Questions About Life After Graduation
- It seems like more and more students are opting to take a glide/gap year or years before medical school. Why are so many students doing it? Is it a Princeton-specific thing? Are the advisers making students take time off?
The advisers at HPA cannot (and would not want to) “make” anyone do anything when it comes to the application process. We aim to provide our guidance based on qualitative and quantitative data, including past experience with students, communication with admissions offices, understanding of trends in admissions, numerical data about our own applicants, data about the national applicant pool, as well as our own relationship with each individual student – our understanding of his or her background, strengths, weaknesses, and goals in the application process – to provide our best advice in a process that is complicated, stressful, and financially and psychologically taxing. We want students to meet their goals in their first application cycle. We have seen too many students apply before they were fully ready for the process and struggle: students with high grades and relatively little clinical or “real world” experience have had trouble in interviews, and not gained acceptances to their desired schools; students whose grades weren’t competitive went through the whole application cycle without an interview invitation, and had to then regroup and take multiple years off to strengthen their academic profiles and reapply; students who weren’t sure about medicine in the first place have withdrawn in the middle of the application year, saddling themselves with expenses and stress in the process. As advisers, we want students to be successful, but we also leave it to them to make the best decisions for themselves. We have had students go through the application process knowing they were unlikely to succeed, and we still supported and advocated for them as strongly as we could based on the strength of their candidacies (but we also worry for them, since reapplicants sometimes struggle in the admissions process).
As far as whether this is a Princeton-specific phenomenon, we do think that there are aspects of the Princeton experience that lend themselves to applying at the end of senior year and taking a glide year, versus applying junior year and matriculating directly after graduation. Your senior thesis is a significant aspect of your time here; having it on the application, along with a letter from the thesis adviser, can be meaningful. The transition to Princeton can be a steep climb for many students, so allowing more time to demonstrate academic ability by way of all four years of grades on the application may be in the student’s best interest. A student may not have had as much time to leave the “Princeton bubble” and gain real-world experience as they would like, so the year off can be a chance to mature and grow away from an academic environment (it’s hard to describe how meaningful this is until you have done it, but if you ask students who have taken a year or two off, this is one of the first things they say about the benefit of doing so). Plus, Princeton is tough, emotionally and intellectually, and it is fine to take some time to refresh before jumping into the rigors of medical school. We have even more reasons outlined in our glide year handout, some specific to Princeton, but many more universal. And, applicants nationwide seem to be taking more time – it isn’t just a “Princeton thing.” Bryn Mawr, Johns Hopkins, and Cornell all provide some insight on the “gap/glide year,” and a quick google search reveals a number of others.
Again, there is no “one size fits all” to being premed. If you have questions about your own specific situation, don’t hesitate to come in to talk!
- I know a lot of people are deciding to take time off between graduation and medical school. When do they usually decide that that’s what they’re going to do?
Good question! Some students decide very early – freshman or sophomore year – and plan their premed-related activities and classes across all four years. Some students don’t decide until the very last minute before they would have to submit the application in the summer. It varies widely, but the most common time is late junior fall or early junior spring.
We go through all of the application logistics at our HPA Applicant Info Session in the fall semester and follow up with an “Evaluating Your Candidacy” workshop to help students reflect on their readiness for the application cycle. In consultation with advisers and others, many students may opt to take additional time in order to strengthen their candidacy before applying. Reasons can vary, and may include: a desire to improve academic metrics or improve relationships with potential writers of letters of recommendation; a need for more clinical experience; more time to study for MCAT; more time to save money to finance the application cycle; lack of clarity or confidence in career goals; or other priorities that will interfere with preparing the application this year.
- What are the implications of taking one versus two glide years?
In spring, seniors recognize the limited number of hours they have left to maximize the thesis, medical school application preparation, job search, and the rest of life—you only get one thesis, one senior year, whereas the medical school application timeline is more flexible. They also realize that many very appealing jobs, especially in research, prefer a two-year commitment, and they realize that the application process requires a significant financial investment, so a year of work can provide some financial cushion.
