessarily mean your application is delayed, it just means you're starting medical school later than you normally would have. Why would a student want to take a gap year? Let me tell you a little bit about my situation when I applied to medical school. I applied to medical school during the normal timeframe; a junior in college, and didn't get in. And so I was forced to take a gap year because I wasn't accepted the first time around, and so the normal timeframe for students is you apply the end of your junior year, that gives you your senior year to do interviews and everything else, get accepted, and then start medical school a couple months after you traditionally finish your undergrad degree. But in my situation not being accepted, I had no other choice but to reapply, and when you reapply you have time in between what you're doing from graduating college to when you are ultimately going to start medical school. So that is a gap year, there's nothing going on.

Another reason a student might take a gap year other than being forced to, like in my situation, a student may want to just take a break. Undergrad is hard, being a premed is hard, you're studying for the MCAT, you're doing all this other stuff, maybe you're just burnt out and you want to just stop. And so taking a gap year to catch your breath and get away from school for a little bit is okay. It'll help you recollect your thoughts, make sure that you're on the right path. A lot of students start this premed journey and put their head down and don't look up for a long time until they're in the middle of their applications going, ‘What am I doing? I don't want to be here. This is not what I want anymore.' And so a gap year will help you figure that out. So that's a good reason to take a gap year.

And then the next thing here is what- the first student's email that I read about having great grades but not a lot of extracurriculars. So a gap year gives you that time. Maybe you've been so focused on grades and doing well on the MCAT that you've kind of pushed aside all of the extracurricular activities, and you don't have any clinical experience, and you don't have leadership experience or anything else. And so you want to take some time before you start medical school to get that experience, whether you think it's because you ‘need it' for your applications, which I'll warn you not to think that anything is a necessity for applying to medical school, so don't take a gap year just because you think you need to, to get extracurriculars in. But if there's something that you want to do, if there's a research project- you found a PI doing a research project that interests you and you're like, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I'd love to do research with you,' take a gap year, do some research with that person. If there's a volunteer or a work opportunity doing some amazing things in a clinical setting, or even a non-clinical setting but somewhat related to healthcare and you're like, ‘This is an opportunity that I can't pass up,' then that's another one where take a gap year. Again talking about my own experiences, while not necessarily the smartest thing, was I was doing non-clinical stuff. I was working as a personal trainer in Boston, so it's kind of working with patients, kind of, sort of if you wanted to stretch it. But when I applied and was accepted, I called the school and said, “Hey I would like to defer,” I wanted another gap year so I actually- instead of taking two gap years I took three because the job that I was doing was giving me experience that I thought would be invaluable as a physician, as a person in general. I was managing a team of I think a dozen plus personal trainers, I was the second in line at the gym as far as management, and it was great experience. It was a large corporation and so I learned the ins and outs of running a business and managing people. And so I called the school and said, “I would like to defer a year,” and I told them why, and they were fine with that. So that was another reason to take a gap year.

So one thing I mentioned a little bit before, I caution you to go into this thinking, ‘What will look good on my application?' You need to come at it from the standpoint of what are you interested in? You need to ask yourself, ‘What am I interested in that is somewhat medically related,' this is not your time to go goof off for the year, it needs to be somewhat medically related so that schools understand that you're bought into this career, and you're really interested in it, you're not out bumming around and are going to go get lost in the wilderness somewhere. So think about research opportunities, and scribing opportunities, and shadowing and mission trips, or working at an underserved clinic, or a free clinic, or wherever. What ignites those passions in you as you're trying to figure out what to do. Don't think about, ‘What would the admissions committee want to see on my application?' Because as soon as you start thinking like that, you're going to end up in the wrong place, you're not going to be happy, and it's going to come through when you're writing about those experiences on your application.

Take Classes During Gap Years

The next thing to think about when you're taking a gap year, or if you're thinking about taking a gap year and what to do during that gap year, is maybe there are some classes that you've always wanted to take that you never had time to take because you were busy squeezing in all the classes for your major, and all of the medical school pre-req's, and so you couldn't fit in taking a Spanish, or an English writing class, or whatever it is, any sort of fun extra class that you've always wanted to take. Take your time and take a class like that. Go work, and pay your bills, and go take a fun class.

If you are worried about taking time off and having your skills diminished, your student skills diminished, maybe take another upper level science course and maybe boost up your GPA a little bit if you need it, or just take a course to keep your mind sharp. You can do that too. Another thing you can do, although because it's only a year, is try to fit in a Master's program. So fit in an MPH, or an MBA.

