by Pat McBride
Gap years are increasingly common prior to admission to healthcare schools, particularly medical school and physician’s assistant (PA) programs. Admissions Directors have shared that up to 75% of students are taking gap years, in large part because the schools or programs favor students gaining experience, growth, and maturity beyond their undergraduate experiences. National data suggests that up to half of students who matriculate into medical school in 2023 will have had a gap year. A gap year -or two – can be an opportunity to significantly improve your resume for achieving your goal – admission to the healthcare program of your dreams!
Gap years can be an opportunity for some rest and reflection; an adventure that encourages personal growth; increases your confidence to work independently; and fills in gaps in your resume. In addition, gap year experiences provide opportunities that can be written about in your essays and discussed in your interviews. There are many options for gap years, so it is vital to plan the year or two out carefully to meet your specific plans going forward.
We tell our clients that gap years should be INTENTIONAL and MEANINGFUL. The year or two can include clinical experience, research, or coursework that needs to be done or improved, or even complete an additional degree to demonstrate that you can work at the graduate level. Gap years can fulfill multiple purposes, such as providing an opportunity for rest and travel, and then meeting the needs for community service or other needs to strengthen your resume.
You may want to consider a gap year if:
- You have a gap in your application resume such as clinical or community experience or research
- You need to complete your prerequisite hours for the school or program you are applying to
- You need to strengthen your academic performance overall or improve your MCAT score
- You have personal, health, or family issues you need to attend to prior to starting graduate school
- You are burned out from studying and you are looking for a local or global experience to re-energize your interest in healthcare
- You don’t have enough shadowing, community service, or clinical experience hours
Students often want to travel during a gap year. There are many programs available that provide volunteer clinical experiences or global health experiences, in addition to service opportunities. You should look at these carefully and be sure that these programs have a strong track record of providing students what they promise and that the experiences are safe and truly affordable.
Most gap year experiences that can strengthen a student’s resume are LOCAL. These include clinical experiences such as:
- Medical Assistant (MA)
- Clinical Nursing Assistant (CNA)
- Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)
- Medical Scribe
- Other clinic and hospital positions
Many of these clinical experiences require certifications (MA, EMT, lab technician) but they can be completed online. There are a number of clinical positions open on hospital or clinic websites that are part-time and can be started during the school year, and then additional work added during a gap year. These positions expose you to a number of health professionals who can provide meaningful experience, and also may provide opportunities for clinical shadowing and even be a potential letter writer if you spend significant time with a clinician.
If you are a student who needs community service experience, you can combine clinical experience with community service in global health experiences by working either in underserved community opportunities in your community, in the U.S. or abroad. There are many of these experiences easily found by searching on the internet or asking your pre-health advisor. Some of the most fulfilling and most respected service experiences by Admissions Committees are significant commitments like AmeriCorps, Teach for America, or the Peace Corps (see links below).
If you are a student who has a grade point average (GPA) that is below the mean of the medical schools you are applying to or have a lower science GPA or low Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) score, the gap year(s) can be used to enhance academic standing. There are a number of postbaccalaureate programs that either ensure admission if you meet certain standards or significantly help with your admission if you do well. These programs or other master’s programs, such as a Masters of Medical Science, Genetics, Microbiology, Public Health, etc., can prove to healthcare schools that you are capable of graduate-level work. We’ve had a number of students succeed using this path, and a master’s degree may also allow for additional time for research or retaking the MCAT if necessary.
There are many research programs available through universities, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and more that can fulfill your gap in research experience if that is what is missing in your resume. These experiences not only can provide a strong research experience for those schools who highly value research training, but provide strong letters of reference from well-known principal investigators and give your publications for your resume. Research also strengthens your basic science skills preparing you for medical school or other healthcare programs.
Planning is vital to your gap year(s). It is said that “those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” So, carefully plan out your gap year goals, objectives, and timeline by working with a pre-health advisor. Start as early as possible so that you know what you want, can get the experience you want, and find the best program for you. Gap years require many months, and often more than a year, to plan. They may require applications, visas, immunizations, funding, planning housing, travel, coordinating a return in time for school, completing applications or the MCAT during other experiences, and more.
Carefully review each program to be sure that it is truly a good experience based on others’ reviews. Talk to other people who have recently worked in the experience you are considering. Be realistic based on your time and budget. Be adventurous, as this is a time in your life that you will not get back again once you start your studies and your career!
Teach for America