If you plan on one glide year, that year is your application year—there will be many tasks: writing secondaries, sending updates to show your continued interest in schools, staying productive so that you have something to say in those updates, managing interviews, feeling the stress of the unknown.
If you take two years, the first year becomes another preparation year. You can take the MCAT, develop relationships for letters of rec, gain clinical experience, and just be an adult in the world. Application prep for HPA and our committee letter would begin late fall/early spring, but you will find that you likely have a lot more time to manage it.
If there are weaker areas that you’d like to address, you can focus on them in the first year and know that you’ve addressed them prior to applying. Experience/grades on your initial application when you take two glide years can be more compelling than your promise that you will gain experience / take classes if you take one glide year.
This is not to say that it's impossible to prepare a strong application sooner--our current applicant pool is about 50% direct entry/one glide year and 50% two or more glide years. Consider your own personal situation, your goals, and what is best for you. We're happy to talk through it with you!
- Is there a point where medical schools worry about how much time you’ve taken off?
According to the 2020 Matriculating Student Questionnaire, over 22% of entering students started medical school 3 or more years after college graduation. A primary concern of medical school admissions committees is the applicant’s ability to negotiate the intensive, fast-paced didactic work in the first year. You have to provide evidence of readiness for a rigorous academic environment. If you were a strong student at Princeton, one or two years away is highly unlikely to cause concern, especially if your glide year experiences include a significant critical thinking/science component. Many students take two glide years because they find amazing research opportunities that require a two-year commitment or take a one-year international fellowship but do not want to manage med school interviews while abroad: in these cases, you’re very likely to maintain an academic mindset.
If your GPA and/or MCAT score may be cause for concern with schools, it would be worthwhile to take some classes or retake the MCAT during your years off.
Beyond one or two glide years, we have still seen students accepted with no additional academic work. In this case, though, it may be helpful to take the MCAT closer to the time of application if you’ve taken multiple years off since that will provide a more timely gauge of your readiness than counting on a score that’s a few years old. You’ll also want letters of recommendation from recent experiences that speak to your readiness to jump into the academic setting.
Each medical school will evaluate academic readiness for their own curriculum: the MSAR provides data on age of students at matriculation, which may help you gauge which schools are friendlier toward “non-traditional” applicants. And every applicant is different—we are happy to provide guidance based on your specific situation.
- What are some of things that people do with their year between college and med school? I'm thinking about applying after senior year but I'm wondering what my options are with the year off.
Let’s start by rethinking the term “year off.” We like to think of a year (or two) between Princeton and medical school as time to do something you’ve always wanted to do, which will continue your growth, intellectually as well as socially and culturally, even if you’re not in a classroom. Hardly a “year off,” when you think about it!
The two most common reasons people elect to take a "glide" year are: 1) They're ready for a break from the rigor of school and to refresh before beginning their medical education, or, 2) They want their senior year (or additional time) to work on their candidacy so that they are stronger applicants. If you're in the first group, you have more freedom in choosing how to spend your time. If you're in the second group, you need to be realistic, and work toward filling in gaps -- for instance, taking extra coursework in the sciences if your science grades are not competitive, or volunteering at a hospital or clinic of you have done very little since high school. Here are some things that recent alumni are doing with their year. This should give you a sense of the broad range of things you might consider:
- Doing clinical research in endocrinology at Mass General
- Earning a masters of public health at Columbia
- Working for Africare, setting up HIV/AIDS youth centers in Zambia
- Developing the curriculum for a charter school in Brooklyn
- Assisting with research in pathology/immunology at WashU in St. Louis
- Researching in parasitology at the Univ of Colorado while volunteering in the ER
- Studying in the special masters postbac program at Georgetown
- Working at an AIDS hospice in Houston
- Volunteering at a health clinic in Spain
- Coordinating a literacy program in low-income areas of New York City
- Investigating breast cancer in clinical research at UCSF
- Pursuing Gates, Rhodes, Marshall, Fulbright, P55, Labouisse, ReachOut and Princeton In fellowships
- Teaching biology and coaching a sport at a New England prep school, and more!
