The Complete Guide To Gap Years Before Medical School

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

Taking a gap year before medical school is an incredibly common practice that increasingly large numbers of students are choosing to do.

Instead of immediately finishing secondary school and enrolling on the first course that will accept them, students are choosing to take a year out to work, travel and generally gain a bit of life experience.

Although gap years have been around for just about nearly as long as the concept of university has, are things any different when it comes to a medicine application?

Do medical schools accept gap year students? Do they penalise them for their time out? How many medical students have taken gap years and what do they do in them?

These are all questions that I’m going to address in this complete guide to the medical school gap year, which should hopefully give you all the information you need to make an informed decision as to whether you’ll choose to take one.

Do Medical Schools Accept Gap Year Students?

Before you start planning your dream gap year, full of front-line medical shadowing and travel to far-flung places, you need to know whether medical schools will actually accept an application from a gap year student in the first place!

Medical schools readily accept gap-year students. Some universities will also allow students to apply for deferred places- meaning they can secure an offer before taking their gap year. There is no limit on the number of years out of formal education a student can have.

Luckily for the more adventurous out there who want to see a bit of the world before knuckling down to study, medical schools are more than happy to consider applications from non-direct school leavers.

There’s no blanket ban on people who’ve been out of formal education for one, two, three or four plus years.

Two students on a gap year in their van

As I’ll get on to slightly later in the article, it’s all about how you’ve used that time, not how much time itself has actually elapsed.

UCAS itself offers the option for students to make a deferred application.

This is where you apply to university, to try and secure an offer, but make it clear from the outset that you intend on taking a year out before attending the course.

“Students are welcome to apply for deferred entry if they would like to take a gap year. Making an application on this basis does not affect your chance of being selected.”

UCL Medical School

Your interviewers will likely be interested in what your plans are for spending your year out.

Although they’ll understand you may not have a complete plan for the year drawn up, if you are applying for deferred entry you’ll need to come prepared with some convincing arguments as to why your gap year will be beneficial to you as a medical student.

Pros And Cons Of Taking A Gap Year Before Medical School

If you’re on the fence as to whether you want to take a gap year or not, I thought I’d go over some of the main pros and cons to help you make your mind up.

ProCon
It’s a unique opportunity to experience a year of freedomYou’re set one year back from peers who go straight to uni
You can work and save money to fund your time at uniYou have to repeat the UCAT/BMAT if you did them this year
You can strengthen your medicine application over the yearYou have to fund your living expenses/travel for a year
More time to study for the UCAT/BMATRejection after a gap year could set you further back
You have time to consider your future ambitionsNot using your gap year strategically might hurt you
Pros and cons of taking a gap year before medical school

I of course can’t cover every pro and con of taking a gap year before medical school, but these are the main ones that came to mind.

To me, the biggest pro of taking a gap year is that unbridled year of freedom you’ll have at your disposal.

Whether you want to work, travel, play sport or learn a new language, you can design your year to suit you.

The main con, in my opinion, is the fact that you will inevitably be set one step back from your peers.

It will take you longer to become a doctor and so you’ll start work in the NHS (and earning money) later than all your friends.

Now I’d try not to get too hung up on this idea of racing against your peers to the finish line- as people will do six-year courses instead of five, intercalate within their medical degree or just take time out for whatever reason, but it’s definitely a factor you should be aware of when deciding if you want to take a gap year.

Aside from these two factors then, I think it’s going to be very personal how much weight any individual puts on each point.

Only you can decide whether the fact that rejection following a gap year would set you back even further can outweigh the benefit from the extra time you’d have to work on your application.

Is It Harder To Get Into Medicine After A Gap Year?

Everyone knows medicine is incredibly competitive to get into. So you don’t need anything to make it even more difficult to get an offer!

An important consideration then has to be whether taking a gap year will make it harder for you to get into medicine.

On the face of it, getting into medical school is not any harder or easier if you’ve taken a gap year. Universities do not discriminate against students who have taken gap years as long as they can show that they used their time productively and in some way furthered their application.

If you were hoping to take a gap year, the good news is that this won’t negatively affect your chances of getting into medical school.

However, the key part of the statement above is that you have to use your time ‘productively’ and you’ll want to in some way progress your application.

Universities are not going to be impressed if all you’ve done for the entire year is scuba dive in Bali and ride elephants in Thailand (no matter how cool the pictures look).

Exploring a wreck whilst scuba diving

That’s not to say you can’t do either of those things, it’s just you should ideally combine them with some other more medicine-related activities over the year.

This might look like six months working as a healthcare assistant and then six months travelling- rather than just a full twelve months travelling.

“A well-planned re-application during a gap year, with good A-levels, should be much stronger than the original UCAS application and will improve your odds of getting an offer.”

Cardiff Medical School

The fact is, if you use your gap year wisely, with some fun and some application work, you’ll likely become a much stronger candidate in the eyes of the medical schools you’re applying to compared to when you first finished school.

What Percentage Of Medicine Applicants Take Gap Years?

When it comes to competitive applications such as getting into medical school, you rarely want to stand out from the crowd as the odd one out.

If you’re planning on taking a gap year then, you’ll want to be sure that you’re going to be in good company.

