Should UK Students Take a Gap Year Before Medicine?

Updated on 21/05/2024 in
Students Take a Gap Year Before Medicine

You did it - high school is finally behind you, your grades are fantastic, you passed all your exams, and you’re finally free! But wait… You’re about to start another 6 years of education in just a few months; after that, it’s off to work for the rest of your life! Maybe you deserve a bit of a break before you begin?

Or, perhaps, this isn’t the issue at all. Maybe the exam was rigged against you, and a bad infestation of gremlins ate all the textbook pages containing the answers! Now your grades aren’t what they need to be, and perhaps it would be best to wait a year and try the exams again.

All joking aside, the truth is that you’re not alone - thousands of students (hundreds of which are medical) consider the idea of a gap year before university every summer. It’s an appealing one, true. But the choice is yours at the end of the day, and it must be considered from every angle. 

Let’s discuss gap years, why they could help you, and the hidden ways they might trip you up.

Benefits of a gap year

Promise of adventure

According to a study performed by the American Gap Association, the top three motivations for taking a gap year after secondary school are as follows:

  • 92% wanted to gain experience and personal growth
  • 85% wanted to travel, see the world, and experience other cultures
  • 81% wanted a break from the academic track

It’s important to note that this data is solely gathered from students who had already decided to take a gap year (and not those who were on the fence). Despite that, we can use them to infer that one of the main motivators of gap years is the desire for adventure.

A surprising number of people never leave their home country - 41% of Brits have never even tried foreign food! For most of us, it’s not due to a lack of will but mostly because adult life is busy. When you spend 40 hours per week working (significantly more for many doctors), you just don’t get the opportunity to visit foreign countries all that often.

Many students can feel boxed, ‘trapped’ by their situation, seeing nothing but a commitment to their home with no freedom to go somewhere else. To experience a different culture. To grow as a person by being independent in a strange new world. Sometimes, a gap year may seem like the only option to get that.

Potential for greater academic success

The good thing about exams is that they can be retaken. Despite what Hollywood dystopias will tell you, there aren’t many exams that can’t be retaken - no matter how horribly you fail, you can always just give it another shot. 

The bad thing about exams is that sometimes it takes months to get the chance to retake them - maybe even years. If you failed your UCAT, you might not get the chance to try it out again until after admissions have closed

In those cases, it may feel like there is little choice but to take a gap year, even if you don’t want it - so that you can retake the exam. Unlike those students who crave adventure, those who crave greater academic success aren’t usually looking to travel the world. They’re looking to work hard and ensure they can take their exams next time or improve their grades sufficiently. 

Ability to save up for university

Medical education is expensive - really expensive. Tuition fees alone cost about £9,250 per year in most UK medical universities, and that’s without taking into account the accommodation (i.e. rent), transportation, food, utilities and many other expenses that pile up unless you’re living with your parents for the entire 6-year duration of your study. 

Many students prefer to be independent, scrounge up some cash, move out, and then support themselves during medical school. The problem is that even if you work during your education, you still need enough money to pay for your new place’s deposit, cover any fees and moving expenses, and purchase any items you’ll require… 

For many, it may seem like a gap year is the only way to work enough to save money. There’s no dancing around the issue - rent in the UK has skyrocketed, with London seeing the highest rent hikes in 20 years. If you wish to move out and be independent during your university education, there’s just nothing else you can do but save up and save up a lot. 

Many landlords will require several months’ worth of rent upfront, on top of a security deposit, and for many students, the only way to make that kind of money is by taking a gap year to work full-time. On top of that, there are bills, utilities, food, and transport, all of which have a considerable price tag in the West. 

Should UK Students Take a Gap Year Before Medicine?

Negatives of a gap year

Wasting a year 

Taking a gap year may seem like a “free” year - like picking up an extra life in a videogame. Sure, it helps to have it, but it’s just to give you a little boost to make things easier, right? The game itself (or, in this case, your university education or, in a broader sense, the game of life) remains the same. It’s totally fine to take your time!

To continue the metaphor, you should instead think of the “extra lives” you have in the game of life as the years that are available to you. No one knows how many we’ve got - maybe you need to “beat the game” with 100 lives, or maybe just 50. The only thing for sure is that they’re limited, and you’ve already used up some. Let’s say you have 60 lives, and you’ve already gone through 20 trying to get to this stage of the game. Do you really want to sacrifice one more, or do you want to keep playing?

That’s precisely the logic of many students who refuse to take a gap year, believing that a gap year would be a waste of time and set them back. Taking a gap year means beginning your medical education one year later and, by extension, becoming a doctor one year later. It means that your peers who chose not to take a gap year will be your seniors professionally, despite being the same age as you. Wasting a full year is a big sacrifice with many ramifications, and that sacrifice may not always bring enough benefits for it to be worthwhile. 

More limited availability

It’s no secret that the fight to get into medical school is among the fiercest. The UK, in particular, is currently going through a crisis of needing more doctors than it could educate. Said crisis was finally addressed last year when the seats were increased by over 20%, from 7,500 to 9,000. 

What is the number of students who applied to them? Over 20,000. 

Indeed - even with the 20% increase in seats, over half of the students applying did not manage to enter medical school. And while it’s unlikely that the seats will increase again in the near future, the number of students trying to get into medicine will. This means that a year from now, you’ll face significantly higher competition.