We have added some links to programs pursued by recent graduates to the Glide Year Opportunities page of our website as well as a Google Spreadsheet that captures hundreds of alums' glide year experiences.
- I am graduating this spring and I’m not applying to medical school yet, but I might do so down the road. Will HPA still be able to support me as an applicant? Is there anything I should be doing before I leave?
As you know, there is no one way to prepare for, apply to, and get into medical school. Every year, quite a few alums who graduated years ago get in touch with our office for advice and support, and we love working with them! Advising is available to all alums. We can add you to our listservs and continue to meet with you. To be eligible for a committee letter of recommendation after you graduate, you must meet our eligibility criteria, which are outlined on the website.
As far as things to do before you leave, email us with your permanent email address if you’d like to remain on our alumni email list. You’ll receive Vitals and will thus be able to stay abreast of anything related to future application cycles. You might also want to ask for letters of recommendation for us to hold on file for you. We are happy to hold any letters in our files for six years beyond your date of graduation. You can learn more about the process of gathering letters of recommendation on the Letters of Recommendation page of our website.
- Senior year just started, but a lot of my friends are already interviewing for consulting or finance post-graduation jobs. I’m taking a year off for med school applications – do I need to start looking now?
If you’re interested in those types of positions, then yes, but many of the positions of more interest to our prehealth students (research, clinical, service) tend to come available later in the year. We’re still compiling data on our current applicants, but some of the most popular opportunities include: P55 Fellowships (application due in the fall semester); other postgraduate fellowships coordinated through the OIP - Fellowship Advising (varying deadlines, September through January); Princeton in Africa/Asia/Latin America (deadlines in November); NIH Postbac IRTA (varying deadlines). it’s still good to keep an eye on HandShake. A couple of things that are also recommended whenever you have time: make sure that your resume is updated, read through information on the Glide Year Opportunities portion of our website, and make sure that people in your network (family, friends, internship supervisors, faculty mentors, physicians) know that you’ll be looking for a position in the coming year so that they might also be on the lookout for opportunities that will fit your interests.
- When should I look for glide year research jobs?
Research jobs come available year-round, but we’ve seen many positions specifically seeking glide year students in November through February. You can page through our postgrad job board to get a sense of past opportunities. We already have a couple of jobs posted for this year, which are also in Vitals. Princeton AlumniCorps P55 Fellowships (deadlines in the fall semester) have been available at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the UCSF Breast Care Center in recent years. The NIH Postbac Intramural Research Training Award. (varying deadlines) is another popular option. See the Career Development Center FAQs, including their recruiting timeline, for more about other industries.
- I'm a senior and I want to take a year or two off before med school. I applied to healthcare consulting jobs. Is this something that medical schools would look down upon? I am considering an MD/MBA and thought this would give me good experience.
Working in consulting (healthcare-related) or the pharmaceutical industry for a year or two before matriculating at a medical school is an acceptable thing to do, but only when all other aspects of your candidacy for medical school are in place. We often recommend that one spends time 'off' strengthening any weak spots (academic, clinical, research) in one's application. To be honest, reactions to the type of experience you're describing are somewhat mixed among medical schools, but generally speaking it will not hurt you as long as you continue doing something involving patient care, even if it's simply volunteering a few hours per week at your local hospital or community health clinic. If you're interested in an MBA, your path makes some sense, and it could be argued that all MD's could use some background in industries and professions next door to medicine, such as health insurance, health policy, and pharm. Just make sure you spend a little time doing something patient-centered if at all possible—patients are what it’s all about, when all is said and done!
- I've heard that some fellowships are incompatible with med school, and I was wondering if this is true. Is it possible to do a fellowship like Rhodes after college but before entering med school?
