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I am an undergraduate mathematics major, entering my fourth year. I plan on applying to graduate school, but I have not yet taken the GRE exams, and there a few key courses (Topology and Algebra in particular) that I have not taken yet, so I am hesitant to take the Advanced Math GRE too soon. (If you're wondering why I haven't taken Topology and Algebra yet, it's because I was trying to secure a CS degree, which sidetracked my mathematical studies last year. It was a healthy branching out experience, and one that helped me realize my true academic passion.)

My main question: what is the perception of students who take a gap year between their graduation and starting graduate school?

I think I will take the GRE tests this fall, a) for practice and b) if I score high, then I might as well apply sooner rather than later. However, I ask this question to gauge how much energy I should put into preparing for the tests this fall. If I hear, "You should really do your best to avoid any gap in your education," then I will work my butt off in preparation for the tests. But if I hear, "It's totally okay take a gap year before going into graduate school," then I would give myself more freedom in terms of my non-standardized-exam studies, extracurriculars, and in general social activities. I figure the answer to this question won't be as cut-and-dry as I hope, but any advice would be appreciated!

Just to clarify, my gap year would not consist of me sitting at my desk taking practice GRE exams all day... That would be a pitiful use of my time. I definitely plan working either as an intern or a research assistant at a successful organization. It seems like the general consensus is that taking time off is okay, and potentially beneficial, assuming you actually do something in that gap.

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    My answer is based on my opinion, not from experience in deciding on student acceptance. I took a 6 month break (traveling) after BSc, and it allowed me to replenish my energies and take a step back to decide if I want to pursue research. I would personally recommend it and see it as a positive thing. – Bitwise Jul 23 '13 at 0:24
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    It's totally okay to take a gap year before going into graduate school. Or two. – JeffE Jul 23 '13 at 1:26
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    I did work a year at a startup company before starting my PhD. It was great experience, I met great people and I learned a lot of soft skills which turned out to be incredibly useful. All in all, it was great, and everybody hearing about it saw it as positive so far. It's not a gap in your education. It is a time where you learn different things. Even if you go travel the world for a year. It is experience. – skymningen Feb 3 '16 at 10:41
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When I was looking into this for a former student of mine I spoke with the head of the graduate program at the US Top 20 program I was working in at the time. He actually viewed a gap year as a good thing. His rationale was that students who had held jobs and managed to live for the gap year were more likely to have the work habits useful in graduate school.

When it comes time to write your applications you just have to remember to explain how that year has made you a better candidate for their program. It might not be more math that you've learned by it may be maturity and a renewed sense of purpose. If you chose to take a year off do something worthwhile and don't just study for exams.

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It is entirely fine to take a year off before starting grad school. Many graduate students do this (I include myself among those who did it and were accepted in top university in the UK (no arrogance intended)).

Professors or Admission committees do not focus too much on the gap between the time when you finished your undergraduate studies and when you applied to a graduate program. However, some care must be taken as I explain in the following list:

  • It also depends on the combination of gap-years and what-you-did on those years. For example, it is fine if you take a year off to explore the Amazon rainforest and learn T'ai chi ch'uan. However, if you rest for many years and you did nothing to improve your CV during this time, that may look suspicious to an Admission committee. This is because many people apply to a graduate program in order to get funding while they find "something else".

  • If you take more than 2 "sabbatical" years but you did something to improve your CV, that may even be appealing. For example: working for the private sector, teaching, attending some special courses, doing (provable) research on the area of interest ... I have come across 60+ y.o. graduate students.

  • TOEFL and GRE tests are typically valid for 2--3 years, then you can take them as soon as you feel capable of getting the required score. This would also put some pressure on you in order to avoid the common procrastination.

In conclusion, it is fine if you take a year in order to clarify your ideas, gather all the requirements, and improve your CV. An advice from my personal experience: be careful with these "gap-years", they are a double-edged sword. They could either increase or decrease your chances of getting accepted in a graduate program, depending on what you do during these years.

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    +1 for "doing something useful" during the "sabbatical". What you have done is actually more important than when you graduated. – sergut Jul 24 '13 at 17:26
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I had a gap of 1.5 years between finishing my (second) Master's and applying for a Ph.D. in statistics... a total gap of two years between my latest graduation and starting the Ph.D. In these two years I was working as an economist (my second degree) in a government think-tank, so it wasn't a totally irrelevant experience. If you sustain an income through say tutoring math (which appears to have an infinite demand, although may be poorly paid), and take advanced classes in the mean time, this only showcases you as a person dedicated to the selected field who wants to do it despite the real life challenges. +1 brownie point!

I did not have a chance to evaluate an application with such gaps when I was a prof, but I can tell from my teaching experience that the older the student is, the more responsible they are. So if anything, I would view "out of the box" students jumping straight from BSc to PhD as less qualified than somebody who's been out there for a little longer, and knows what they want from their lives. But that's just my personal take.

When I was applying around (1999-2000), there was no point in pushing it at all unless you'd get the perfect GRE math score, which was not that difficult to get (probably 50% or so of applicants did). I heard though that the test was made more demanding and better discriminating.

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On the one hand it might be beneficial for your application if you take your time to study for a this test in terms of a better score.

On the other hand, if I would be the person reviewing the application, I would rank your score subjectively lower if you have this gap, since I would assume that you stayed at home and studied for the test. And Grad School applications are not that much high-throughput like undergrad application, so there might be a chance that the person, who will end up reviewing your appl., will think so too.

I find these GRE tests stupid anyway. They really depend on how much time you spend on preparation. In my opinion, the tests are easy enough to just pass them if you passed your undergrad, but on the other hand you are competing against other applicants for the higher score.

For me, but I am not the person who decides, a good internship or other other topic-related projects (e.g., founding a website like reddit if you are a computer science applicant) would count 1000x more than this stupid test score.

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