The Benefits of Taking a Gap Year Before Grad School
Deciding to apply to graduate school is a big decision. The admission timeline for most PhD programs in the United States begins one year before enrollment. Meaning, if you want to go straight to grad school from undergrad, you’ll have to apply during your senior year. While a seamless transition may be appealing, it’s important to consider the strength of your application with respect to your target programs and schools.
In my experience, a gap year, an increasingly popular option for many prospective graduate students, offers a chance to gain the financial capital to apply, brush up on skills and experiences, reflect on what you want out of grad school, and further develop as an aspiring scientist. Here’s how:
Improve your GRE score or GPA.
Before you apply to a graduate program, gauge how important the GRE and GPA are for admission and assess your scores. Although there has been a concerted effort to identify better predictors of graduate student productivity and success, your GPA and GRE scores, albeit poor predictors, are still among the major admissions criteria for many PhD programs in the United States. If either could use improvement, taking time off after graduation to retake the GRE or bolster your academic record will help.
Gain additional research or work experience.
Graduate school admissions committees are putting an increased emphasis on strong research experiences. Because of that, many applicants take a year or two to gain work experience as research assistants or technicians before applying to competitive programs.
Working at a prospective institution can expose you to the academic culture and overall lifestyle you’ll encounter at certain graduate schools. You can also use that time to determine if you’d like to live in different areas of the country or world.
These work opportunities allow you to gain more research experience, get strong letters of recommendation, and provide financial support.
Supplement your personal statement.
Once it’s time to begin applying, think about how you fit into each institution “on paper.” Then, craft your personal statement for each program. Here is your chance to discuss the interesting specifics of your research experiences and clearly articulate your motivation to pursue a PhD.
The personal statement format is generally the same for each institution, but remember to tailor the experiences you’ve had to fit the individual program’s emphasis on certain application materials, such as academics or synergistic activities.
Don’t forget to share how an institution’s strengths in research or other areas are important for your educational goals. It can help communicate your enthusiasm for a particular program while also showing you’ve done your homework.
Applying can be the most difficult part of the admissions process for many prospective PhD students, so feel free to share your questions or tips below.