Making the Most of Your Gap Year

A "gap year" is the period of time between the end of your undergraduate education and the start of medical school. In fact, a gap year might be a year or more, depending on each person’s particular circumstances.
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Frequently, the reasons for a gap year center on an applicant’s need for more time to become a stronger candidate by getting more medically-related experiences, or strengthening their GPA or MCAT scores, but it can also be a time to pay down debt, or simply take a break. Other applicants may take a gap year because they need to reapply to medical school.

What should I focus on accomplishing during my gap year?

It depends on your goals and what aspects you need to strengthen.  Don’t make the mistake of trying to pad your application with lots of short term activities. Admissions committees are easily able to spot this and it could end up hurting, rather than helping you.

  • Fulfill prerequisites and strengthen your GPA by completing additional coursework. This may be through a post-bacc program or on your own. Your goal may be to take coursework required or recommended by medical schools that you didn’t have time to take during undergrad. Or, you may want to strengthen your GPA and academic record by demonstrating your ability to master upper-level science coursework.
  • Study for and take the MCAT exam. Without a full course load competing for your time, you’ll likely have more time to devote to MCAT preparation. Be sure to check out the AAMC’s MCAT resources.
  • Pay down your existing debt. Even if you’re fortunate enough not to have any undergraduate debt, start saving money so that you’ll have a cushion when you begin medical school. If you’re able to take out fewer loans, you’ll accrue less interest and have less to repay when you graduate.
  • Take time for reflection and rejuvenation. This time can be extremely beneficial for mental health and personal reflection. The road to medical school can be rigorous and demanding; you may want to use this time to work on a personal project, travel, rest, and get ready for the road ahead.

What kinds of experiences during a gap year will help me become a better physician?

Look for experiences that will help you improve your areas of weakness. Speak to the pre-health advisor at your undergraduate school, or an admissions dean or director at a medical school to help identify areas that you need to expand or strengthen.

  • Volunteer in a medically-related field. Meaningful and sustained experiences working with patients or in a medically-related environment is not only beneficial in helping you to solidify your choice to pursue medicine, it also makes you a stronger and more knowledgeable candidate.
  • Shadow physicians. Shadowing, or following a physician, can provide you with patient experience and a realistic view of what various specialties and working environments are really like. It can sometimes be difficult to arrange a shadowing experience if you don’t have a personal relationship with a physician so here are some tips.
  • Participate in a scholarly activity.  Meaningful experience in a lab or research facility provides more in-depth knowledge about medicine and helps you to have a better understanding of the different research processes. Whether you’re conducting your own research or assisting on a project, this sustained scholarly activity is very attractive to medical schools.

These are just some ways to get relevant experience, and you can learn about more here

How should I discuss my gap year during interviews?

It’s becoming very common to see many applicants with a gap year (or several) between graduating college and applying to medical school. When speaking about this period of time during an interview, avoid phrases like “time off.” Talk about how you used this opportunity to strengthen your knowledge and improve the skills that will make you a better physician. Be honest; share what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown. Medical school admission deans are looking for a candidate who has demonstrated that they are trying to better themselves as a person and future physician, not just trying to make themselves look good to get into medical school.

What do I do with my loans during my gap year?

During a gap year, you will need to make decisions about how to manage your student loans. First, get organized. Compile contact information for each of your federal loan servicers. This information can be found on the Federal Student Aid website.

When you finish your undergraduate program, your federal student loans will enter into a grace period (typically 6-9 months long). During this time, no payments are required, but after the grace period is over, you will either want to continue postponing payments or select a repayment plan. To select either option, you will need to speak to the loan servicer(s) or go to the servicer’s website to indicate how you want to manage your loan(s).

If you choose to postpone payments, you will need to request a deferment or a forbearance. A deferment is preferential because no payments are required and the subsidized debt will not accrue interest. But the strict eligibility requirements for a deferment may be harder to obtain. Alternatively, a forbearance is granted by the servicer and is up to their discretion. Reach out to each servicer to discuss your options.

If you’re not postponing payments, you’ll need to select a repayment plan. There are numerous options, so work with your servicer to determine which one is best for you. Selecting a repayment plan is something that must be communicated to each servicer individually. Just keep in mind, the options discussed above are specifically for federal student loans, and may not be available for private loans or loans from your school. Check with the lender(s) to find out if grace, deferment, forbearance or other repayment options are available.

During your gap year, be sure to be proactive and stay in touch with all of your servicers. Federal loans will automatically go into deferment while enrolled in medical school, but remember to contact the private loan lenders to determine the options for these loans while you are a medical student.

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