Weigh Applying to Medical School After Third, Fourth Year

Applying to med school as a junior means you won’t have a gap to fill after you graduate.

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Prospective medical students can wait to apply until after graduation, but may want to become a doctor sooner.
Prospective medical students can wait to apply until after graduation, but may want to become a doctor sooner.

The majority of premeds apply to medical school after their third or fourth year of undergraduate study. Since the application process takes more than a year, if an applicant applies after the third year of college and is accepted, he or she will start medical school in the fall of the following year. And an applicant who applies after senior year will ultimately be taking a full year off after graduation.

So does it matter when you apply? Are there advantages of applying after fourth year instead of third year or vice versa? Both options have their benefits.

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Advantages to Applying After Third Year

1. Eliminating one year of worry: This is probably the most important and practical advantage. Maintaining a high GPA, continuing extracurricular activities and juggling a social life as a premed can be incredibly taxing. If you are accepted into medical school sometime during your fourth year, potentially as early as Oct. 15, then you can somewhat relax and "take it easy" for the rest of your college career.

2. Becoming a doctor faster: Some people want to become doctors as soon as they can. Life is short, so why waste time on other things – especially if you are absolutely sure that you want to become a doctor?

For those students, applying after junior year instead of spending another year doing something they might not be really interested in allows them to become a doctor a year earlier. A year off can become incredibly boring for those stuck at a bland research job or sitting at home watching television every day.

3. Answering fewer secondary application questions: Many schools' secondary applications include questions like, "If you have already graduated, briefly summarize your activities since graduation."

Not only do those applying after senior year have to write an additional essay for each school to answer this question – and while you can modify the same essay over and over again, that is still additional work – but it is also implied that you must be doing something significant during your time off. If you want to avoid both, apply sooner rather than later.

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Advantages to Applying After Fourth Year

1. Having an extra year to mature, rest and strengthen your application: First, you will not be rushed to squeeze in all your premed activities in your first three years; you can spread them out over four. Often, extracurricular activities become most significant and meaningful during senior year.

If you apply after your senior year, you can include them in your application. You will also have an additional year to improve your GPA if you need to, engage in significant extracurricular activities, rest and learn more about yourself and the world.

You can turn yourself from a relatively average applicant to a very competitive applicant in just one year. Lastly, you might also need a long break after four years of intense studying during college.

2. Taking the MCAT later: If you apply to medical school after your third year, you have two options for taking the MCAT. Either you will have to study for and take the MCAT the summer after your second year – a time when you could be doing a summer research program or taking summer school to boost your GPA – or during your third year, which means you will have to study while you are taking regular classes. Applying after fourth year gives you more time to prepare for the MCAT.

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3. Interviewing without juggling: Going to interview after interview while you are still in school can be incredibly exhausting. You may be interviewing on a Friday when you have a midterm that following Monday, a potentially unnecessary extra burden.

It is difficult to really enjoy the interview experience if you always need to go back to school right away. If you are interviewing during your year off, you could use the interviews as a well-warranted excuse to travel and explore the U.S. You tend to have more freedom and flexibility, especially if you are not working full time.

In retrospect, I'm very glad that I applied at the end of my fourth year. My fourth year was very valuable to my application. I boosted my GPA, wrote my senior research thesis and became the president of a club all in my senior year.

During my year off, I gained meaningful full-time work and research experience and was able to use my interview process as a reason to travel without having to worry about school. There were times during the year when I wished I were already in school, but the wait made me all the more excited and motivated.

One option is not necessarily better than the other. Choosing when to apply depends on your personal preference, the strength of your application and timing. Take these considerations into account when planning out your premed timeline, especially if you are an underclassman.

Edward Chang is a graduate of UCLA, where he attends the David Geffen School of Medicine. In addition to managing ProspectiveDoctor.com, he also counsels prospective medical school applicants. Contact him at edwardchang@prospectivedoctor.com or follow ProspectiveDoctor.com on Twitter, @ProspectiveDr.