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Time Away From Formal Academics Can Enhance Application

Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner

Whether or not a student should take a “gap year” (or two) often comes up during our conversations with applicants to medical school. Based on MedEdits’ experience working with students, we find that gap years are becoming increasingly common and that this extra time away from formal academics can enhance a student’s candidacy.

The Association of American Medical College’s (AAMC) 2016 Matriculating Student Questionnaire (MSQ) reports that the age of matriculants continues to rise, with 60.6% reporting that more than a year had passed since graduating from college, up from 57.9% in the 2014 MSQ. Matriculation data from colleges of osteopathic medicine show that the average age at matriculation in both 2015 and 2016 was 24.

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Recently, our MedEdits faculty team discussed the advantages of this trend to take time after college before matriculating into medical school. This time, in our experience, only enhances your application and may well translate into a better performance in medical school. Here are the reasons why:

With the longer and broader MCAT2015, time allows the applicant to perform the additional coursework necessary to prepare for the MCAT. (Schools are not requiring new coursework but recommending it; to be competitive on MCAT2015 you will need biochemistry, psychology, sociology and statistics.)

Also, the type of applicant who has become desirable to admissions committees has changed in favor of the individual who takes extra time before matriculation. Since the AAMC projected a physician shortage, many medical schools have expanded class size and give priority to students who not only are interested in primary care but who will practice where physicians are needed. Who will fill this need? Those from areas and backgrounds underrepresented in medicine: e.g. African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, and those who are resilient, have overcome personal hurdles and challenges and feel compelled to serve.

Students from these groups, by life and academic circumstance, will likely need more time to prepare a competitive application than other applicants.

These emerging adults–those who have clinical, research and service experiences to reflect on, who are less self-involved, who can articulate their interests more thoroughly, and who understand the profession because they have taken the time to participate in it–write the most compelling statements and essays. And with thousands of applications to sift through, thoughtful, reflective essays lead readers to want to meet such applicants. And that often translates to an interview.

The interview process itself has become more data- and assessment-driven, which also favors the applicant who takes time. In an effort to be less biased and fairer, one-third of US medical schools now use the multiple mini interview (MMI) or a hybrid that includes some MMI stations. We believe that students with more life and work experiences do best in the interview (traditional or MMI) for the obvious reasons– these students have had more practice developing the interpersonal skills that interviewers are assessing. If an interviewer leaves the encounter feeling he or she wants to teach you and medical student interviewers would welcome you as a colleague, you have done well.

Another factor relates to how medical education has evolved toward team-based and interactive learning, with traditional tests giving way to different and nearly constant assessments: objective structured clinical examinations, clinical interviews, procedure based exams, and actual clerkship performance where you have responsibilities as a member of a clinical team. These assessments require advanced interpersonal skills and nuanced professional behavior. In fact, demonstrating professional behavior is a graduation competency at most schools–you will not graduate without it.

And so, the best “professional student”–the young man or woman who has advanced through the best schools or many schools throughout his life–is not always the best medical student because he hasn’t adapted to as many environments and people as those who have had time and experience before applying to medical school. Students who have navigated different environments successfully before medical school, and those who have worked a job, are better equipped for the complex clinical arena. Accountability and responsibility in a work/team based setting are far different than accountability and responsibility in an academic setting where the stakeholder is oneself.

For these reasons, time, in the form of a gap year or as a nontraditional student, may be the best way to prepare for success in the application process for medical school.