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Especially for undergraduates: Reasons to wait

Each year many college seniors apply to graduate school with plans to enroll in the fall following college graduation. Continuing to grad school directly from undergrad seems like a safe choice. In certain academic fields (such as history or biology), professors advise undergraduates to continue straight on, especially if the goal is to earn a Ph.D. According to some, you may never return to school if you don't continue right after graduation. For those who are good at school and have gotten comfortable in an academic atmosphere, applying to grad school and continuing to live and work on a campus is a lot less intimidating than a first-ever job search. Finally, on a personal level, your family will probably be proud of your ambition, your friends will be impressed because you have a direction, and you'll have an early answer to that question, "What are you going to do after graduation?"

In most professional masters degree programs, however, work experience—experience away from the classroom—is so sought-after that waiting a few years to apply to grad school is often the best idea. If you are an undergraduate and are debating whether to apply to grad school, or have recently been notified that you were not admitted to grad school, read these insights on why waiting a few years to go to school may be the wisest decision you can make.

Reasons to wait include:

Clarifying your chosen field

Few first year college students choose a major and stick with it all four years. They have chosen a major based on a subject they enjoyed or were good at in high school, what their parents want them to do in their future careers, or what looks like the best option for other reasons. Once classes start, though, reality sets in. For some students, the first-choice major continues to be the best choice. But for others, their initial perception changes due to the content and rigor of required courses, the reality of the field, or other elements they don't like as much as they thought they would.

Similarly, it is easy to choose the wrong graduate degree for yourself based on misperceptions of the field. Working in year-of-service, or even entry-level, positions in your field will allow you to explore your talent, gauge your interest, and network with professionals. With all of these experiences, you can be more confident that your chosen field is truly your life's calling. In other words, waiting for a year or two after graduating college will help you clarify your chosen field.



Action steps. Ask yourself:

  • What experiences have led me to choose this degree path?
  • What other experiences would I like to gain before selecting a specific degree to pursue? (If I don't get into grad school this year, what is Plan B?)
  • What are my career goals? Are they clear and specific? Do they demand a graduate degree at this time, or are there ways I could work in my field without a degree for a few years? See the Idealist.org Career Center.
  • Have my mentors in this field earned graduate degrees? Did they go to grad school directly after college? Do they advise that I do so now?

Getting experience now means better learning later

Learning in the classroom is more meaningful when you have had real-world experience to relate to—new information will stay in your long-term memory if you can anchor it to information that is already there. Teachers call this phenomenon "scaffolding" and good teachers will build up and pull from students' life experiences to introduce new material effectively.

You can scaffold your own education in a graduate program if you give yourself the time before grad school to create professional experiences for yourself. For example, a Peace Corps volunteer who helped villagers in the bush in Niger to understand basic principles of public health will have an easier time in grad school taking classes on epidemiology, because the new information from the course can immediately anchor itself to memories from Niger.

The field experience can also inform classroom learning, giving you insights that allow you to explore topics in a way that your less experienced classmates are unlikely to do. To learn most effectively in grad school, give yourself time to gain life and professional experience after college. There are things you can do to gain experience while in college, too.

Action steps. Ask yourself:

  • Can anyone already call me a junior expert in my field?
  • Can I hold a sustained conversation with someone about my field and how grad school will enhance my career?
  • Do I have the academic momentum to continue going to school for a few more years?
  • When I read about theories in my field, do I understand them because of situations I have encountered in my personal and professional life?

Strengthening your application to grad school

Many graduate programs admit only a small fraction of undergraduates to make up the entering class each year—from 10 to 30 percent. Admissions staff are not only looking at your grades and test scores, but at your resume and professional goals as well. They want you to succeed in school; to benefit your classmates through your knowledge, insight, and connections; and to succeed as an alum in your career. The more work experience you have prior to applying, the more realistic your professional goals are going to be, and the better a resource you will be to your classmates in discussions, study groups, and networking in the field.

