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Mind the Gap (Year)

Reconsider taking time off after college before applying to medical school

By Melissa Ajunwa Bohonos

Why don’t you just apply and see what happens? This was the advice given to me by a friend and fellow aspiring premed student after I confided that I had planned on taking a year off after college before applying to medical school.  At that time I had a disappointing less than average MCAT score, as well as a less than average GPA. I also had more than 3 years of research and clinical experience.

I should have listened to him, because I did take a gap year before applying, and hated every single minute of it. What used to be a  1-2 hours a day of what I then considered fun work, performing a variety of lab experiments, turned into pure miserable drudgery at 8 hours a day 5 days a week. I was basically a lab assistant with no clearly defined end goal or role. I was aimlessly shuffling from one experiment to another, depending on which grad student in the lab needed the extra manpower for their experiments.

The experience of course filled a nice section in my resume but did it help my chances at all? Likely not.  Rather than the multiple first author publications that I was (very unrealistically) expecting to have published in top journals, all I had to show for that year (aside from a salary that was just slightly better than working a retail/minimum wage job) was a poster presentation at a national meeting.

The Bane of Pre-Med Existence: MCAT Retakes

To make things worse, I also decided to retake the MCAT during the same time, convinced that I could do better. And in the classic example of the madness of repeating the same thing over and over and somehow expecting a different result, I did nothing radically different from what I did to prepare the first time around. And guess what? I GOT THE SAME EXACT SCORE!  (BTW I’m still convinced that I could have done better if I had more time to dedicate to studying).

Premed students generally are a competitive bunch.  I’m sure there are indeed perfect applications and candidates out there but not everyone can be one. Do not let your ego dissuade you from applying until you have the “perfect” or “most competitive” application.

The most important thing is to pinpoint specific and legitimate defects in your applications. Ones that you might actually have the ability and resources to improve upon.  The two most common ones would be low MCAT scores and low GPA.

Retaking the MCAT

  • You need to have a solid study plan; preferably one that is markedly different from what you used the first go around
  • You need to ensure dedicated study time. I am not talking about 2-3 hours here and there for months at a time. You must dedicate most of the week continuously for 1-3 months, depending on your need to pull up your score. Ideally this should be the ONLY activity you would be involved in for those few months.
  • Unless you can score a percentile higher than the average accepted students’ score consistently, do not retake the exam.

Post baccalaureate programs

  • I would stick to ones that have strong ties to a medical school. For example, some will guarantee a spot in their medical school if you have a target GPA.
  • Special master’s program (SMPs) are designed basically designed as an audition for medical schools by allowing you take the same curriculum as their current first year medical students. I think it is a good option for students with the imbalance in their application of high MCAT scores but low GPA. Some even offer advanced standings in their MD class once you are admitted. (Note: at Georgetown’s SMP they recommend to apply to medical school even if you’re applying for their SMP)

In order to pursue medicine, it has to be your first and only choice. It is a long (and costly) road to undertake if you’re uncertain about it.

However, if you have the basic prerequisites, I would “mind the gap”. Taking an extra 1, 2 or even 3 years to craft the “perfect application” would be a waste of time with your current qualifications. By taking a few more years to craft the “perfect application”  you’re signaling that you may not be successful in medical school. So, if you are sure medicine is what you want, why wait? Why don’t you just apply and see what happens?

Shree Nadkarni

Shree Nadkarni is a BS/MD student at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School majoring in biology. He blogs about health policy, medical education, and the future of healthcare at his blog, http://www.commonsensemedic.com.

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