More Students Take Time Off Before Applying to Medical School

In 2004, out of the 302 Harvard applicants to medical school, about 40 percent were seniors aiming to continue schooling directly after graduation. The remaining 60 percent were alumni who had taken at least one year off, opting to pursue projects such as a travel fellowship, a different graduate degree like a Master’s or Ph.D., a research project, a teaching or community service experience, or paid employment.

According to data compiled by the Office of Career Services on Harvard undergraduate medical school admissions, the majority of Harvard applicants to medical school have been alumni rather than seniors since 1999. Over the past decade, the gap between the number of alumni and senior applicants has only grown, with 82 seniors and 204 alumni applicants in 2013. 

Medical School Applicants
Alumni make up an increasing proportion of medical school applicants as more students take time off before applying.

Robert J. Mayer, faculty associate dean of admissions at Harvard Medical School, also noted the trend of an increasing number of alumni matriculants at HMS.

“When I was a student, 80 to 85 percent of people at Harvard Medical School came directly out of college,” Mayer said. “I’ve been in the role of leading admissions for about 11 years. [When I first started], about 60 percent were coming out of college. Now, it’s about 35 percent.”

The data mark a shift in the perception of gap years before medical school as an opportunity to gain life experience before committing to the profession, to develop interpersonal and scientific skills, and to bolster an application’s chance of success, students and Medical School officials say. Still, despite active encouragement of behalf of both pre-medical tutors and advisers to take at least one gap year, some students still have reservations about delaying their education.

PUSHING FOR THE GAP

Pre-med tutors and advisers promote gap years to prospective doctors, saying alumni applicants can have an advantage in demonstrating to selection committees their readiness and dedication to the medical profession.

Avik Chatterjee, a Dunster House pre-med tutor, taught chemistry at a high school for two years through Teach for America prior to starting medical school. He called the experience “exceedingly valuable” and “something [he] wouldn’t exchange for anything.” According to Chatterjee, holistic admissions at medical schools like Boston University and Mt. Sinai can emphasize applicants’ life experiences over test scores, which would benefit students who take gap years.

“From my own experience supervising medical students and residents, trainees who have a few years of additional life experience tend to come across as more mature, professional, and interesting,” Chatterjee wrote in an email. “I've heard the same thing from senior faculty who sit on admissions committees.”

Mayer echoed Chatterjee’s sentiments, particularly noting that travel during time off can broaden students’ perspectives and indicate to selection committees a greater potential for success in a future medical career.

“I firmly believe that sort of [travel] experience makes it easier for them to relate to a larger population of patients,” Mayer said.

Matthew F. Basilico, a pre-med tutor in Adams House, agreed that the motivations for taking a gap year are consistent with desirable qualities in a potential doctor.

“If healing is about empathy and science, and empathy is about understanding human experience, then it makes sense that those most interested in medicine—and those most attractive to medical schools—will seek out broad human experience before entering the most technical portion of their training,” Basilico wrote in an email.

In addition, some peer-to-peer advisers have advocated for gap years, with Justin S. Reynolds ’17, director of the Harvard Pre-Medical Society’s Peer Mentoring Program, considering the endeavor a “great idea” that he “absolutely” recommends. Reynolds himself took three gap years between his freshman and sophomore year at the College to work as a medical assistant in an ophthalmology practice.

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