Approximately 1 in 4 medical students, or 25%, will have taken a gap year before they attend medical school. This figure represents a combination of both students choosing to defer their studies in addition to those forced to apply again as a result of an unsuccessful first attempt.

Every year, UCAS actually releases the year’s application statistics that we can use to help answer our question:

YearFirst-time applicantsReapplicantsPercentage
201818,2502,48013.6%
201919,5302,90014.8%
202020,6703,05014.8%
202124,2204,47018.5%
202224,0005,71023.8%
Reapplication statistics from UCAS

From the data then, we can see that in 2022 23.8% of medicine applicants had applied at least once before.

If we combine this percentage with all the people who will have taken a gap year and then applied to medical school (i.e. they’re still first-time applicants) we can be safe to say that at least one in four medical students will have taken a year out between school and university.

If you do choose to take a gap year, you won’t be the odd one out.

I’ll admit that when I got to medical school, I was actually surprised by the sheer number of people who hadn’t come straight from school.

You definitely don’t need to worry about being that one student who’s older than everyone else.

As a very informal poll, to prove that these figures are representative of students who get into medical school and not just those who are applying, out of my seminar group of 9 medical students at Leicester, 5 of us were direct entrants and 4 had taken at least one year out.

What Should You Do in A Gap Year Before Medical School?

If you’re looking for a bit of inspiration as to what you should do in your year out, look no further.

In a gap year before medical school, students should seek to strengthen their medicine application. This can be through gaining further work experience, volunteering opportunities, the experience of paid work, sporting or extra-curricular activities, or any combination of all the above.

Although you do need to focus on bolstering your application, as otherwise you run the risk of rejection, an ideal gap year wouldn’t solely be dedicated to things that will look good on your CV.

You should have a bit of fun too!

The key is to strike a healthy balance between things that will help you get into university and the things that make you want to take a gap year in the first place.

If you’re stuck for ideas, here are a few that will make you look good:

  • Volunteering in a care home
  • Working as a healthcare assistant
  • Donating your time to a local charity
  • Teaching English as a foreign language abroad
  • Shadowing a health professional over time
  • Holding a leadership role in the community

And here are a few that will make your friends jealous:

  • Learning to scuba dive with tropical fish
  • Working a ski season in the Alps
  • Only working when you want and where you want
  • Living in another country and learning their language
  • Travelling down under to Australia and New Zealand
  • Taking part in an exotic conservation program

Making the most of any gap year will take some careful planning. It would be a dangerous game to just go where the year takes you.

For one, you need to be in the UK for key dates such as the UCAT testing window as well as your (prospective) medical school interviews.

It’s only through careful planning that you can be confident that you’ll strike that balance between fun and work- and so not be caught out by unimpressed interviewers when they review your ski season holiday pics.

How Do You Explain A Gap Year In A Personal Statement?

One thing a lot of candidates worry about is how you explain a gap year in your personal statement. Should you mention it or just try and brush over it entirely?

Your personal statement should describe how you spent your gap year as well as what impact those experiences have had on you. Universities are interested in understanding how you developed over the year as well as how your experiences will influence you going forward.

Universities, and especially medical schools, genuinely appreciate gap year students arriving to start their course with a bit more life experience than their direct-entrant colleagues.

A student working on their personal statement

They’ll be that little bit older and more mature, they’ll likely have gained some important life skills in their first year out of formal education and they might even have got a bit of partying out of their system!

However, crucially you have to demonstrate this is the case in your personal statement.

If you have gained a far deeper appreciation for the caregiver’s role as a result of your gap year- why is that and how did it happen? What experiences gave you this new appreciation?

Universities won’t give these facts to you as granted and they’re interested to know what impact your time out has had on you.

Although it shouldn’t the entire focus of your personal statement, it would definitely be a mistake to try and brush over your most recent year.

This will only make a medical school suspicious that you didn’t use the time wisely and are trying to pull a fast one on them.

Should You Take A Gap Year Before Medical School?

So, when taking everything into consideration, should you take a gap year before medical school?

A student should take a gap year before medical school if they feel that they need more time to strengthen their medicine application, they weren’t successful in their first application cycle or they simply want to gain a bit of life experience before attending university.

There are plenty of good reasons to take a gap year. And there are also plenty of bad ones. Only you can decide which is the right option for you.

If you are truly completely on the fence as to whether you want to take one or not, I’d make an application to medical school this year.

By doing so, you’re really just keeping all of your options open to you till the very last moment.

You can always pull out of a spot at medical school, or roll the dice to see if the university would be willing to let you defer for a year, if you have that offer in the bag.

You won’t be in the same position of power if at the last minute you decide that you in fact don’t want to take a gap year- and want to go to university this application cycle.

You won’t have the option to go as you won’t have an offer!

Final Thoughts

I personally didn’t take a gap year before I went to medical school.

I went straight from school, to university, to my foundation jobs as a doctor.

And to be honest, I do feel like I somewhat missed out on those unique and expansive experiences students can gain from a productive gap year.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d definitely carefully consider the option of not rushing off to university.

You may have the choice made for you if you’re not successful in your first attempt at applying to medical school.

Although this can feel like a devastating blow, all I can do is urge you to try and see the silver lining in the cloud and try again.

I know, if medicine is what your heart is truly set on, you’ll get there eventually.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.