Grad School – Think Ahead, But Don’t Apply Too Early

The way my mind works, different situations evoke different songs. For many of the young adults who initially consult me about going to grad or professional school immediately after earning their bachelor’s degrees, the video of a somewhat obscure alt tune by Air Traffic Controller called “Hurry, Hurry,” resonates. It depicts a young adult who rushes through everything in life, thinking he’s running out of time. At the end, he stumbles and falls.

My advice to college students looking toward grad school is to slow down, and pause to think things through and plan, rather than plunging forward right away. Only a few are indeed ready to present a strong candidacy as college students– and in that situation, I help them prepare their applications while they somehow still manage to maintain their high college GPAs, prepare for and take the necessary standardized test and complete the requisite work, internship, research or other relevant experiences. For most, however, in terms of both their short term prospects of being admitted to a more selective program and their long term prospects of having a fulfilling and productive professional career, it’s better to have some time away from school doing something meaningful and related to the grad or professional career they’re contemplating. Planning that time away is what I focus on with the majority of my younger graduate candidates. It is often essential for them to gain a true understanding of themselves – and what they’re in for – before making the kind of financial, emotional and temporal investment associated with grad school.

For example, suppose you envision your future as a business leader. The most selective MBA programs such as HBS, Wharton, Booth and Stanford, may not necessarily technically require work experience after earning a bachelor’s degree, but they certainly expect it. Look at the profiles of their accepted students: typically the average age is 27 and the average amount and of full-time experience is 3-5 years. Although there are MBA programs out there that cater to those right out of college, it is unclear if earning a degree from such a program without the real life experience to back it up, results in any real advantage. Additionally, although it’s a different situation for those considering more specialized Masters in Finance degree programs which court younger professionals with high level quantitative skills, the top programs in that area, such as MIT Sloan and USC Marshall, still expect around one to one and a half years of relevant experience (including internships).

If you aspire to be a doctor, the AAMC’s statistics indicate the average age for successful medical school candidates is now 24+ – meaning that typically there will be post bachelor’s work experience of around 2 years. As with MBA candidates considering top programs, candidates for medical school usually need more time to demonstrate leadership, collaboration and professional direction. It is only the rare and truly exceptional candidate in either realm that can do so through internships, research and work experiences while an undergrad – while also preparing for the requisite GMAT or MCAT standardized test and writing the myriad application essays. For those seeking advanced degrees to become some type of other higher-level healthcare provider, such as a P.A. or Nurse Practitioner, a certain number of “clinical” hours, or direct work with patients will be a pre-requisite.

And although it is certainly easier for academically qualified candidates to be admitted to other advanced degree programs such as in law, engineering or the humanities right after college, that doesn’t necessarily make it advisable. The argument about staying in school to keep from getting academically stale is spurious – it’s the nearly unanimous opinion of faculty at law schools and in an array of master’s and PhD programs that they would rather be working with more mature and experienced students because they not only exhibit a clearer sense of themselves and their direction, but they also have a broader and wiser perspective on life.

Those who have been away from the academic world also tend to come back more energetic and motivated than those who haven’t given themselves a break. It’s the more mature and experienced students who usually get the most out of the advanced degree programs. Additionally, earning and saving some money can help young adults gain greater confidence and lessen the grad school loan burden. And for those lucky enough to still have some parental support, being off that “parental payroll” for a while is about the best gift you can give your parents – just ask them!

So you college students contemplating moving straight on into grad school without a break, BEWARE. Unless you slow it down, you might end up like the dude in the “Hurray, Hurray” video, falling off your path, sprawled down on the ground and struggling to get up.

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