Chance to Save Money

We all know that medical school is expensive, and so why not take a gap year and save up some money, and help pay for some expenses during medical school so you don't have to take out as many loans as you would normally. Or you can start paying down your debt that you have. Maybe you have some credit card debt, maybe you have some other student loans, a car payment, whatever it is. If you go back and listen to some of the interviews I've done on financial aid, I think the overwhelming consensus is that you should start medical school with as little debt as possible because when you're entering medical school you're not going to have time to work and other stuff. I worked my first two and a half years of medical school, and that was because I entered medical school with debt that I needed to work, and pay it off, and I think it was a big mistake. And so I've learned from that mistake and now I try to preach to you not to follow in my footsteps and make those same mistakes. So you could work as a scribe, we've talked about scribing and how that's an amazing opportunity to gain clinical experience, and work, and build relationships with physicians and other members of the healthcare team, and see how all of that works. So you can go work as a scribe. Our sponsor that sponsors The Premed Years Podcast, Elite Medical Scribes, go check them out, to find some scribing opportunities in a location near you.

So those are things that you could be doing. The student that emailed talked about being an EMT, being an EMT is obviously a great thing to do as well, some great clinical experience actually hands on with the patient as you're out working and driving around the truck. So working, paying off debt, saving money are some things that you can do as well.

Postbac Programs, Glide Years, and Gap Years

So there are a lot of good reasons to take a gap year. The student- the second email that came in was more about postbacs and gap years. Postbac programs like to refer to gap years as glide years because you're not really taking a gap year. You are kind of forced to take a year between when the program ends and when you're applying to when you can start medical school. So they don't call it a gap year, they have this fancy term called a glide year. And so a lot of postbac programs will kind of force you to do a glide year just based on the structure of the program and the calendar of when you apply to medical school. So glide years and postbac programs are pretty much inevitable, but if you find a postbac program that has linkages to medical schools and will allow you to apply to medical school very early on in the program so that when you graduate from the postbac program you basically go straight into medical school. You can do that. So not all postbac programs will force you to do this glide year, or gap year. If you find one with linkages that allow the application process to go on while you're still in the process of taking classes, and preparing for the MCAT, then you should look into that. And I'll reiterate, those ones you're applying to medical school- some of those programs you're applying to medical school before you have an MCAT score, and before you've taken the MCAT, and you get a provisional basically- a provisional acceptance to the medical school stating that you're going to finish your postbac classes with good standing, you're going to get a decent MCAT score, and then you go straight into medical school. So there are some options out there. So basically do lots of homework.

Drawbacks to Gap Years

But there are some cons, some negatives about taking a gap year. The first is it's a year of your life, or more. For me it was three years that I took off from undergrad to- from graduating undergrad to when I started medical school. Now those three years I got a ton of great experience- work experience and professional experience, I had relationships, and built friendships, and all of that wouldn't have happened if I went straight into medical school. So while it is a negative that maybe you're delaying your career by a year in the grand scheme of things, a year is nothing. Yes maybe you're delaying a year of physician pay down the line, but again in the grand scheme of things a year is nothing. Those memories, those experiences are much more valuable.

One of the biggest negatives that hit me hard after taking three years off was the fact that I forgot how to be a student, and that's a huge one. I took three years off and when I started medical school I had no clue what I was doing, and I struggled, and luckily the first two classes that we took were Anatomy and Histology. Luckily I was a rockstar in Anatomy, not toot my own horn but I loved Anatomy, I was good at it, it was a very visual subject that I am good at. And so I was fine with Anatomy, but Histology, man that was a totally different thing. Yes it's visual but completely different because you're staring under a microscope and other things. And so I really struggled with that and it took a long time to get me ramped back up and get in that mindset of studying all the time and everything else. So that's a huge negative, and one of those things we talked about earlier that you can do during a gap year is taking a science class, maybe it's just one class to keep your mind sharp, and I wish I would have done that between my undergrad time and starting medical school, because I would have had a lot better- easier transition into medical school and being a medical student. So I really think those are some of really the only big negatives. Gap years are great. Your job as a physician is to build rapport with the patients so that when you're asking very personal questions they will open up to you. And one of the best ways to build rapport is to be able to connect with them, not only as a doctor and patient, but just as humans. And the more life experiences that you have, the better you're going to be able to relate to patients talking about their problems, their struggles, and taking gap years and going out and being a non-student helps with that. If you're a nontraditional student you already have a leg up in this, but if you're a traditional student taking a gap year will give you that experience as well.