Of course it’s possible! In fact, in recent years, premed students have been awarded the Rhodes, Sachs, Fulbright, Gates Cambridge, Dale, Labouisse, ReachOut, Churchill, and Whitaker fellowships, not to mention numerous P55, and Princeton in Latin America, Asia, and Africa Fellowships. If you’re fortunate enough to find such support for studying at Oxford, Cambridge, or another location abroad, then we would advise you to take such an opportunity and make the most of it. It can get tricky in terms of determining when to apply to med school. You always want to apply when you have the richest qualifications and also when it is logistically possible to write applications and attend interviews in a timely manner. In some cases, this may be before/during your fellowship year, in other cases, it may be after, but the details can be worked out with proper planning and good advising. We have alumni who are awarded postgraduate fellowships and scholarships every year, heading off to med school afterward; one of them even spearheaded an effort to write a guide for med school applicants considering fellowships abroad, which we are happy to share with you. Work with HPA and your fellowship adviser concurrently--fellowships advisers are happy to meet with students individually and hold info sessions for interested students. The Fellowships office is located in the Office of International Programs.
- I’m a sophomore and I’d like to take a glide year studying infectious disease. A friend told me to look into fellowships. Is it too early to do this as as sophomore?
It’s never too early, especially if you’ve already developed an interest in something that you’d like to cultivate! Starting to plan as a sophomore may lead to different summer internships, course choices, relationships with mentors, and other experiences that will help you develop and hone that interest, and ultimately help you be a stronger fellowship candidate. For instance, you’ll be a stronger candidate for some of the prestigious UK fellowships if you’ve participated in abroad experiences before applying, and this summer may be a great time to look into the IIP opportunities. There is a Fellowships adviser who works specifically with first-year and sophomore students and he’d be happy to talk with you about your interests and provide some suggestions moving forward. The Fellowships Pre-Advising form, which you fill out before your first meeting, will also help you reflect on your interests (and make your meeting with the advisers more fruitful). Don’t let the form intimidate you, though! As a younger student, they won’t expect your answers to be too in-depth yet. If you’d like to work through the form with an HPA adviser, we’re happy to meet with you to talk about it. And as a sophomore, be sure to keep an eye out for information about the Dale summer awards – they’re only open to sophomores and they provide funding to pursue an area of personal interest.
- I’m not sure if it’s that I don’t want to do medicine anymore, or if it’s just that I’m more interested in exploring the other classes right now. Are there any disadvantages to doing premed in a postbac instead of doing classes at Princeton?
There are a few things to consider when it comes to postbac programs. First, there are competitive admissions processes, so there's no guarantee that you'll get into your top choice program. Many of the strong programs are away from major metropolitan areas, so you might have to rebuild your social network and family -- if it's important to you to have support nearby, you'll have to quickly try to seek a new network when you arrive. But time and cost are probably the most significant factors. Postbac programs are intense and science-heavy, so if you find out in your first semester that you need to slow down and take the courses at a less intense pace, that may change your timeline to completion, and many students are concerned about the amount of time it'll take to move through the course work, then to medical school and residency. Cost should not be overlooked -- postbac programs are expensive, and there is little grant aid available, so doing a postbac will likely mean taking out loans.
That said, the benefits of the programs -- guidance through the curriculum, advising support and committee letter, a community of students in the same situation as you, guaranteed seats in the classes -- are a worthy investment. Be sure that you're pursuing activities during college that test out your interest in medicine and let you explore other career options so that you know that it'll be worth the time and financial investment (and so that the programs will be convinced that medicine is really right for you when you apply). In any case, if you aren't feeling drawn to medicine now and aren't doing well in the classes, taking a break and spending the summer really exploring your options may be a better plan than trying to slog through the classes, doing poorly, and wasting the opportunity to study what you're passionate about. Definitely come talk with us so that we can get a fuller picture of your specific situation and provide some insight for you.
We highlight some of postbac programs on the Career Changer Programs page of our website, so you can do more research there.
- I’m a first-year and I thought I wanted to do medicine, but I fell in love with my health policy Freshman Seminar and I'm not loving my sciences. What would happen if I decided later that I wanted to be a doctor?
