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 participate in medically-related volunteer and lab experiences, strengthen GPA or MCAT scores, pay down debt, work on becoming a stronger candidate, or simply take a break. Some applicants must take a gap year if they are not accepted into medical school.

What should I focus on accomplishing during my gap year?

A gap year is a good time to get your academic and financial house in order. But don’t make the mistake of trying to “pad” your application. Admissions committees are easily able to spot this and it could end up hurting, rather than helping you.

  • Strengthen your GPA by taking extra and/or high-level coursework. Academically, this time can be extremely beneficial whether you already have a strong GPA or not. There may be a course you didn’t have time to take that will prove your ability to master upper-level science coursework.
  • Study for the MCAT exam. Without a full course load competing for your time (depending upon your work schedule of course), you’ll have more time to devote to MCAT preparation. Be sure to check out the resources on the MCAT website.
  • Pay down your existing debt as much as possible. 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 not only have less to repay, but you’ll help reduce the additional stress associated with worrying about repaying your educational debt.
  • Take time for reflection and rejuvenation. This time can be extremely beneficial for mental recovery or 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 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. These experiences will also help you during the interview stage.
  • 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. For tips on how to get this type of experience, read the How Do I Shadow a Doctor? fact sheet.
  • Participate in a scholarly activity. Real and meaningful experience in a lab or research facility provides for 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. For tips on how to get this type of experience, read the How Do I Get Lab Experience? fact sheet.
  • Keep track of coursework requirements. Be sure to check the premedical coursework requirements for each school that you may be interested in applying to. It’s possible that some medical schools may make changes to their requirements during this interim period, requiring you to complete additional coursework. Review the school’s website, or keep track with the Medical School Admission Requirements website.

How should I discuss my gap year during interviews?

It’s not uncommon to see many applicants with a gap year between graduating college and applying to medical school. When speaking about this period of time during an interview, avoid phrases like “time off” or “glide.” 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, or 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 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 the contact information for each of your loan servicers. This information can be found in your federal student loans account information from NSLDS.

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 period ends during a gap year, you will either want to continue postponing payments or select a repayment plan. You can speak to the servicer(s) of the loans about these options.

If you choose to postpone payments, you will have to obtain a deferment or a forbearance status on the loans. A deferment is preferential because no payments are required and the subsidized debt will not accrue interest. But the strict eligibility requirements make them hard to get. Alternatively, a forbearance is granted by the servicer and is up to their discretion. Reach out to each servicer to discuss your options – seeking first deferment, then forbearance.

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 your situation. 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. Check with the private loan lenders 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 on these loans while you are a medical student.

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