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I'm a sophomore at a public university in the U.S. I'm thinking of taking a year off before my junior year, but I'm worried I'll have to explain the gap in my transcript when I apply to math grad school down the road. How concerned do I need to be about this?

The real reason I don't want to "go back" to school in the fall is that an online experience doesn't appeal to me at all. My home environment is a bit difficult and I think I'll have a miserable year overall. I expect I can still get decent grades, but I'd much rather have had four good years on campus, even if that means I have to graduate a year late.

Essentially, I'd like an answer to tell me how admission committees usually view gaps in transcripts and try to give me an idea of how this might play out for someone who voluntarily leaves college for a year because of classes being online. Some more specific questions that have crossed my mind are the following:

  1. Do application forms explicitly ask you to address gaps in your transcript? If not, is there an expectation that applicants will explain these anyway?

  2. Will an explanation like "I didn't want to take classes online for a year" fly? While my home environment is also a factor here, I would be really embarrassed to bring that up in an application.

  3. How important is it that I have something to put on my resumé for the coming year? What I'd really like to do is a lot of reading on my own in math. But if it's something that would make a significant difference to my application, I could try to find work instead. (I don't really expect I'll get anything beyond a typical low-wage unskilled position, assuming it's even possible to find jobs. Failing that, would volunteering be taken seriously?)

  4. Would expectations of progress in math be higher for someone who has a year-long gap in his transcript and has therefore had five years to graduate?

If it makes a difference, right now my impression is that I could probably be competitive for a spot at a top-ten school.

If it's felt that my question doesn't fit with the site rules, I'd appreciate advice on how to improve it.

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    Taking a gap year (voluntarily) really isn’t a big deal, especially during a global pandemic. Graduate committees around the world will acknowledge that Covid-19 has had tremendous impacts on students. If you’re taking the time off anyways, take a MOOC, prepare for courses you anticipate you’d take, get work experience (it’s always valuable, even if it’s not a highly skilled job). In one sentence, explaining you took time off because you wanted to invest your money for the course in-person would be as good as any reason to take a year off. – GrayLiterature May 16 at 5:57
  • Based on your post, however, it seems like you have financial support from your parents to have the freedom to do what you’d like to in the gap year. If you’re passionate about math, then keep doing more math. – GrayLiterature May 16 at 6:07
  • @GrayLiterature Thanks for your response. Yes, I'll be in reasonable financial shape to stay home for 8-12 months. – user124188 May 16 at 6:09
  • If your home life is creating difficulties for you, then I would expect (admittedly with ignorance of the details) taking a gap year would make that worse, not better. The sooner you graduate, the sooner you have economic tools to improve your home life. This isn't the easiest time to find a job, either. – Anonymous Physicist May 16 at 8:45
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With the COVID pandemic affecting a lot of ways of life, graduate department adcoms are more likely to be understanding of certain abnormalities in transcripts and such when they review them, at least in the immediate upcoming cycles. These can include having to take classes P/F, as some schools have switched to that grading model as a result of having to go entirely online. In general also, I don't believe that taking over four years to finish undergrad will be a liability either; even in normal circumstances, things can happen that graduate department adcoms will also understand, such as major changes, having to retake classes after a dismal year, etc.

That said, you will have a gap in your CV come application time, hence the term "gap year." While you could take a break and "do nothing," a better use of the gap year/semester would be, as you said, to find work or attempt to do a (preferably research) internship. Most are in the summer, but there are a few, especially in industry, that will take on students for the regular semester. You mentioned your home environment is difficult, so especially if the pandemic situation improves enough, why not take the time to try and gain experience that could be relevant come time to apply to graduate programs? If anything, do something that you could brag about to adcoms or your friends rather than spend the semester doing nothing.

Overall though, I do feel that taking a gap semester/year could be beneficial in this case. Especially if you have just gone through a relatively stressful semester, you could use a longer break before going back into school.

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  • Thanks for this answer. In my case, "doing nothing" wouldn't really be doing nothing, of course. It's just that it wouldn't appear on my CV. I've read elsewhere that in math, the most important factor tends to be evidence of being able to do well in advanced coursework, while research experience is considered less important, work experience even less so. (I probably don't have enough programming skills to find a research internship in the private sector, so I'm not really sure what math-relevant research opportunities would be open to me if I'm not enrolled in university.) – user124188 May 16 at 16:33
  • What I'd really like here is the take of someone who has experience with math admissions specifically about how big a problem a gap in the resumé would be. I'm looking at this solely from the perspective of how big a minus it would be in admissions rather than how I can do something demonstrably useful with my life. That's because I already know that having time to do more reading is what will help me in terms of my actual knowledge and skill in math, and this in turn may become evident in the following two years. I feel I can handle self-led reading better at home than course requirements. – user124188 May 16 at 16:43
  • Even then, research experience would be beneficial if you are applying to MS and especially PhD programs. If you are doing a gap year/semester, you most likely will be able to take the advanced coursework, you're just postponing it. If you feel reading will help you cement your research interests during this gap, more power to you. – Daveguy May 16 at 19:51
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Students take gap years for many reasons:

A « special » holiday

To earn some money

To volunteer Woof etc

So a gap year based on a Covid decision is just one of many and this is not an exhaustive list.

Your acceptance for a program will not be based on the use of the gap year but your grades and your attitude ie what you bring.

Best of luck.

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  • At downvoters: comments make improvements to answers possible... – Solar Mike May 16 at 10:41
  • Do you think this advice is as applicable in the U.S. as it is in Europe? – user124188 May 16 at 16:44

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