This is a common first-year concern—suddenly science is more rigorous, and other courses that you might have originally been taking just to fulfill requirements become the most interesting thing you’ve ever studied. College is a time of self-discovery; it’s important to be open to changes in your interests in light of new information that you’re encountering.
Try to spend this summer doing some soul searching and some general career exploration. Get into a medical setting if you haven’t done so before, shadow some physicians, read about careers in medicine. At the same time, talk with SPIA majors, read alum profiles of students who majored in SPIA, connect with alums through the Alumni Career Network who may be out in the non-profit or private sector, read some websites that focus on health policy. Keep gathering information, and see if that points you in one direction or another. Maybe you’ll decide to stick with sciences now, and maybe not. Don’t hesitate to talk through your thought process with an HPA advisor!
But, to answer your question, if you decide to take time off from being premed, but then feel the calling again later, you can always return to premed. In fact, some of the more compelling candidates we encounter are those who headed off in completely different directions for a while (theater, professional athletics, research) before settling on medicine. There are academic programs designed specifically for students who want to take the premed courses after graduation (post-baccalaureate) - we highlight some of them on the Postbaccalaureate Career Changer Programs page webpage of our website.
Finally, since you’re a first-year student, you might also consider the Mount Sinai FlexMed Program and Sidney Kimmel IDeA program, which allow college sophomores to apply and, if accepted, to ease the pre-requisites and application process to medical school.
- I didn’t take premed classes at Princeton but now I’m interested in medicine. I’ve started looking at postbac programs where I can take the science classes but they seem really expensive. Are there any cheaper options?
The range of ways that students complete the prerequisites after graduation is wide and driven in part by what you think that you may need or want in terms of structure and support. The pricier postbac programs often offer more staff, which often also means that there are more services, which may include high-quality advising, access to a committee letter, guidance in the application process, linkages to professional schools, shadowing/volunteer opportunities, seminars, programming, etc., as well as an established reputation with medical schools, and a peer community (see more info on our website). At the same time, some individuals take courses independently without going through a postbac program and reach their goals successfully. HPA can provide guidance and support along the way to alums.
If you tend to work well independently, can advocate for yourself, will seek out the information that you need to apply (which includes staying in touch with us at HPA), you may do fine taking classes on your own through a local college or university. If you know that you’d prefer more support and infrastructure, going through a program that has a track record of success, it may make sense to work for a while to earn money to help finance a more structured program.
Note that many students choose to take a year or two between graduation and postbac coursework: this will give you time to recharge after undergrad, earn some money, and make sure that it's really worth the time, money, and sacrifice that a medical career requires.
The most important aspect of your science preparation for medical school is that you do well in your classes and on your MCAT, and that you have strong letters of recommendation from your science faculty, so whatever postbac option you choose, focus on one that will bring you academic success and science faculty support via strong letters. We’re happy to talk with you based on your own situation about options from taking out loans, to working for a while before your postbac program, to taking classes independently. Different solutions are going to make more sense for different students.
- I’m a sophomore and I’m starting to think about medicine but I’m not ready to commit to the premed classes yet. If I might want to pursue premed after I graduate, what should I be doing now, other than classes, to start to prepare myself?
There’s a lot more to being ready for medical school than the coursework that you have to take. Think about what it takes to be a good physician and look for activities that help to develop those characteristics in yourself. For some of you, you’ll be driven by the opportunity to be of service to society in a direct way, so developing your ability to communicate with people who are different than you and demonstrating your commitment to serving others may be your highest priority. For some, you’ll be interested in the intersections between other disciplines (e.g., humanities, tech/innovation, policy) and patient care, so you may focus there. For anyone considering medicine, spending time with patients and with health professionals is the most important activity to prioritize, since it’ll help you clarify your interest, provide role models and mentors in professions of interest, and provide proof to the postbac career changer programs where you may take your premed classes that you’ve gained motivation from concrete experience that will motivate you through the challenges of those courses.