To gap year or not to gap year

Whether it's to travel or prepare for grad school, taking a gap year can be very productive. Photo by Julian Pineda | The Signal

There’s little, if anything, more relieving than being cleared to walk across the stage and receive your diploma after four (or six) years of grueling nights, anxiety attacks and obscene amounts of caffeine. Yet, an ominous specter looms after finally earning your Bachelor’s: finding a job that pays a living wage or landing a position in graduate school with funding; both feats are becoming increasingly difficult and competitive every year. Those who hope to elevate their careers with an advanced degree annually make the challenging decision of whether to take the notorious “gap year” (or years) before applying to graduate schools, a crossroads that’s yielded hundreds of advice columns and articles aimed at young graduates. Indeed, the decision of whether to take time off depends heavily on the individual, their experiences thus far and their long-term goals.

For some alumni, taking time off was a necessity to prepare for applications for professional schools. Samuel Hanks, a graduate of Georgia State who will be attending Georgetown Law School on a scholarship in the fall, said he didn’t have time during his undergrad to properly study for the LSAT or write his personal statements.

“I committed the first half of my gap year to the law school application process. I took the LSAT in June, shortly after graduating, and all applications were completed by December. While doing that I worked two part-time jobs. One was a continuation of a previous internship, and the second was paralegal/research work for a trust and estate lawyer. This allowed me to be extremely flexible with my time, so I also traveled a good bit (mostly to see law schools),” Hanks said.

Another graduate, Grace Signiski, who now works as a patient care technician on the neurology floor of a hospital in Chattanooga, was too busy with full-time coursework, a research position, a supplemental instructor job for the Biology department and two clubs during her senior year to work on her medical school applications. She hopes to attend medical school next fall, and if not, she will apply for nursing programs.

“By the time August rolled around, I had a less than average score [on the MCAT] and was completely overwhelmed and burnt out by school and extracurriculars. I decided it was better to focus on my last semester than to waste my money and time with an application I wasn’t satisfied with,” Signiski said.

Preparing for the necessary standardized exams for graduate school has become more intense and time-consuming since most of these exams have become longer and more strenuous in the past decade. Some experts recommend between 400 to 500 hours of studying for the MCAT, the seven and a half-hour exam required for medical school admissions. For the LSAT, the test needed for law school, experts recommend between 150 to 300 hours of studying. The GRE, the customary test for graduate school exams, can require up to 120 hours of studying for some people, according to online preparation websites. That can demand anywhere from one month of full-time studying to one year of studying 10 hours per week. On top of a heavy course load, part-time jobs and extracurriculars, it can be next to impossible to put in the hours imperative to do well on these exams.

Nonetheless, other alumni, especially those who knew they wanted to attend graduate programs at a young age, feared falling behind if they took a gap year.

“I was afraid that graduate school would keep getting more competitive, and so I wanted to jump in before the competition got any worse,” Joseph Murphy, a candidate for a Master’s in Philosophy at Georgia State, said. Murphy has wanted to study philosophy at the graduate level since he was in high school and went straight from his undergrad to a Master’s program.

Murphy’s fears weren’t unfounded. The number of people applying to graduate programs has ballooned in comparison to universities’ funding. Graduate programs are infamous for being significantly more challenging to get into than undergraduate ones, with the most cutthroat programs accepting a measly one percent of applicants. Other programs will offer less competitive admission but lack the funding necessary to provide students tuition waivers or living stipends, forcing them to take out student loans.

In addition to top graduate schools’ increased competition, economists have said that higher degrees are becoming increasingly essential in today’s job market. A report from Georgetown University found that a Master’s degree is worth over $450,000 more than a Bachelor’s degree throughout the recipient’s lifetime, emphasizing the value of a post-Bachelor’s education.

“I received pressure from my parents to find a full-time job right out of my undergrad, but I knew with a heavy heart that my degree would not qualify me for a whole lot right away,” Emily Sewell said on why she opted against a gap year. Sewell is a student in the Master’s of Education program at Georgia State and holds a degree in philosophy.

Those who didn’t want to take a gap year told The Signal they “probably [would have] ended up in some underpaid, unsatisfying job like most people [their] age,” in Murphy’s words if they hadn’t gotten into their graduate programs of choice.

Millennials (and Generation Z) undoubtedly face more financial obstacles than their parents did: tuition costs have skyrocketed, wages have stagnated and healthcare and housing cost more, adjusted for inflation. Therefore, it follows that many young people will turn to higher education in hopes of improving their financial situation by landing a better job with a higher degree.

From a financial perspective, however, it can make sense for some people to take a break from school to hone their skills and applications to qualify for better financial packages in graduate school.

“I achieved my goal on the LSAT, and ended up having the choice of my three preferred law schools. On the work side, I was able to get some experience in an area I was new to, and add to my resume that way. The year has been a great break for me, and the fact that I’m chomping at the bit to get back into my academics is a good sign for me that I didn’t go too far with the relaxation,” Hanks said. Hanks said he would advise students who aren’t offered admission with adequate funding into their preferred programs to take the LSAT or other standardized exams again.

“In my junior year, I visited my preferred law school and the admissions director had good things to say about students who take (productive) gap years. That boosted my confidence in a way that articles about gap year success stories on or Forbes never could,” Hanks said.

Besides aiming for better scholarships, students may opt for a gap year to alleviate burnout. College students have reported record-high levels of depression and anxiety, possibly from the increased pressure to perform well due to technological advances and the uncertainty of financial stability during and after college. A gap year (or two) can provide students with a much-needed mental reprieve and help them zero in on their career aspirations.

“[T]hink about what your goals are in your life, not just career wise. If you want to travel, you won’t have many opportunities [to do so] once you are in school and training for another 7-12+ years. If you are burnt out from studying so hard to prepare for medical/professional school, you are more likely to drop out,” Signiski said.

Murphy also recommended that students take care of their mental health before graduate school, whether they opt for a gap year or not.

“If you take time off, keep learning and keep your mind sharp. Also, if you decide to go straight into graduate school, be sure to deal with any mental illness or emotional trauma. Get a counselor, if you can afford it. When graduate school hits and you mix its stressors with unresolved personal issues, you make yourself into a tinderbox waiting to explode into a mental breakdown; that happened to me. Taking care of yourself is a necessity,” Murphy said.