Check out what our pre-health specialist Career Assistant, Michelle, has to say about gap years!

Should I take a gap year?

I personally went through this inner dilemma. I came into Cornell dead set on going directly to med school, do not pass go, do not collect $200 (Monopoly joke). However, scenarios change and I’m actually taking a gap year now. Plenty of people take gap years and plenty of people go straight to med school. I don’t know the actual statistics, but it feels like it’s a 50/50 split here at Cornell.

Top three reasons why people take gap years:

  1. Not ready:

    1. They don’t know three people who can write them strong letters of recommendation by Spring of their junior year. It’s hard to get to know professors, especially at Cornell, where a lot of your classes are huge. However, it’s a good idea to frequent office hours, especially of professors you find interesting. They’re cool people who’ve done incredible things and definitely people you want to learn more about.

    2. Med schools don’t get to really appreciate what you do during your senior year if you don’t take a gap year because it’s all your experiences up through your junior year that end up on your medical school application at that point.

    3. Low GPA. Kind of goes along with the senior year point above. The usual rule of thumb is that your overall GPA should be at minimum above 3.4 if you’re want to go straight through, but the lines are often blurry and it really depends on your situation (plus it’s a different ball game if you’re an underrepresented / disadvantaged minority). You can use senior year to take additional coursework and help your GPA.

    4. Not enough experiences. This can usually be determined if you attempt to answer the 20 Questions form and realize you are having trouble answering a lot of questions.

  2. Burn-out

    1. As we all know, Cornell is no cake walk, and people want to take a breather before jumping into med school. They don’t want to do eight years of post-secondary school in one go.  NOTE: This is not something you say during your medical school interview. Do put a different spin on it about taking time off, such as getting more experience in medicine.

  3. MCAT timing.

    1. The rule of thumb on when to take the MCAT is before May 1 of the year you are applying, so you’ll find out your scores before you submit your applications and have a better idea of where to apply. Most people who aren’t taking a gap year end up taking the MCAT during the spring of their junior year. From personal experience trying to do that, I can attest that it’s not easy to MCAT prep and do Cornell classes (and that’s partially why I took a gap year). A lot of people take Physics and Biochem their junior year, and it’s helpful to have the coursework under your belt before you take the MCAT.

What should I do during my gap year?

Honestly, you could do anything as long as it’s not just sitting on your couch at home, watching Netflix and eating chips. You don’t even need to be doing anything medically related. Med schools (and I’m sure any graduate school) just want to see that you’re doing something to better yourself (and preferably society too).

 

My professor once told me about a student who wanted to backpack across Europe but wasn’t sure what med schools would think about it.  Said professor asked his friend, an admission counselor at Weill, what they thought about it, and they were all for it. Hard to believe, right? But backpacking in a foreign country actually would teach you a lot of important skills, like communicating with different people, being very self-sufficient and independent, and learning to adapt to new situations. The orthopedic surgeon I shadowed this summer echoed similar sentiments–he told me not to work for my entire gap year and take some time to travel before I jump back into school.

 

That being said, if there’s a part of your medical/graduate school that is lacking (community service, research, clinical experience, etc), it would be wise to bolster that area during your gap year. It won’t be on your application (because you need to submit early!), but you can talk about it during interviews. It’s less about what you do than what you gain from the experience. You could work at a big name organization, but if you can’t articulate the applicable skills you’ve gained from the experience, it won’t help you in the med school application game or in life.

 

A few things to be aware of:

  • A lot of people like to think about going abroad during their gap year. However, if you are set on only taking one gap year, I’d advise against going international for the whole year for one reason: interviews. You’ll probably be interviewing during the fall-winter of your gap year. Plane tickets are expensive and it’s a hassle to cross time zones and fly back and forth. Med schools can be somewhat flexible about interviews (like if you only wanted to come back once and do all your interviews), but many med schools hand out acceptances on a rolling basis and you don’t want to be behind in the med school application game because of this.

  • You’ll probably hear a lot of things about what med schools “like” to see, like “Oh, they’re impressed by Teach for America” or “They like Americorps” or “Publications are impressive!”. However, med schools are smart. They can tell when you’re doing something for the sole reason of fluffing your resume. Honestly, it’s better to do things you are sincerely interested in–you’ll have a better experience and will be able to better articulate the experience in an interview setting. Don’t go hide in a research lab for a year if you hate research. Don’t do TFA, City Year, etc if you don’t like working with kids.

  • Working a real job is a slippery slope. Income is always nice, but it’s hard to go back to being a student when you get used to having a steady income.

  • Most students want to be paid and do ‘big name’ programs, but it’s honestly fine to live at home and do local volunteer work for a year if it’s financially possible. Likewise, you could work, teach swim classes (or something), volunteer at your local hospital, etc. Med schools won’t look down at you and you’ll still be able to learn and grow as a person. Also, with volunteering, you’ll probably have the most schedule flexibility in working on those secondaries and traveling for interviews.

The slightly frustrating thing about gap year things is that a lot of opportunities release applications in the spring. Lots of pre-meds graduate not knowing what they’ll be doing during their gap year. It will be okay, I promise. However, it’s never too early to start researching opportunities whether in the CEC (come check out our Gap Year Opportunities packet!) or online through Google.