Elective Gap Year: Pros and Cons (feat. Fellow Applicant Mandy)

Hey blog-dogs! No news for me this week, though a few schools that I didn’t apply to have offered this week. We’re definitely in the full swing of interview offer season. With such a competitive application process, some prospective GC students wonder when they should apply. Will they be competitive enough right out of undergrad, or would a gap year or two be beneficial? I’ve applied both as an undergrad, and during a gap year, and today I’m joined by my friend and fellow applicant, Mandy, who is a first-time applicant applying during her gap year. Together we’ll share our experiences to help others decide whether a voluntary gap year could be right for them.

First, here’s my take:

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Photo of me throwing my “cap” after finishing classes last December. Managing undergrad + Applying to 10 grad schools! I did it!

Why I Applied as an Undergrad:

As I’ve shared before, I’ve been pretty confident throughout college that I wanted to be a genetic counselor. The only reason I considered not applying right away was because I was worried I wouldn’t get in. Well, I didn’t, and I’m still happy I decided to try for that first cycle. I would have liked to avoid a gap year if possible, and get started working as a genetic counselor as soon as I could. It didn’t work out that way for me, but for others it might! Since I felt confident I wanted to be a GC, and I didn’t want to delay, I found that applying in undergrad was the right choice for me.

Pros of Applying in Undergrad:

  • Getting started on the GC admissions and training process as soon as possible. If you don’t get in the first time, you graduate with feedback and experiences to prepare you for the next cycle. And if you do get in, you’re headed straight into training for a career you’re excited about.
  • Still being close with professors or advisors who could recommend you. The longer someone is out of undergrad, the harder it can be to get those academic recommendations, though the opportunity for professional recommendations can increase.
  • Graduation can affect your application resources. If you’re attending college at a big university where you can utilize services like mock interview, CV review, and pre-professional advisement, it might be beneficial to apply while those resources are so readily accessible to you. I currently have to travel an hour south to my old university to access those services.

Cons of Applying in Undergrad:

  • You’re already broke.College drained your wallet and going straight into grad school without working full-time will make you broker. Consider if you have loans you need to pay off from undergrad before taking on more education
  • Scheduling conflicts! In undergrad, it can be so detrimental to miss class to shadow a GC, attend a program info session, or eventually attend grad school interviews. It’s expected that students have to do these kinds of things, so it’s not like they inexcusable absences. However, that’s valuable lecture and material-learning time lost. I struggled to balance grad school prep with continuing to succeed in the school I was already in! I’ve found that in my gap year, I’m able to easily take time-off for grad school related activities. As a result, I’ve expanded my shadowing from about 10 hours total to about 40 hours. I feel fine about taking time-off, not only to attend interviews but also explore the areas I will visit. There’s just a better balance between your daily grind and tending to your apps.
  • Without studying constantly on my mind, I’m able to delve deeper into advocacy experiences.I took on my paid role at Crisis Text Line (which requires me to pull an all-nighter once a week, not great for someone still in school!). I have the time and energy to explore these new experiences and build my CV. Getting unique and committed experience can be tough during undergrad. Sometimes a gap year gives you just the time you need to become a stronger applicant.
  • Stress of applications combined with schoolI felt the need to rush my applications to finish them before school revved up for the semester. As a result, I submitted all of them in September, often reusing the same personal statement when I should have written a new one for each prompt.This cycle, I actually enjoyed crafting each application individually, since there weren’t other pressing projects and tests I had to attend to.

Now, let’s meet our guest writer, Mandy…

I graduated from the University of Michigan in December 2017 with a BS in Neuroscience (and a minor in German.) After graduating, I accepted a job as a research technician at the Medical University of South Carolina and flocked south. I’m enjoying life in a warmer climate and getting to explore a new city! As an undergrad, I was a peer mentor with the LGBT resource center on campus and was a volunteer coordinator for FEMMES (Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering & the Sciences), an organization promoting STEM fields for 4th-6th grade girls  through outreach activities. I also enjoyed tutoring elementary schoolers and promoting literacy awareness through CAN, the Community Action Network of Ann Arbor. In Charleston, I have been able to gain additional advocacy experience volunteering with the Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding Center, a therapeutic horseback riding center serving children and adults with disabilities and by serving as a crisis-line volunteer with My Sister’s House, an organization serving female survivors of domestic abuse. In my spare time, I enjoy reading, watching way too much Netflix, yoga (especially on the beach!), breakfast foods and petting every dog I see.

