By Jann Holland
Drury University Executive Director of Marketing and Communications
Each year, college juniors aspiring to become future doctors struggle to study for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) on top of their regular undergraduate studies, while at the same time, fortify their resumes with service and healthcare-related work experience. With an average of 41% of applicants accepted to medical school annually, the stress is high and the demands grow ever more steep.
The MCAT is daunting on its own. Among the many changes made to the 2015 MCAT, the most notable is that it now includes three additional semesters’ worth of material in college-level biochemistry, introductory psychology and sociology, which increases the number of prerequisite classes from eight to eleven. The test is also twice as long, requiring an average of six hours to complete as opposed to a little over three. The test requires more stamina and critical thinking skills, as well as the ability to integrate multiple topics and apply knowledge from all the natural sciences.
As a result, college students are increasingly taking a gap year after graduation. This allows students to either defer their medical school acceptance or take the MCAT during their senior year after they’ve benefited from an additional year of pre-health curriculum.
A gap year is defined as taking time off between life stages to explore interests or to identify a focus for the future. Students may spend the year traveling, volunteering, working or any combination of the three. This trend began in the U.K. in the 1960s, and the gap year is growing in popularity in the U.S.
Drury University has seen a steady rise over the past three years in graduates taking a gap year. The 2012-2013 class reported that just 1.3% of graduates were taking a gap year. The following year, the 2013-2014 class reported that 13.4% of graduates were taking a gap year.
Many pre-med advisors feel applicants who take a gap year demonstrate a higher level of readiness and dedication, which is appealing to medical schools. Drury biology professor Dr. Don Deeds established a program in which Drury students could spend time in the Yale University medical research lab under the supervision of Dr. Frederick Gorelick ’70. Now an interventional radiologist, Dr. Craig Boswell ’91 participated in the program and found the experience to be invaluable. “It was a good opportunity to gain a better understanding of the immense amount of work that goes into even the smallest strides made in medical research and appreciate the people who devote their lives to discovery,” said Boswell. Though he invested long hours completing his research, Boswell was also able to find time to explore the East Coast, learn how to windsurf and sit in on lectures on the Yale medical campus.
Emily Westenberg ’14 decided late in her senior year that she would like to become a physician assistant (PA). Though PA programs do not require the MCAT for admission, they do require that students enter the program with a significant amount of hands-on patient care experience. Westenberg took a gap year to serve as a CNA at Cox South and later transferred to the emergency department where she serves as an emergency multi-care technician. “Both experiences have reinforced my interest in the field, and I now know that this is truly what I want to do,” said Westenberg.
Both experiences have also bolstered her resumé. “I had no previous shadowing experience, so I have used this time to gain that experience. I also took additional classes that are prerequisites for some of the schools I’m interested in attending.” Westenberg is currently applying to PA schools, and she will find out her application status later this fall. “I wouldn’t have been able to dedicate the time my senior year. Now I’ve had the time to construct an application that best represents me.”
Breaking Down the Gap Year
Founded in 2012, the American Gap Association (AGA) is a non-profit professional organization that advocates for participation in a gap year by accrediting safe and quality organizations, as well as publishing research and providing scholarships. Research performed by the AGA cites the most significant influences when deciding to take a gap year: