Pros, Cons of Applying to Medical School After Your Third Year of College

More than half of medical students take at least one year between finishing college and starting medical school, and that percentage is increasing, according to a 2019 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges.

When considering when to apply to medical school, remember that applying and interviewing is approximately a yearlong process that begins shortly following junior year, should you choose not to take a gap year. Conversely, those who apply after their senior year of college will automatically have a gap year.

There are benefits to each approach that should be weighed when sketching your future timeline.

Advantages to Applying to Med School After Junior Year

You are a pro at taking tests. Completing premedical college courses requires a high degree of time- and stress-management skills. You’ve likely discovered what works for you. Diving right into med school with these skills in hand may make you a more confident test-taker and student.

You are used to studying. College courses will never entirely prepare you for the amount of studying med school requires, but they can make the transition smoother. Taking a gap year, or years, can be like stepping off the treadmill and canceling your gym membership. Your brain and habits can get out of shape, just like your body. Sure, you can always get back into shape, but it may feel like an uphill battle at first.

[Choose the Right Gap Year Experience for Medical School]

You’re tired of waiting and want that white coat now. Perhaps you’ve always known you wanted to be a doctor. That’s great. Now you’re reading this article and wondering what possible reasons there could be to postpone the ultimate goal. Many students feel eager to jump into med school for a multitude of reasons, be it a lifelong passion for medicine, excitement or eagerness to start paying off undergraduate debt. If the idea of a gap year just feels like a waste of time, it’s probably not the right choice for you.

Your mentors are more accessible. When it comes to asking for a recommendation letter, once you have a solid relationship with your mentor, there’s no time like the present. When I filled out my AMCAS application two years after college graduation, I found it difficult to reconnect with mentors after several years had passed.

There’s no way of knowing, but I suspect the best recommendation letters often come when you are still actively working or recently worked with someone. You are fresh in the mind of that person, who can add small details about your performance or personality that can help their letter — and, by extension, you — stand out.

Advantages to Applying After Graduation

You’re older. When it comes to being a doctor, older can be better. I’ve seen many patients comforted by a few gray hairs around the temples. This profession will challenge you in ways that are hard to anticipate. Some of these changes will be difficult, and it requires maturity to embrace that kind of personal growth.

[Read: What to Know About Applying to Medical School Later in Life.]

Being a doctor also necessitates emotional maturity. Who hasn’t heard the line, “I want to be a doctor because I like helping people”? The medical profession deals as much in biology as it does psychology.

Many people go into medicine because they appreciate the science, but the emotional aspect is inextricably linked to the profession. There’s nothing like a few extra years of living in the “real world” outside of your college bubble to provide some perspective. Part of treating patients is knowing where they are coming from.

Finding your balance. At some point in your life, you will have to ask yourself how, exactly, you would like to spend your time. What does work-life balance look like for you? If college and med school leave you feeling like the scales are tipped, you’re not alone. You want to do well, and maybe you decide the balance part can wait.

However, taking a year or more off between college and med school can be an opportune time to discover the activities, people and priorities that help you keep your life in balance, like making time for artistic pursuits or prioritizing a weekly phone call with a close friend. Knowing what parts of your life are elemental to your well-being is the key to success.

More resume building. Fair warning: Your resume will never stop mattering. A gap year or years can give you time to fully commit yourself to something. Maybe there’s a research project that you’d really like to see published, or an exciting volunteer trip abroad. I spent two years completing a postbaccalaureate fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. It was exciting to have a real 9-5 job (at least for a little while) and for once, I wasn’t balancing research with other classes.

[Understand Common Reasons Students Leave Medical School]

Some students will take gap years to conduct research or pursue graduate degrees such as public health, or even volunteer abroad. This time can be fulfilling and could help you down the road as you apply for residencies and fellowships, and even inform your specialty and career choices. How you fill a break can make for great conversation on interview day.

You’re not sure. Starting med school is a big decision, and once you start it can be costly to stop. A friend quit med school after two years. That’s a lot of debt with no degree. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind, but why not take some time to reassure yourself — and your bank account — that this is the right move for you?

Consider taking a year to gain more clinical exposure, such as being a scribe, that will help you envision what a career in medicine would entail. My work at the NIH also included a clinical component, which meant I had two years of clinical experience under my belt before starting clinical rotations in med school.

By the end of the first year, I felt comfortable talking with patients and their families, and certain that medical school was where I wanted to head next. You can use this time to help you decide if med school is the right choice for you and to make yourself a stronger candidate — and medical student — in the process.

When it comes to deciding when to apply to med school, there is no correct answer. But if you choose to wait, make that time work for you. Gap year is a misnomer because it suggests a break, or intermission. This time should be anything but.

More from U.S. News

Pros, Cons of Declaring a Specialty as a Medical School Applicant

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