Why I Didn’t Apply as an Undergrad:

I was 99% sure I wanted to go into genetic counseling, but I didn’t feel ready to apply. I had limited shadowing experience and I wanted to get a better idea of the profession by shadowing in more specialties. I also had been involved with research the past few years and while I didn’t think I wanted a career where I’d be in a lab all day, I didn’t want to write it off completely. Now I know for sure that that’s not something that I want. I also felt burned-out and didn’t really want to go straight into grad school! Finally, I feel that my application is stronger than it would have been applying straight from undergrad. The application process is expensive, so feeling that I have a better chance now makes me feel better about investing the time and money into this process!

Pros of a Gap Year:

  • More time to gain advocacy and shadowing experienceI don’t know about you all, but I was very busy as a student! I participated in several student organizations and had volunteer experience, but was lacking in the traditional “advocacy” experiences that graduate programs want to see. I currently volunteer with the crisis line at a DV shelter and at a therapeutic horseback riding center for kids and adults with disabilities. I would not have had time for these activities in undergrad and am really enjoying these opportunities!
    • I had shadowed one day in a medical genetics clinic and shadowed a cancer genetic counselor while in undergrad. During my gap year, I’ve had opportunities to shadow in pediatric and prenatal genetics!
  • Time to prepare for the GRE
    • I’m glad I was able to study for the GRE without having other classes to worry about!
  • Applications were less stressful (in my opinion)
    • Writing several personal statements, hounding your recommendation letter writers, and filling out applications while in the middle of classes (and finals!) does not sound fun to me.
  • Gaining “life” experience
    • From what I’ve gleaned, programs often view applicants who’ve worked after undergrad favorably. Having experience in the “real world” helps demonstrate your maturity.

      

Exploring new landscapes at Magnolia Plantation
 Graduation was amazing, but after 4.5 years of hard work I was ready for a break!
Watching Sunsets on the Beach (an unexpected gap year perk!)

Cons of a Gap Year:

  • Feeling less prepared as a first-time applicant
    • Knowing how competitive the process is now, I kind of wish I had applied last year and given myself a “leg up.” I may not have gotten in (because of my lack of experience), but I would have been more prepared for the application process and interviews this year! And I would have received helpful feedback from programs.
  • Getting a Later Start
    • Starting grad school at 24 or 25 is not a big deal and many people do (or come back to school for a career change later in life), but if you know what you want to do, it’s great to get an earlier start! If I get in this year, I’d graduate at 26 and if I have to reapply for next year, I’d graduate at 27. I personally would prefer to be settled in a career ASAP and get that 401(k) going!

*****

Things to Consider:

  • Finances are probably one of the biggest considerations. The application process is expensive (see sample budget below!) You may want to work and save up some money before applying. Additionally, if you feel you don’t have much experience, you may want to consider applying to fewer schools that round or taking a gap year.

Sample Budget (applying to 6 schools):

  • $100 for the NMS Match Fee
  • Approx $70 application fee per school, $420
  • GRE if you haven’t taken it yet, $205-you can send up to 4 scores to schools for free ON test day
  • Extra GRE scores (2 x $27) = $54
  • Transcript fees (if your undergrad has that)

Including the GRE, over $700!

  • The cost of traveling for interviews

Expect up to $500 per trip, if flying. That cost includes airfare, overnight accommodations, ground transportation, eating out, and any leisure activities you participate in while in the new city.

  • Are you sure genetic counseling is really what you want to do? If you want to go straight into grad school, is it because you’re passionate about the program and are 100% certain you want to be a genetic counselor? Sometimes it’s tempting to apply to grad school as an undergrad, because you don’t know what else you would do. It’s okay to take time off! If you’re uncertain, it may be best to take a gap year.
  • Do you need a break? If you’re already feeling burned out, stressed, and exhausted, going through the application process while in school and then going straight into grad school may just be too much. Mental health is important! School will always be there. Working 40 hours a week might not seem like having much of a break, but having real weekends and coming home in the evenings without work to do can be SO nice.
  • Are you interested in pursuing a different opportunity right out of school?A gap year after undergrad can be your last chance to do something you’d enjoy like studying abroad, becoming a genetic counseling assistant, moving to that place you’ve always wanted to, etc. If there are opportunities you’d like to pursue while you’re still young and not tied down, a gap year can give you that chance.

*****

These are some considerations regarding when to apply to genetic counseling school. Overall, apply when you feel ready! And know that you may be more ready than you think. I (Laura) really didn’t feel ready during my first cycle, but I’m glad I applied and got the experience and feedback.

Feel free to reference back to this post if you ever need a reason to be happy about your gap year, forced or elective. I will always wish I had gotten in the first time, but looking at my gap year, I can say it has been wonderful too.

-Laura + Mandy

One Comment Add yours

  1. Shalagh says:

    Thanks for the insight, Laura & Mandy! I am a first time applicant, but have taken a gap year. I am definitely feeling way more prepared after taking some time off from school and working, but we will see… I hope we all receive good news soon! 🙂

    Like

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