By Sojourner White
Gap year experiences, whether domestic or international, or through volunteer or work opportunities, have been lauded as one of the best things people can do. From traveling the world, to fellowships, or even working a 9-to-5 for a year, that break time between educational journeys can be necessary. You get time to process where you’ve been and where you want to go, all while pursuing an experience that will help you get there.
However, unpacking how your gap year experience will impact your graduate experience takes time and reflection. Many people struggle with integrating their gap year into their graduate school application. Deciding on what to highlight from your year and connecting it to your larger purpose can be slightly overwhelming. Remember that you have the experience, and now you just need the language to make it work for that personal statement or additional essays. It’s time to tell your story! So let’s break down how you can frame and market different gap year experiences for graduate school applications.
Gap years may seem more whimsical for those who backpack throughout part of the world or take a year to pursue a passion project for very little cash in return. However, you can acquire a lot of skills when you go abroad on new adventures, connecting with new people and learning from the world. Just think about it. Did you collaborate with people from different cultural backgrounds than you? That sounds like enhanced intercultural awareness and cross-cultural communication skills to me. Did you organize the entire itinerary for your adventure, including flights and in-country experiences? Add planning and coordinating skills to your resume. If you learned a new language, add that too!
While most people may not think to put their traveling gap year on their resumes or include it in their graduate school applications, you most definitely should. A traveling gap year can be full of new skills or old ones you enhance. To understand the kind of skills you acquired, reflect on the experiences you participated in and work from there. Just remember to pick the most salient skills relevant to your application and graduate school program of study.
2. Working Full-Time
Though many people assume a gap year means traveling or volunteering, a gap year can also mean a year of traditional, 9-to-5 work experience. Some people love to make money, and others literally can’t afford to take a year without being paid, no matter how much they save up beforehand. Yet, that doesn’t mean their formal work experience is less meaningful than backpacking to new countries. In fact, many graduate students do have full-time work experiences that informed their graduate school journeys.
As graduate school is preparation for work experience post-graduation, tell the story of why you chose to work for a year before applying. In between discussing the skills you attained, share the lessons you learned through that year in the workforce. Graduate schools are choosing you, not just the experiences on your resume or CV, so be honest and authentic. There’s an assumed level of maturity that goes along with working full-time for a gap year, so use it to your advantage. Show how that maturity makes you an ideal candidate for graduate school!
Service-learning is looked highly upon in higher education. If you do choose to volunteer for a gap year, you can tailor your graduate school essays towards that experience too. Remember, it’s not about comparing your volunteer experience to someone else’s work experience. Focus on you, your story, and the message you want graduate admissions offices to see. Admissions offices love a good story, especially those of growth and finding your purpose. If you began your volunteer gap year with a certain goal in mind, but it changed due to what you learned, use that change to show your adaptability. If volunteering solidified your future career path and fueled your drive to go to graduate school, explain how.
For volunteer-focused gap years, you can focus on the skills you obtained based on your experiences too! However, since volunteer experiences don’t have the same financial compensation, leverage how you stayed motivated on your application. Graduate school, and professional life thereafter, is not always about instant gratification or rewards. A volunteer experience is similar because you aren’t motivated solely by financial compensation. Therefore, you can use that to market what you’ve learned in your volunteer-based gap year with graduate school.
Your story doesn’t need to have the perfect ending. You are a work in progress, and no one expects that a gap year gifted you with clarity in every aspect of your life or career. That is OK! Graduate school admissions offices also love to see your potential. Don’t be afraid to admit that you are on a path that is still unfolding, and while you know graduate school is next, you don’t have every detail planned out. Admissions counselors understand graduate school is a space to build upon the growth you experienced during your gap year.
At the end of the day, your experience is yours. You choose it. You experience it. Thus, you should market it to fit your needs (within reason, of course). There is no ideal experience because everyone is on their own paths, which makes each application and impending cohort unique. It’s pivotal to connect your experiences pre-gap year to post-gap year and to communicate the impact of your gap year on your graduate school applications. Bring the application and your story full circle. You’re worth every word!
Sojourner White holds a Master’s of Social Work in International Development from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. Prior to graduate school, she taught English in Spain as a Fulbright Fellow and served in the AmeriCorps program Public Allies. She currently does intersectional race and health equity consulting with organizations to redesign their practices for more equitable, community-minded outcomes. You can also find Sojourner writing on her travel blog Sojournies, where she offers tips and resources to encourage students and young professionals to make travel part of their lifestyles.
© Victoria Johnson 2020, all rights reserved