We are made to believe there is a set timeline we should follow on the path to finding a career. It is the “norm” for high-schoolers to go directly into college and then immediately into graduate school or the workforce. This leaves those of us who take breaks or side roads on the path to a career feel like we’re doing it wrong. Before I went to college, I took a gap year after high school, and now I’m taking a gap year (maybe even two) before attending graduate school. I want to give you some insight on why taking a gap year might be the right choice for you and how it helped me find fulfillment in my academic life.
“Taking a gap year means you weren’t good enough to get into where you wanted.”
This is a common misconception that stigmatizes taking time off before and after college. Perhaps this is the reason that you aren’t immediately attending college or grad school, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only reason or that you aren’t good enough. Graduate programs vary greatly and some are a lot more competitive than others. Sometimes it means choosing between someone that got a 330 on the GRE instead of a 320. Both are great scores, but it can come down to something as seemingly arbitrary as that. Depending on your program, it is even recommended you take some time off after college to gain more experience in your field. This will make you a better candidate when you apply later on.
Don’t sacrifice your grades in order to meet a stereotypical graduate school timeline.
I’m aspiring to become a physician assistant (PA), which means I need to obtain at least 1,000 hours of patient contact hours in a clinical setting before I can be a competitive candidate. This wasn’t achievable for me when I decided this was my career goal (during my junior year). Doing so would have meant sacrificing my grades and extracurricular activities. Students tend to kill themselves working or interning during the school year because they want to immediately apply to graduate school. It is most important to remember that grades are written in stone, whereas gaining work experience has more flexibility. This means that you should limit the amount of volunteer or internship hours you put in during the school year if you have a heavy schedule, which most college students do. Leave those opportunities for the summer time. It is recommended that students work/volunteer no more than 8-10 hours a week if they’re a full time student. I understand that for some, working is required. For those that have the ability to pick and choose, consider volunteer or experience hours as you would view working hours. This is time that isn’t focused on your academic work. If this means you won’t accrue enough experience throughout the school year to make you a competitive candidate, then consider taking a year off to apply to grad school. This way you will have an extra summer to prepare your application and gain more experience.
Taking gap years means you can save and learn.
The greatest thing I did before I applied to college was work as a waitress. Not only did this allow me to save up money for college and a car, but it also taught me what life would be without a college education. It made me want more out of my life. I began volunteering at a local clinic and animal rescue. It brought me fulfillment and helped me realize what I wanted to study, which was biology. It was a valuable learning experience that I wouldn’t take back. Although all of my friends have already graduated (a year earlier than me) and have jobs or are attending graduate school, I know that taking college at a slower pace is what enabled me to be so successful. I was fixated on the idea of going to graduate school right away. I’m now realizing that taking another gap year (or two) will allow me to attain clinical hours, study for the GRE, save up money, and apply to graduate programs at my own pace. This means I don’t have to worry about all of these things while I’m in college. I’ve been able to fully enjoy my college experience. I’ve been involved in clubs and organizations, participated in student research under my favorite professor, and maintained a competitive GPA. These activities aren’t available to you after college, whereas earning money or gaining experience is.
Ultimately, only you can decide if you’re a student that would benefit from taking a gap year. However, I wanted to provide some insight and comfort for those who choose to. There are certain experiences you can only gain in college that will benefit your graduate school application. If you’re compromising your GPA or college experience for volunteering or workforce experience, then taking a gap year is a great option. It can also benefit you financially because graduate school is very expensive. Don’t look at your decision to wait to enroll in a graduate program as a failure. Look at it as an opportunity to make yourself a competitive candidate.