Of all the differences between my graduate and undergraduate experiences, the one that stood out most for me was the great range of age and experience among my fellow students. A recent class found me debating literature with students aged 18 to 80. Granted, it makes sense that an evening M.A. program would be made up of a diverse group of students, but graduate students as a whole tend to vary much more widely in age than those in undergrad.
So, when is the ideal time to apply to graduate school?
The “do it now” approach
For many, going directly from an undergraduate program to a graduate one is the best option. Having worked in an Ivy League economics program, I’ve seen firsthand the sort of advantages younger students can have in competitive fields.
Those straight out of undergrad are perceived as having fresh research ideas and intense ambition. They earn instant respect for their intelligence and initiative. They may also find it easier to find recommenders who know their work well enough to speak to their graduate applications. Additionally, in heavily intellectual or academic fields, “taking a break” between undergrad and grad can look like a gap in work experience in your résumé; it can imply that a student has fallen out of touch with news and updates from the field, regardless of whether or not that is true. If you are positive about what you want to do and have never wavered, immediately enrolling in grad school may be the right path.
The waiting game
The average age of graduate students nationwide is 33, but that number is on the rise for many reasons. For one thing, the more general undergrad majors can lead to a seemingly infinite number of career options, and unless undergraduate institutions offer strong and diverse internship or co-op programs, it can be difficult to see how those classes translate into a career. Rather than panicking at the deluge of options and enrolling in graduate school, taking the time to try out different job options can help graduates refine their career interests and later decide whether graduate school is necessary. This additional work and life experience also translates well on applications. You may meet coworkers who can serve as valuable references or boost your résumé with real-world experience. In certain fields like business and management, life experience can actually trump academics on an application.
Then there are the practical reasons. A break between undergraduate and graduate programs allows you to start paying back student loans and get on your feet financially. It also provides a much-needed mental break. When you do finally return to school, it will be with a renewed sense of commitment, a clear mindset, and deeper pockets.
My own opinion leans strongly in favor of taking a break between undergrad and grad. Had I begun graduate school directly after undergrad, I would likely have ended up on the wrong path entirely. Several years of work experience taught me that my job expectations were way off and revealed the things that actually interested me. I am now pursuing a different program than originally planned with a renewed sense of commitment and clarity. Friends have shared the same experience, and as I’ve watched them evolve from languages to sports management, from history to law enforcement, I’ve come to believe that waiting at least a year (and preferably several) is a good idea. However, the choice still depends heavily upon your field and whether you know what you want out of your career when you walk across the stage to collect your bachelor’s degree.
As evidenced by my class with a 62-year age gap, there really is no single “right” time to go to graduate school—and we should be grateful for that, as it makes the experience that much more interesting.