year off shouldn't hurt your prospects, and might improve
HOLLY J. MORRIS
As a senior at Rice
University in Houston, Chris Ruehl knew he wanted to go to
medical school. Or he thought he knew. But as he watched his
classmates rush into graduate programs, he concluded that
he couldn't make such a momentous decision before graduation.
''I couldn't picture myself being that sure of anything while
I was at Rice,'' he says. He got the med-school entrance exam
out of the way, and took a job through Teach for America teaching
9th- and 10th-grade science in Oakland, Calif. The past months
of real work and independent living have clarified for Ruehl
that he does want to go to med schooland
that he has what it takes to make it there. After establishing
California residency, he'll apply to schools in the state's
students ''stop out'' for a variety of reasons: the lure of
the paycheck, a case of wanderlustor burnout. A December
report by the Council of Graduate Schools found that after
years of steady growth, enrollment in graduate programs has
declined for the second year in a rowa change attributed
to an unusually go-go job market. There is no direct evidence
that a year off has any bearing on performance in grad school
lateralthough an ongoing 12-year study by the National
Center for Education Statistics should soon shed light on
the issue. Not surprisingly, though, research does show that
the most interested and committed students complete their
graduate degrees at higher rates. Better to wait, says Robert
Thach, dean of Washington University's Graduate School of
Arts and Sciences in St. Louis, if you have ''any doubt at
all'' about your professional goals. Law school is an expensive
place to discover that you want to design software.
fun. The delay shouldn't hurt your admissions prospects
and can actually improve them; for business and nursing schools,
work experience is often a requirement. This assumes, of course,
that you don't idle away the year studying reruns of The
Simpsons in your parents' basement. It's OK to have fun,
says John McGrath, director of career services for seniors
at Providence College in Rhode Island, but even outstanding
students should make it ''serious fun.'' An admissions officer
will want to know why you think the time off has made you
a more qualified, desirable candidate. Even a year spent delivering
pizza or backpacking across Europe won't necessarily hurt
your chances. You can use your personal statement to describe
why you did it and what you learned, says McGrath.
Time off, spent
well, can enhance the application of borderline candidates
in particular. An applicant who didn't make the cut at her
first-choice law school will be far more attractive after
a year as a paralegal, with a senior partner as a reference.
Jeff Andrews, a 1995 engineering graduate of Harvey Mudd College,
landed a job developing software at Qualcomm, a San Diego
cellular communications company, after applying to Ph.D. programs
his senior year and failing to get into first choice Berkeley.
After 18 months, he realized he'd need the degree to advance
in cellular systems design; this time, he got into his top
pick (now Stanford) with a full scholarship and stipend, thanks
to a professor's interest in his work at Qualcomm.
Often, a dose of
real-world worries makes the subsequent stresses of grad school
easier to take. Dan Diffley, a second-year law student at
Wake Forest University, says getting called on in class is
far less nerve-racking than the demands of his pre-grad gig:
coordinating the petition drive to get Republican candidate
John Hager on the ballot for lieutenant governor of Virginia.
There are drawbacks
to a timeout, of course. Study skills can atrophy, and you
delay the start of potentially handsome future earnings from
your future career. A common concern of college seniors (and
their parents) is that they'll ''lose momentum'' and never
return to school. That certainly does happenand sometimes,
for the best. John Bakel, who graduated from New York University
in 1995 with degrees in history and physics, decided to make
a little money by taking an internship at Tommy Hilfiger Jeans
while applying to think-tank jobs and grad school in social
science. Less than six months later, he was presenting his
own designs to Hilfiger and is now a full-time shirt designer.
''It was this natural talent I never knew I had,'' he says.
Grad school is permanently on hold.