Would you want to go to grad school with classmates who know little about the issues and the trends in your field? Admissions staff are looking out for the best interests of all admitted students by ensuring a cohort of people who have already accomplished some measurable real-world achievements (not just good grades), are likely to complete their graduate degree, and are likely to succeed in their careers. If you have experience the admissions committee should hear about, prepare to share the story with them before you apply.



Action steps. Ask yourself:

  • What will strengthen my application in the eyes of the admissions officers who will read it?
  • Why do admissions officers typically prefer more experienced candidates?

Once you have finished your undergraduate studies, you will have more time, and with a paying job, more options available to study for the GRE and other standardized tests.



Action steps. Ask yourself:

  • How much time can I devote to reviewing for standardized tests while I am taking a full course load as an undergraduate?
  • Do I need to take a standardized test preparation course?
  • Can I afford to take a preparatory course for standardized tests while still in school? Would it be more affordable once I graduate?
  • How much time will I have to study?

Strengthening your application to jobs later on

Put yourself in the shoes of the hiring manager for your dream job at your favorite organization. You see a stack of resumes in front of you. Half of the resumes list impressive graduate degrees and relevant courses and also feature short-term experiences requiring mostly entry-level skills (like summer internships). The other half of the resumes give detailed accounts of the candidates' work experience in the field, service in like-minded organizations, relevant skills, and also impressive graduate degrees. Who would you bring in for an interview?

Most likely you would want to interview people who have relevant work experience in the field and the graduate degree. You may be tempted to see the other, less experienced candidates as having entry-level potential, but probably not much more. 

Many people look at a grad degree as the entry point to a career, or as something productive to do when they can't find a job. In reality, grad school complements the knowledge and skills developed in a career that is already in bloom.

Action steps. Ask yourself:

  • If grad school is the main selling point on my resume, will it really "sell" me?
  • In what ways can I gain meaningful work experience prior to grad school, so that when I graduate I have the edge of experience combined with education?
  • Have I explored the idea of a gap year experience? (The term gap year means taking a year usually to explore, to learn experientially, and to learn about yourself. During the gap year you could participate in a term of service or go abroad to volunteer, study a language, or travel.)

Improving your financial outlook

It's true that a graduate education has the potential to increase your earnings. But you can do things even before you go to grad school that will put you on a more stable footing financially. By taking a few years after college to pay down student loan debt, to start socking away money towards your future, and to build up some cash reserves for grad school's leaner years, you'll put yourself in a more comfortable financial position during grad school and beyond.


Financial resources

  • Read "Making a Difference: A Guide to Personal Profit in a Nonprofit World", a free booklet

Keep in mind that if you plan to take out more student loans for grad school, you will have even more debt after you graduate. Getting into good financial habits earlier will reap rewards later on when you are ready to finance a car or house, start a family, and, yes, even retire one day! Even if you do a term-of-service program in which you earn less money, you may qualify for an education award or other lump sum of cash that you can use for savings or paying down your debt.

Finally, the more experienced you are in the field, the more enticing to potential funders you may be as a degree candidate. You may find that applying for fellowships, academic scholarships, and other funding will come easier if you are already established in your field.


Action steps. Ask yourself:

  • What can I do in the next one to three years that will strengthen my financial standing?
  • What financial goals do I have, for grad school and beyond?

Conclusion and further resources

Going straight from college on to grad school is a choice you should consider carefully. You can strengthen your chances of being included in the 10-30 percent of successful grad school applicants by setting yourself up for success as an undergrad. You can also benefit from working in the field through term-of-service programs or even entry-level work for a few years in order to clarify your chosen field, to strengthen your application, to prepare financially, and to build up your knowledge, skills, and experience in the field. If you are a college senior and find that your applications for grad school have been turned down, do not lose hope! After working for a few years in relevant jobs, you may discover you are very popular with admissions staff, and even with the folks in financial aid!