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Filling the Gap: What Applicants Should Know about Gap Years

During the time that I served as the medical school admissions dean in San Antonio I was frequently asked about gap year(s) by students and applicants to both medical school and dental school. My response was always “It depends." According to the dictionary, gap is defined as “an unfilled space or interval.” Using this definition, a professional school admission gap year may apply to: 

  1.  a year or so after being denied admission to medical or dental school including efforts to apply again
  2. a deliberate year or more after graduation from undergraduate school to pursue other interests thereby delaying application to professional school
  3. the year(s) spent in another vocation before deciding to apply to a healthcare education program

Each of these scenarios represent different contexts, and I will hopefully provide some guidance for each. Within these three situations, there are two descriptors I consider very important: enrichment and value. I like to suggest that a gap year is an enrichment year in which your experiences enrich your desire and/or qualifications to study medicine or dentistry. Adding academic effort, clinical experiences, community service or volunteer activities all enrich your desire and qualifications to pursue a career in healthcare. The second descriptor is value. Whatever it is that YOU believe will enhance your qualifications, it is important that the value be clear in your mind. I always tell students not to do anything just to get into professional school…do it because it has value to you in your future.

Understand, the first essay question on the TMDSAS application is “Explain your motivation to seek a career in medicine or dentistry. Be sure to include the value of your experiences that prepare you to be a physician/dentist.” This is a great question; hence I always ask applicants to help me understand why they involved themselves in those experiences. Was their effort regarding those activities to support their decision to study medicine or dentistry?

So, let’s examine the three scenarios I mentioned and see how an applicant in those situations should regard the potential effects of a gap year.

REAPPLICANTS

For students who are pursuing a gap year due to an unsuccessful application to medical or dental school, it is very important to carefully consider the question on the TMDSAS application regarding what YOU have done to strengthen your application. Realize that there is a very small window in time to make major improvements in your qualifications. To substantively improve your application, it may take more than one year. If so, that is okay, but make sure it is your own decision. It is critical that YOU consider what might have been the limitations of your application and address them through your activities. Of course, I encourage you to meet with a pre-health advisor and/or professional school admissions dean.

However, my question to you would still be…what do YOU consider the reasons why your application was not successful. When an advisor (especially a medical or dental school admissions dean) points out what they consider the issue(s) to be, you may have expectations that once you have addressed those limitations your next application will be successful. Recognize that this may or may not be the case.

To improve your qualifications, you should not jump too quickly into a post baccalaureate program, the coursework of which, may do little to address what YOU perceive to be the weaknesses in your application. If the weakness is your entrance exam score (MCAT or DAT) or lack of appropriate clinical experience, a largely coursework-oriented program would do little to enhance your qualifications. If you decide on such a program for the purposes of improving your grade point average, carefully choose the program that is right for you.

There are master’s degree programs that may not boost your academic qualifications in the view of medical or dental school admissions committees. Importantly, consider that you will only be a few months into the program if you apply during the next application cycle, so there may not be much for the admissions committee to consider regarding academic progress. Such programs are often expensive and may last more than a year, so you need to be very clear about the value of the program in helping you be successful applying to professional school again. 

POST-GRADUATES

There are many reasons a student might intentionally delay application to medical or dental school. Often, it is to strengthen the student’s application through more clinicallyrelated experiences. These experiences not only add to overall qualifications but also may cement their interest in the profession. During this time, students may engage in volunteering in medicallyrelated fields or by shadowing or clinical research. Regardless of the setting, I would always ask during the interview “what did you learn from the experience that would apply to your future professional activities?” Again, hopefully the student can describe the value of the gap year experiences.

A student may also be in a degree program where completing professional school admission prerequisites might require an extra semester or two. Health or personal reasons may also delay coursework progress and graduation. Given these possibilities, it is always important to pursue along with coursework additional activities such as clinical or volunteer experiences, or, if needed, employment. Studying for and taking the MCAT or DAT may also require a year delayed entry into medical or dental school.

This may be for taking the exam for the first time or to improve their entrance exam score. Commercial review courses (such as Kaplan, Princeton Review, Exam Krackers, etc.) can be valuable but students must understand that a review course will do nothing for them without significant engagement and hard work on their part. Don’t be one of the applicants who squandered away the value of the review course by not applying themselves through personal motivation, discipline and focused study.

 Finally, you may want to take time off to decompress after a rigorous four years of undergraduate study. Frequently students realize they will not have much time to experience unique opportunities of work, travel or reflection before starting professional school, residency (if necessary) and beginning their careers. This is entirely understandable, but again you must be able to describe the value of your gap year experiences. Don’t be the “I’m-going-to-hangout-at-home-and-play-video-games” applicant (yes, I had an applicant really tell me this!!). Good use of your time is essential as it is an opportunity to strengthen and solidify your application as well as prepare you for the long road of study ahead.

CAREER CHANGERS

I spent quite a bit of time counseling individuals regarding a change in career path, or as some might describe them, “nontraditional” applicants. Typically, some unique event or experience led to the decision to study medicine or dentistry and they have made a substantial sacrifice to prepare themselves for the application process. Not only is it a financial burden, but it can also be a serious challenge to family life for those students who are married or in relationships. On the plus side, career experiences combined with unique approaches to the educational environment add to the diversity of a professional school class and especially the richness of the educational experience for all students.

For students who are turning to healthcare education later than typical, the need to determine their commitment to such a career path is greater than students who have not been in an alternate vocation. Admissions committees seek to make certain that the student is not only academically capable but also, through clinical experiences, sure this is the right decision for them. By doing so, admissions committees will have a pretty good idea the student is motivated and committed to adjusting to a demanding academic environment.

Admissions officers also want to make sure that plans are in place to balance the time commitment for other responsibilities (studying, clinical rotations, on-call schedule in hospital, etc.). While a heavy exam schedule and other academic demands are substantial for any student, it is especially challenging for students who have been successful in an alternate career; the cost is not only financial but also personal regarding family and friends. The good news is most professional schools have resources to support nontraditional students such that, quite frequently, they are some of the most successful students in the medical or dental school class.

Hopefully I have been able to provide a bit of guidance concerning the three scenarios for gap years. The underpinnings of my message in all three situations are not only the importance of value and enrichment, but also YOUR role in deciding what to do to support your application during these gap year(s). If you are passionate about, and committed to, a career in medicine or dentistry, good decisions and enriching your application through academic effort and clinical experiences will greatly contribute to the goal of a career in healthcare, regardless of your timeline.

 

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Dr. Jones is Emeritus Professor and former Senior Associate Dean for Admissions at the Long School of Medicine, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.