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Why Some Take a ‘Gap Year’ Before Starting Med School

Posted by Scott Harrah
May 05, 2014

Just because you completed what might be considered a “pre-med” degree doesn’t mean you are actually ready to apply to medical school. If you have not taken the MCAT, have done no volunteer work in health-care settings or a medically related field or shadowed a physician, and/or have not paid down existing debt, consider taking a gap year, a break between undergraduate education and starting medical school.

While gap years are common for people who have completed undergraduate degrees and want time off before either entering graduate school or the work force, using the year wisely is crucial for students applying to American and Caribbean medical schools.

The UMHS Pulse looks at ways prospective students at U.S. and international medical schools can maximize a “gap year” to get the most out of it, based on advice from a doctor, the Director of Admissions at UMHS, and Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

Using a Gap Year Wisely

As Sylvia Morris, M.D. says in a U.S. News and World Report article, “Achieving a work-life balance during medical is rarely possible. But taking a gap year, usually scheduled between undergraduate graduation and the beginning of graduate school, is an opportunity to recharge before starting the seemingly endless grind of medical school and residency.”

Dr. Morris offers the following tips for using a gap year wisely:

  • "Use a gap year to engage in challenging, mentally stimulating work that expands your mind and contributes to society. Identify what you would love to do if you had more time, as well as the activities you are good at.”
  • "If you have not gained acceptance in medical school, use this time wisely. Consider the pharmaceutical industry, basic science or clinical research or volunteer work. Volunteering at a hospital, office or clinic provides a glimpse of health care in practice.”
  • "Medical scribe positions are also a great introduction to medical terminology and a chance to shadow an ER physician while providing a much-needed service.” Medical scribes help doctors with physician-patient encounters during medical exams. The website for Scribes says scribes are “essentially a personal assistant to the physician; performing documentation in the EHR, gathering information for the patient's visit, and partnering with the physician to deliver the pinnacle of efficient patient care” (

For information, see Dr. Morris’s article at

Gap-Year Advice from UMHS Director of Admissions Sean Powers

"However you choose to spend the gap period between completion of your undergraduate degree and beginning the medical school process, make sure that your efforts are strengthening your eventual application package," he says. "Take a critical look at your own background and determine where you might be able to improve your qualifications. That may mean enrolling in additional advanced science coursework to improve your foundational knowledge, it may mean shadowing a physician, it may mean completing a leadership project, or any number of other things based on your circumstances."

AAMC’s Examples of Why Prospective Medical Students Take a Gap Year

The AAMC has comprehensive information on its website about gap years for medical students. Below are the highlights.

  • 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 MCAT website at “
  • 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.”

AAMC’s Examples of Kinds of Gap-Year Experiences to Help Make You a Better Physician

  • 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, visit
  • 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. 
  • 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 visit the MSAR Online website at

For more information, please visit


(Top image) Image by Deposit Photos

About UMHS:

Built in the tradition of the best US universities, the University of Medicine and Health Sciencesfocuses on individual student attention, maintaining small class sizes and recruiting high-quality faculty. We call this unique approach, “personalized medical education,” and it’s what has led to our unprecedented 96% student retention rate, and outstanding residency placements across the US and Canada. UMHS is challenging everything you thought you knew about Caribbean medical schools.

Posted by Scott Harrah

Scott is Director of Digital Content & Alumni Communications Liaison at UMHS and editor of the UMHS Endeavour blog. When he's not writing about UMHS students, faculty, events, public health, alumni and UMHS research, he writes and edits Broadway theater reviews for a website he publishes in New York City,

Topics: Admissions

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