The reality is that hundreds of students who would have been accepted today would lose out on their spot next year. And even if your UCAT score is too low to enter, there is no guarantee that you’ll get a spot next year, even with a higher score. The fight really is that competitive.

A financial strain

One of the biggest reasons many students choose to take a gap year is financial issues - not being able to afford the university tuition fees right away or simply wanting to save up some money before starting. Ironically, taking a gap year also brings an unnecessary financial strain that may be best avoided.

According to statistics, over 50% of UK citizens under 23 still live with their parents and are supported by them financially. So, the decision on whether a student should take a gap year isn’t always solely on the students’ shoulders but on the parents' as well - they will be the ones who will support you, after all. Even if you have a job and pay for your own expenses, having a roof over your head (complete with food, bills, utilities, etc.) is a huge boon.

Some parents may be happy to let their child take a year off. Others, however, may be unwilling to delay their independence. And some may not even be able to afford it. The issue is most palpable in lower-class families but, in recent years, has had a significant impact on the middle class as well. Inflation and the cost of living in the UK and all over the West have exponentially risen. Some families, sadly, can not afford to support their child for an extra year, and the savings they’ve made for university are limited. 

As such, it’s in the student’s best interest to take full advantage of their college fund (especially if it’s not particularly big) and not unnecessarily waste a penny of it. The sooner you become a doctor, the less strain that would be on your family, and the sooner you’d be able to help them out.

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Still, considering a gap year? Try studying in Europe instead!

By now, you’ve probably carefully evaluated the pros and cons of taking a gap year. Maybe you’ve decided that taking one simply isn’t worth it. Or perhaps you believe that the negatives still don’t outweigh the many positives. The sense of adventure! The better grades you’ll get next year! The finances you’ll save up! Taking a gap year is simply the only way, right?

Well, there is another way. And while it’s not guaranteed to help every student, it can certainly address many of the most popular issues facing those considering gap years. Studying medicine in Europe is a viable alternative to taking a gap year and can provide many of the same benefits.

The adventure of living abroad

Travelling to another country and experiencing it is a rare opportunity for sure - one that’s going to become even rarer once you become a full-time doctor - but living in another country, immersing yourself in its culture and making friends for life? Let’s not sugarcoat it: this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most doctors-to-be. 

While there are always those who would be happy to work in other countries (for example, medical researchers on long-term projects or MDs offering their services to the impoverished area), the vast majority of doctors just have no reason or opportunity to leave their home country for longer than a vacation.

Studying medicine abroad provides a unique chance to experience an entirely different culture. Different people, food, music, architecture, customs… Imagine how much you’ll discover daily, far more than any adventure-hungry tourist ever could! 

For those looking to travel, see new things and meet new people, studying medicine in Europe can provide all of that without making them waste a year of their important education.

Low grades? No problem!

If you’re fretting over bombing the UCAT, or your grades not being particularly stellar, don’t worry. There’s a way to still get into a prestigious medical university without a gap year. European medical universities have completely different entry requirements from med schools in the UK or US, and many of them don’t even look at school grades at all.

For example, UCAT is only used by UK universities - medical schools in other countries will use different exams. Some countries don’t have a dedicated exam for medical students at all, and instead, it’s up to each university to create its own tests. Consequently, some eschew tests entirely and do not require one for considering students.

In addition, high school grades vary from country to country. For example, some countries don’t really have A-levels the way the UK does; their education system is simply structured very differently. And, as direct 1:1 conversion may not be practical (or even possible), they rely on tests and/or interviews to vet candidates. 

Tuition fees aren’t always high

Whether something is expensive or not depends entirely on your point of view. It'd probably be pretty pricey if you were to buy a two-bedroom apartment. But your average Hollywood celebrity or tech mogul probably spends more monthly maintenance for their yachts than you would for that apartment. 

Tuition fees around the world work the exact same way. They’re always pricey, sure, but at the same time, their priciness is determined by the standard of living. In the UK, they hover around £9,250, but if you decide to study medicine in Georgia, you’d be paying less than half of that. 

But the most palpable difference is not in the tuition fees but living expenses. For example, if you decide to study medicine in Serbia, your average monthly expenses for a fairly comfortable lifestyle (including bills, utilities, rent, food, transportation and entertainment) would be £500 a month. For the locals, that’s fairly standard, but in the UK, you probably spend half of that on bills and utilities alone!

Sounds intriguing? We can help!

Sometimes, all you need to solve a difficult problem is a unique perspective - and maybe we’ve been able to provide that for the issues that made you consider a gap year. But we won’t leave you hanging there - if you decide to study medicine in Europe, we’ll work with you and the university to ensure that happens.

We’ll make sure to pick out a university tailor-made for your needs based on your grades, chosen programme, finances and personal preferences, and then, with your blessing, negotiate directly with the university to guarantee that you’ll be accepted. That way, you can begin your medical journey immediately and become a doctor without wasting a year.
Interested? There’s no better time to act than now! Just request a FREE consultation, and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible so you can tell us all about the best medical school for you!

Article written by Dr Sam El Mais
Dr Sam El Mais, MD, MSc, BSc, graduated from a renowned medical school in Romania in 2019. He uses his professional knowledge and personal experience to guide students on crucial aspects such as university selection, admissions processes, and cultural adjustments.
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