Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Laura Turner
Increasingly, medical school students begin their medical school experience one or more years after graduating from college. In fact, the average age of a first-year medical student is 23 or higher at the majority of institutions. However, the decision to opt for a gap year should not be taken lightly. A gap year can serve as a significant advantage, but it also carries several potential drawbacks.
Improving Your Application
One of the most important benefits of a gap year is that it can allow you to be a much more competitive applicant. However, you must first make your time productive. This can take the form of completing, presenting, and publishing research projects, earning an advanced degree (e.g. an MBA or MPH), or serving the community (e.g. Teach for America). Other popular options that often assist applicants with their admissions portfolios involve gaining healthcare exposure via shadowing opportunities, global health organizations, or employment as an emergency medical technician (EMT).
Broadening Your Horizons
What you decide to do between college and medical school should serve to educate you in some way. Given that once you begin medical school you will have nearly a decade of medical education to complete, devoting several months to other topics of interest is a wonderful benefit of the gap year. Learning about the intricacies of biomedical research, education, global health, and healthcare economics and policy are all things that you will not necessarily gain significant exposure to once you begin medical school. So, take advantage of this opportunity to broaden your horizons.
Augmenting Your Career Trajectory
As the previous point demonstrates, your gap year could change your entire medical career trajectory. Now more then ever, physicians work in roles as leaders in various fields related to, but often outside, clinical medicine. These include business administration, education, government, research, and writing. The knowledge you gain and the networks you develop before beginning medical school can later be leveraged when you are a physician.
Mentally and Physically Preparing for Medical School
One popular analogy describing the experience of a medical student is that it is akin to attempting to drink all the water rushing from a fire hose. A gap year can provide a much-needed period to recharge and unwind before you begin what will most likely be the most rigorous educational curriculum of your entire life.
Adding to an Already Long Education
This is the most obvious drawback of delaying medical school. The education process is lengthy—it involves four years of medical school as well as additional years for residency and perhaps fellowship. Choosing to wait to begin resonates differently with each individual, and you must ponder it carefully.
Losing Study Momentum
The first two years of medical school often involve more studying than most students completed in college. Occasionally, students who have participated in a gap year find it difficult to re-establish effective, efficient study habits. This can add stress to an already challenging transition, but the majority of students can overcome this easily on their own or with the help of academic resources provided by their medical school (e.g. review sessions, tutoring, etc.).
Choosing to take a gap year before starting medical school is a very important and personal decision. Students should consider the above factors, as well as their personal lives, preferences, and goals for the gap year. Ultimately, most students who delay matriculation flourish in medical school and have few regrets about participating in the gap year experience.
Dr. Sunny Varshney is a board-certified cardiologist and an Advanced Heart Failure, Transplant, and Mechanical Circulatory Support Fellow at Stanford University. In addition to caring for patients with advanced heart disease, Sunny uses clinical insights and outcomes research to evaluate and advise start-up companies to facilitate cardiovascular device and drug development. He engages in research that identifies persistent unmet medical needs and defines benchmark outcomes that next generation therapies should improve upon, with a focus on advanced heart failure and cardiogenic shock.