How to Make The Most of Your Gap Year

As more students take time off between stages of their studies, gap years have become less stigmatized. One specific area where we commonly see this is in medical education, as students are now more inclined to take time off before starting medical school. According to the AAMC 2023 Matriculating Student Questionnaire, the number of matriculating American medical students who take at least one year off between their undergraduate degree and medical education is steadily growing! In 2020, 66.3% of students took at least one year off, and this figure increased to 71.1% by 2022. 

There are many potential benefits to taking a gap year. According to one study, students who took a gap year prior to starting medical school gained the following:: 

  • an increased sense of adaptability and an ability to withstand change and failure 
  • a new focus on the patient and their role in the patient care team instead of only focusing on themselves throughout their studies 
  • the development of professional skills, such as conflict resolution and team work, and a newfound understanding of consequences
  • the understanding that medical school is a part of their lives, not their whole lives 
  • learning to better manage stress and avoid burnout 

Whether or not you gained these benefits is entirely dependent on how you spend your gap year. In this blog, we suggest 5 ideas of how to spend your gap year to optimize your learning and better prepare yourself for studies and a career in medicine. 

#1: Work or Volunteer in a Medical Field 

Getting medical experience, whether through employment or volunteer work, will do wonders in preparing you for medical school! Not only will it connect you with people who can mentor you and act as references later on, you’ll also get hands-on experience that will help clarify whether medical school is the right path for you and which areas of medicine interest you most. Let’s go through a few examples of relevant opportunities. 

Volunteering at a hospice will increase your empathy and teach you how to navigate the emotional aspects of working in medicine. You’ll see first-hand how doctors and other care providers interact with patients and their families, and you’ll have a much better understanding of the emotional toll of caring for a dying patient. This environment will also introduce you to a side of medicine that is less about curing and saving lifes, and more about enhancing people’s dignity and quality of life. It will prompt important questions about your role and responsibilities as a future health provider and it’ll help tailor your approach when you begin practicing. 

Be mindful that this is emotionally taxing work. If you choose to take on this role, make sure you have adequate mental and emotional support. Hospices usually have counselors on site, so be sure to seek them out should you need them.

Another great opportunity that gives you a taste of the emotional and physical toll of working in medicine is acting as a volunteer emergency medical technician (EMT). Check out this medical student’s account of working as an EMT before starting medical school. She elaborates on what the role entails and how the experience prepared her for medical school. She also offers advice for people interested in becoming an EMT. 

Other great ways of gaining experience in a medical field include volunteering at a hospital, working as a medical clerk, working as a phlebotomist after receiving certification, or being a research assistant in a medical laboratory. 

You may even find an opportunity closer to home. For instance, acting as a caretaker for an ill family member counts as medical experience. It teaches you about the various challenges people face when they’re ill, including treatment availability and affordability, and it teaches you how to best support them. As a future physician, experiences such as these will give you more empathy and compassion when caring for and supporting your patients and their families. 

#2: Take or Retake the MCAT

Although it’s generally recommended to take the MCAT early on, this isn’t always possible. Maybe your life circumstances made it difficult to fit in studying for the MCAT. Or maybe you decided to pursue medical school closer to the end of your undergraduate program. 

A gap year gives you the opportunity to take the test for the first time or retake it to improve your scores. You can take the time you need to study, register for additional courses or study resources to help you grasp concepts and complete mock exams strategically. Taking the MCAT during a gap year also gives you a broader timeframe in which you can take the exam. 

If you’re looking for guidance on study tools, AAMC provides a helpful list to get you started. Other great resources to turn to as you prepare for the MCAT include

#3: Build Mindful Habits 

Given the academic rigour of medical school, you need to be prepared with strong study habits that will help you thrive. Use your gap year to explore study tips and strategies that work best for you and that will support you through medical school, such as the ones we outline here. If you’re taking or retaking the MCAT, consider testing out the study tips that you come across as you prepare for the test! 

In order to succeed in medical school and as a medical professional, you need to build strong, long-term habits that protect your mental wellbeing. Your gap year is a great time to explore what habits and hobbies help you cope with and minimize stress, identify and try out time management tools, and establish healthy eating, sleeping, and exercise habits. 

While building these habits, don’t forget to strengthen your social connections! Caring for your mental health isn’t all therapy and breathing exercises, it also includes nurturing your social bonds and having a network you can rely on. Many studies  — including this one — report that people who lack a sense of community are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and stress. 

You can build that community through attending places of worship, meeting people at the gym, or even signing up for craft or cooking courses! Whether you’re building new friendships or relying on old ones, these people will have your back as you pursue medicine, ready to lend an ear or support you in other ways, and they will cheer you on as you move through your career. 

#4: Reflect on Why You Want to Pursue Medicine

Have you stopped and really thought about why you’re interested in medicine? It’s worth taking the time to reflect on this at some point in your gap year! It’s beneficial for a few reasons, primarily because knowing exactly why you want to pursue this path will help you stay motivated. 

Additionally, knowing why you’re interested in medicine will help you identify relevant opportunities to help you build skills that are transferable to medicine! For example, if you’re interested in working in pediatric medicine, you might shadow a pediatrician or work as a teacher’s assistant at an elementary school. Or, if you’re interested in the research aspects of medicine, you might focus on applying to lab positions. 

Reflecting on this information and writing it down will also make it easier to write your personal statements for medical school applications and prepare for your interviews. Many of the questions during the medical school application process relate to why you’re interested in medicine and how your experiences have prepared you for the profession. If you’ve already reflected on these questions, then drafting your responses will be much easier as you can focus on the clarity of your response rather than the content!

#5: Travel

As a physician, you’ll inevitably interact with people from diverse backgrounds, whether they be colleagues or patients. It’s important that you demonstrate cultural competence: the ability to appreciate cultural differences and effectively interact and communicate with those from backgrounds other than your own. You also need to be able to engage with them in a way that doesn’t centre your own experiences. The best way to learn this is by keeping an open mind, reflecting on your biases and lived experiences, and exposing yourself to a diversity of cultures.

Travel is a fantastic way of doing so. You’ll witness firsthand how people live in contexts other than your own and learn to appreciate the differences between your culture and others. You’ll also learn to respect differences in values, practices, and traditions, and to recognize the importance that they hold in people’s lives. This will make your classmates, colleagues, and patients feel comfortable and respected, facilitating your ability to build rapport and care for patients holistically. 

You’ll also be exposed to other languages and potentially have the chance to learn a new one! Not only can learning a new language expand and improve upon communication skills, it can also increase grey and white brain matter density which improves memory, problem-solving, and multitasking abilities​. 

In addition to appreciating other cultures and languages, travelling can teach you  plenty about yourself. How do you behave in unfamiliar situations? Can you find a way to communicate with people who speak a different language? Can you independently navigate new places? You’ll discover how you react to these circumstances and many others. 

If you do choose to travel, bring a journal with you! You can chronicle your adventures and reflect on them in the future to learn from your experiences and use it in your continuous journey of self improvement. 

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And there you have it! These are our top ways of making the most of your gap year. 

Have any lingering questions on how to maximize your gap year? Looking for support as you start drafting your personal statements? Need expert interview training? Check out our application and interview services or book a free consultation to learn how we can prepare you for your medical school application process.

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