The Bridge Years

The period between submitting your application to a professional school and starting professional training has been called the “gap” year, which suggests that you’ll be passively waiting to be admitted. But you shouldn’t waste this time! Furthermore, many applicants plan for more than one year between the end their undergraduate education and the start of professional school. Regardless of whether your application is already under consideration or you are still preparing to apply, think of this period as a productive bridge between two segments of your professional life.

Some graduates choose to add a bridge year to allow time for filling out applications (the primary application and “secondaries,” which typically include multiple short essays) and preparing for interviews. Bridge years can also give you a chance to study for the entrance exam or to take additional courses, either to boost a less-than-competitive GPA or to meet the course pre-requisites of particular schools. You can choose to attend a formal post-baccalaureate program or sign up for individual courses in order to polish your academic credentials. Another alternative is to earn a master’s degree in public health or another health-related field. Most master’s programs require two years to complete.

Bridge years can be used to investigate additional career options through job shadowing or paid work. In fact, admission to some Physician Assistant training programs requires several thousand hours of hands-on clinical work experience. The additional time and experience that you gain during the bridge years will almost certainly make you a more attractive applicant for any program. You’ll be able to forge deep relationships with potential recommenders, and you’ll be in a better position to convince schools that you understand the profession you have chosen to pursue. The reality is that the holistic admissions process at most schools puts younger, less experienced candidates at a disadvantage, even if they have high GPAs and high test scores. It can be difficult for a fresh college graduate to compete with applicants whose life experiences already vividly demonstrate their productivity, maturity, and sense of mission.

Finally, some graduates take advantage of the break between undergraduate and graduate school to travel or pursue other interests. In fact, some service/work programs are open only to recent graduates. Once you begin professional school, taking time off is more difficult. You might be less likely to later drop out of your career if you have already satisfied some of your longing to try out other endeavors.

If your application timeline includes one or more bridge years, choose a bridge career that will be satisfying, not just a way to kill time before applying. You may spend multiple years (and perhaps more than you originally planned) in your bridge career, so choose a job that offers some room for growth rather than a temporary, dead-end position. In the past, graduates have worked as medical scribes, laboratory technicians, researchers, kidney dialysis technicians, teachers, certified nurse assistants, emergency medical technicians, pharmacy technicians, phlebotomists, and rehabilitation aides. Not only will you benefit from the clinical experience, you’ll be earning money—and possibly saving enough to cover living expenses while you attend professional school.

Your bridge career will probably not be in exactly the field you intend to pursue as a professional, so it might be wise to continue job shadowing and volunteering to add to the hours spent in a particular field. Be sure to keep up with current events in health care, write reflections about your ongoing professional development, and keep reading, writing, and talking about your future career.