Deciding Between Going to Grad School Directly After Undergrad vs. Taking a Year Off
If you are considering going to grad school, people are going to start throwing conflicting opinions at you as to whether you should go to grad school directly after undergrad or if you should take a few years off and then go to grad school.
I’m going to tell you right now that both paths are valid and have their respective advantages/disadvantages, so when it comes down to the decision, you are the one who needs to decide what is right for you. Listen to others and consider what they have to say, but make sure the choice is yours, because you know yourself best and what will be the most helpful for your career goals.
That being said, you want to decide which path to take as soon as you can because there are some time-sensitive matters that revolve around grad school, and you want to make sure that you have planned ahead and are ready to take everything on. So let’s look at both sides to hopefully help you make your decision.
Going right after undergrad:
This is the path that I decided to take because I knew for certain that grad school was the next step that I wanted to take to advance my career, and I didn’t want to wait. My dad was a big influence on this decision because he took the route of taking some time off and didn’t complete his Master’s until he already had a family, causing him to have to work full-time to support a family on top of school, which he said was challenging. I wanted to keep my momentum and get my schooling over with, so I decided to apply to grad schools while still in undergrad and see what happened. Also, I really enjoy school, which I think played into my decision because some people want to take a year off for the mental break, so this is where you need to know what is best for you.
This also depends on your undergrad degree and what you can do with it while you wait. With my literature degree, I could land a tutoring job, but that’s about it, and I didn’t want to get some retail job for a year while I waited to do grad school. For me, that would have been a waste of time and I would have felt weird not using my degree. For other degrees, however, a Master’s isn’t required to land a good job so you could wait it out while doing something productive.
Grad school is very competitive to get into, so the sooner you can start applying, in my opinion, the better. If you want to take a year off and then apply, and, let’s say, don’t happen to get in, you have to wait two years after undergrad instead of just one. The sooner you start grad school, the sooner you will be able to reach your dream job. If that job requires a PhD then getting your Master’s out of the way as soon as possible gives you more leverage when applying for your PhD, and means that you will get out sooner since PhD’s take about 5/6 years to complete.
If you have a dream grad school that you want to attend, then I’d say just go for it and skip the waiting. Some people are going to tell you that you’ll have more leverage if you wait a year, but this isn’t necessarily true. About half the people in my Master’s program are straight out of college, so the rumors that you won’t get in if you don’t wait is quite frankly untrue.
If you aren’t quite sure which grad school is the right one for you yet, it might be a good idea to wait a year and feel out your options. While I personally love my program and am so grateful that I decided to go into it right out of undergrad, it’s a lot of stress that you have to go through during the end of your senior year when you are stressing about senior exit classes, so you want to make sure that if you are going to gun for grad school right away, that it would be the perfect fit for you.
If you go this route, how should you prepare?
This is very important! Honestly, no one really tells you how to apply to grad school, so this is some free info to keep in mind. Most grad schools require the GRE for you to get into their program, so you want to plan early for this. I wouldn’t have known when to take it if it weren’t for Kaplan. I was on campus waiting in a long line to get to the ATM when a guy from a Kaplan tent came up to all of us in line and asked if any of us were interested in going to grad school. I was one of the only people who said yes, and he started telling me about the GRE. The latest that you should take this is the summer before you go into your senior year because grad applications can be due as early as October, and it takes a while to study, take the test, and get your scores. Plan ahead for this and study hard! The test is not fun and definitely takes practice.
You also are going to need at least three letters of recommendation, preferably at least two from professors in your field, so get started on that early. I waited a bit too long on this and cut it close with getting my letters from my professors, which is not a predicament that you want to be in. If you already know which professors you want to ask, shoot them an email or ask them in person if they’d be comfortable writing you one. If you haven’t gotten close to professors, now’s the time to do so. Go to office hours, go to events, ask questions, and build a relationship so you can ask them to write you a letter.
To make the application process as smooth as possible, write down all the application due dates and don’t procrastinate on filling them out. There is a lot to fill in and the essays are a key factor in the decision process. Make sure to proof read and have someone else look at your application to make sure everything is okay.
Waiting a year:
If you aren’t quite sure which grad school you want to attend, need a mental break from school, want more experience to make yourself stand out, or don’t want to stress during your senior year, then waiting a year is probably the right decision for you. If you know that you’ll be self-motivated enough to go back to school after time off, then it could be very beneficial. A lot of my professors advised me to take a year off so that I could build up my CV and have more to write about.
In hindsight, I definitely see the value of this more, as half of the people in my program have more experience and it is a bit daunting, so if you have a great opportunity to get some more experience, this would be the perfect opportunity. Make sure that it’s in your field and will contribute to your grad school app and your experience as a person.
Waiting a year also means that you have more time to study for your GRE and can have more chances to get the score that you need, and you have more time to get letters from your professors. Just make sure that you ask some professors for your letters BEFORE you graduate, or they won’t remember you enough to write something good. I mean, some might, but the majority would prefer writing the letter while they still have you in a class or at least have you close by.
Waiting a year also gives you time to go visit the grad schools and start connections with (potential) future professors. This can really help you on your applications since some grad schools ask you to list which professor you want to work under and who you have already reached out to. These connections are key for getting in and getting scholarships! Might as well go for free, right?
The problem with waiting is that sometimes life happens and you might not go back for a couple of years, which can turn into 10 years, which can turn into not getting your Master’s at all. It can also lead to you getting some temp job and then never leaving, so if you plan on taking a year off, you need a game plan as to how you will spend that year prepping for grad school, not just wasting it and doing everything last minute. The whole point of the extra year is so you won’t have to stress about your apps, but if you become lazy and procrastinate it won’t help you much. If you are self-motivated and know what you want, you won’t fall into this, but it is important to keep your goals in mind so you don’t lose sight of them.
While I find value in both of these paths, I can say that I am loving grad school thus far and don’t regret my decision to push through and make it in right out of undergrad. I feel accomplished and am excited to continue on my educational journey, but I know this isn’t the path for everyone. I have some friends who really needed the time off and are glad they did that as well. In the end, you need to choose what’s best. Hopefully this helps you see all that you need to plan for either choice and will help influence your decision. Good luck!
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