There was an article, and I'll post it in the show notes for this podcast episode which you can get at There was an article printed in the Harvard Crimson about Harvard medical students and they were Harvard undergrad students applying to Harvard Medical School, and it showed over the course of several years how there was a huge change in the makeup of students applying that it was Harvard students being accepted into medical school far outweighed the number of Harvard alumni that were accepted into medical school. So the alumni were the gap year students and the Harvard students were the ones that were traditional students. And so there was a drastic switch to the majority of the students that were applying and being accepted were gap year students. And the Dean of Admissions talked about it in this article, that when he started off in his class- I think he said it was his class, about 60% of the students came straight from college and now it's only about 35%. Again this is Harvard, it's one school, one Dean of Admissions, but it's a trend that we hear a lot in the admissions world, that the nontraditional student is the new traditional, and I know that's something that Rich from Old Premeds likes to say a lot that he heard at one of his conferences. So gap years I think are excellent, they give you a lot of opportunity to reflect, and relax, and get some experience in. One thing that you want to not do is goof off. Some people will say go travel the world for a year, and while that may be okay depending on what you're doing, don't go travel the world and goof off for a year. A student that I talked to today talked about how he's a rock climber and a mountaineer, and so he was mountaineering and rock climbing for a year and that hurt him in his applications last time because the schools in his mind didn't see that he was committed to the medical field, and I agree with that. You will be asked on your secondary applications. The question is on a lot of schools' secondary applications, ‘If you have taken time off between graduating from college and applying to medical school, what have you done?' And if you say, ‘I've goofed off,' then they're going to question your commitment to medicine. So do something medically related whether it's research, or scribing, or shadowing, stay in touch with the medical world during your gap years.

Final Thoughts

Alright I think that's it. One thing I do want to mention, I talked about it a little bit already, is Elite Medical Scribes. Being a scribe during your gap year is a phenomenal experience. Number one, you get paid. Number two, it's amazing clinical experience. And we talked about it before on this podcast with the former Dean of Admissions from UC Irvine, she talked about the number one mistake students make when applying to medical school is not having enough clinical experience, and in her mind being a scribe is amazing clinical experience. So you're killing a lot of birds with one stone. So Elite Medical Scribes has opportunities all over the country for you to be a scribe. Whether you want to work in a hospital, or an outpatient clinic, whether you want to work in a family practice setting, or an orthopedic's office, they have tons of opportunities. So go check them out, Thanks Elite Medical Scribes for sponsoring The Premed Years.

Alright last week we celebrated our fourth anniversary. I kind of cheated with the anniversary date, it wasn't really the fourth anniversary because there were a couple episodes that when we initially launched, we launched a couple episodes together so it wasn't completely one episode a week for 208 weeks, but it was easier math to do 208 divided by 4 is the 52 weeks a year. So thank you for listening and supporting us for these four years. I sent some emails to students who won interviewing sessions with me, and a full application session with me, and so I'm excited to do that, and everybody that entered to win the contest got a free copy of my book which is amazing. So thank you to everybody that entered. Again, and I just wanted to reiterate that obviously as I'm releasing this podcast it is Thanksgiving week here in the US, so Happy Thanksgiving to all of you who celebrate that.

I do want to let you know I am starting to work with students for the next application cycle. I know it seems like it's so far out there, now it's only the end of November, and applications open up in June, but that time goes very fast. And so I sat down with a student today and we talked all about where he's coming from, he's a re-applicant, what we can do to improve his application, and I like working with students starting now, end of the year, very beginning of the next year because it's your opportunity, now our opportunity to work together to fix what can be fixed. There are some advisors out there and coaches out there that will help you polish your application and make it look as good as it can, but I want to work with you now so that we can start fixing things that may need to be fixed. And so you can check out everything that I have to offer, go to and in the top menu bar there's a services menu, click that and find everything that we do there. Again

Alright have a Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you all have safe travels if you're traveling. Take the time off, relax, take a breather, remember why you're on this journey, remember why you're thankful to be on this journey, and hopefully I'll catch you here next week at the Medical School Headquarters and The Premed Years Podcast.

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