Taking a Gap Year

Last updated: 11/7/2021

An uncomfortable truth coming up…

Most applicants don’t get into medical school. In fact, it’s around 1 in 3 and dental is even more competitive.

If you end up being one of the two who don’t get in, all is not lost. A gap year is a great chance to grow as a person and really improve your application. Let’s face it, a year is nothing to worry about. 

So how can you make the most of this opportunity?

Is taking a gap year worth it?

The Director of Medical Admissions at Imperial says:

“We believe that a well-planned and used gap year is beneficial to students and we encourage students to consider it. Gap years give students opportunities for new life experiences which help them grow, mature and reflect. From our experience, students who have taken a gap year have not regretted it and it does not impair academic performance.”

Advantages of taking a gap year

  • Consolidate what you learnt in school
  • Have a moment out of education before a lengthy university course
  • Gain a new perspective on your chosen career
  • Volunteer and give something back
  • Start university as a more mature version of yourself
  • Make some money
  • Build skills you wouldn’t usually be able to
  • Get a second chance at a university offer
  • Have some fun!

If you were thinking about a year partying your way around European hostels, you might want to reconsider. A gap year should combine self-development and fun. That doesn’t mean adventure is off the cards, but you should try to blend it with activities relevant to your degree.

That’s not to say you have to work in a hospital for a year. You can try activities that develop your soft skills like leadership or interpersonal communication. This can be through:

- Work experience

- Volunteering

- Clubs and societies

- Any other means of exemplifying core values for medicine and dentistry.

So is it worth it? That really depends on how you use the time.

What if I don’t get into medical or dental school the first time?

  1. Contact the universities you applied to and politely request feedback. They are not obliged to offer this, but you may get lucky.
  2. Spend some time looking back over your application and asking yourself where you could improve it. 
  3. Set out your plan (see below). You’ve got a year to become too good to refuse. Start from first principles and decide what you’re going to do to achieve what you want.

Possible outcomes

Gap years during Covid-19

Obviously, your freedom to travel and work in certain places may be restricted due to the pandemic.

Plan for this by working around your limitations. 

Find out more about medical school applications during the pandemic.

How many people take gap years before medicine?

In 2021, the number of repeat medicine applications was about 15% of the total. Remember, the majority of applicants don’t get in the first time. They are faced with the choice between a gap year or other Plan B routes. 

How can I plan my gap year?

Step 1 Begin: Money, Realistic Timeline, Deadlines

Building skills for medicine and dentistry during your gap year

Infographic and list of how to get evidence for your skills before medical or dental school.

What to do in a gap year before medicine and dentistry?

Gap year programmes

These are pre-organised experiences, generally with other people on gap years. You can choose a full-year programme or do a series of short-term experiences. 

This could be anything from teaching in Peru to sailing the world for months at a time and can factor into your existing gap-year plan. Remember, it doesn’t have to be academically or vocationally focused, as long as you’re developing relevant skills.

Gap year programmes from Go Abroad

Work experience

Getting work experience during your gap year can help prove you know what you’re getting into. It doesn’t have to be the most obvious setting - like a hospital or a GP surgery. You can volunteer for charities or work in an unrelated field. You can also increase your direct vocational knowledge virtually, or by following blogs, podcasts and other publications.

Learn more about work experience

Good books to read before applying to medical school
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Medicine and dentistry gap year ideas

1. Community service

2. Research

3. Volunteering - international development is an exciting area

4. Travel

5. Teach English abroad (or for charities domestically)

6. Volunteer for the NHS

7. Start a blog or a podcast

8. Take online courses for free with Coursera

9. Start a community project

10. Take part in a team-based sporting challenge

11. Travel within the UK - or combine this with work experience in a new setting

Medicine and dentistry gap year success stories

We recently interviewed a dental student called Samar, who studies at the University of Manchester. She explained how she took a gap year when she didn’t get into dental school and used the year to improve her application. She even ended up getting dental work experience abroad, which allowed her to compare how different countries approach dental healthcare during her interview.

Learn more about Samar’s story.

Melanie, who recently studied medicine at Manchester, didn't get in the first time around. Without the money to do a gap-year programme, she decided to work at her local veterinary clinic. She observed clinical skills which she was able to comment on in her application and was able to save some money. After 6 months, Melanie was able to take a volunteering opportunity in Chad, where she taught English to local children.

"Arriving  in N'Djamena for the first time was an absolutely mad and unforgettable experience, and I'll never get over how amazing it was to be so out of my depth and just find a way to make it work."

Gap years during medicine or dentistry degrees

Once you’ve started studying medicine, many people choose to take a gap year between their foundation years and beginning a specialty. This is a natural point to take a break from your studies and try something new.

Intercalation can form part of this. While it’s not technically a gap year, it’s a chance to do something new. You study a new subject before resuming your original degree. Note that this is not offered by all medical schools.

Find out more about intercalation.

Some considerations before your gap year

Avoid falling victim to Parkinson’s Law - work expands to fill the time allotted to it. Get around this  by planning as carefully as possible.

Consideration 1: Money

Most volunteering programmes cost from £150-£300 a week, sometimes excluding accommodation, travel visas, health insurance or any additional potential expenses.

Solution

1. There are teaching programmes where you could get paid to teach English to students abroad.

2. You could get a job and work for a few months to fund the second half of your gap year.

3. Ask your family for help.

4. Apply for bursaries and grants specifically aimed at helping students fund their gap years.

Helpful links

Consideration 2: Timelines

12 months might feel like a long time…until you start attempting to fit everything you want to do on a calendar.

Let’s take a look at a hypothetical scenario:

A hypothetical gap year timeline, including UCAT study time, BMAT study time, volunteering abroad, full time job/internship, null period and time left over.

Solution

Set deadlines. There are two kinds - the ones you can control and the ones you can’t.

Deadlines you can’t control

UCAS dates

Admissions test dates (UCAT and BMAT)

Work to fund your gap year (in most cases this is decided by the employer)

Deadlines you can control

The dates of volunteer programmes (in most cases)

Travel

Virtual work experience (usually unpaid and flexible)

Consideration 3: Entrance Exams

Regardless of how you have performed in your UCAT or BMAT, these results expire after a year and applying again means you’re required to take them again.

Solution

You can schedule the UCAT for whenever suits you (within the registration window) and, since the BMAT only applies to a small number of schools, you could get away with not taking it.

Having extra preparation time during your gap year could give you the edge you need on the competition.

Get our comprehensive UCAT and BMAT courses to maximise your score.

Keep in mind that applying to medical schools outside of UCAS might require other entrance exams, e.g. HPAT for Ireland and if you’re applying as a graduate, GAMSAT for Australia. 

Consideration 4: Reference Checks 

Since universities require an academic reference, there will come a time when you will have to reach out to your former school or college to request one.

Solution

Secure contact at your school so you can ask for help when you need to. This trusted advisor who knows you and the strengths of your application will also be able to give you personalised advice when it comes to where to apply, interview feedback, etc., making the process that much easier in the long run.  

Alternatively, if you’re a mature student requiring a reference, contact the medical school you’re applying to discuss your options.

Learn about UCAS references in detail.

Summary

Regardless of how you choose to spend your gap year, a successful applicant will reflect on their experiences to prove their motivation and aptitude.

It almost doesn’t matter what you do as long as you can demonstrate what you’ve learned and how you believe the experience has had a positive influence on your future in healthcare.

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