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Do you have any advice for recent graduates that aren't immediately entering medical school? Does staying out of school a year (or two) hurt our chances of being accepted to competitive schools?
It depends! There is a very elite school where more than 70% of the student body takes a year or more off in between undergrad and medical school. The questions you have to answer are "why" and "what." Why did you take the time off? What did you gain or accomplish during that time? Whether you worked a job, learned a new skill, traveled, or spent time with family, you will need to explain what you gained from this time and that you are ready to take on the challenges of medical school when you do apply.
Schools will want to know that you will be able to step back into a classroom learning environment without missing a beat, so anything you can do to explain how you have remained academically engaged will be crucial. Consider taking at least one class a year through a continuing education or community education entity-even art or languages show that you are engaged in learning and showcase your curiosity as a learner.
So, overall, time off doesn't hurt you, but be very deliberate and conscientious about your plans and how you use that time. I had one student who was just plain burned out, so she wrote about that and what she did to take care of herself after undergrad. She took a total of three years off. She detailed all the insights she gained about her own wellbeing and how to maintain it under extreme stress. She related these to modern environments and working with others. Talking about the community work she did during those three years made her really stand out in positive ways. Clearly these were assets gained that would aid her in success in medical school and a medical career. Just one example of answering the "what" in an effective way.
Schools want you to apply to and start medical school with 100% of your focus and passion. If you are burned out, unsure about medicine, or just want to explore the world, schools are generally okay with you getting it out of your system before you come knocking on the door. They would rather you deal with it before school than during, right?! That said, the "what" and "why" are very critical aspects you must cover when you apply.
Recent graduates who delay entering medical school should be prepared to discuss in their applications the factors that influenced their decisions to delay applying.
Delaying one's application to pursue career enriching experiences (for example a Fulbright Fellowship), internships in competitive environments (for example the National Institutes of Health), unique opportunities associated with artistic or athletic skills (train for Olympics, participate in a symphony, traveling theatre, etc.) can enhance the competitiveness of one's candidacy. Candidates who feel a need to rest and to take time away from intense academic settings before beginning medical school are not put at a disadvantage at most schools.
Candidates who anticipate taking a year off before beginning medical school should explore opportunities to defer admission. One would then be able to apply during the senior year and, if offered admission, defer and be free of the work associated with the admissions process during the deferred year