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Disclaimer: not all of what follows is relevant to the question.

I am a math student currently doing a Master’s. I plan on taking a break in the spring semester because due to many personal circumstances, my mental health had severely declined (I attempted suicide twice), and I completely lost my focus.

I am really passionate about mathematics and I do a lot of extracurricular reading. I have a GPA of about 4 (from a fairly reputable school) and I have excellent relationships with the professors in my department, so I can guarantee strong recommendation letters (especially that they seemed totally fine with my current plan). Furthermore, although I am not from an English-speaking country, I have a very good TOEFL score, and to me, the GRE is pretty much a piece of cake.

Ultimately, my goal is to get into a top 5 school. I decided to get a Master’s for that very purpose. I am worried about two things: first, that I do not have an undergraduate research experience (I never had a real opportunity anyway, though I will have written a thesis by the end of my Master's); second, and most importantly, I am worried that this break which I am about to take will look bad on my application, especially that I will be having a lot of therapy sessions and that I have a lot of personal and social challenges to face, so I am probably not going to do any math whatsoever. Also, it doesn’t seem like I’m getting any job in the meantime because there aren’t many offers and most of my applications have been declined.

So my question is: would such a gap semester look bad on my application? (or at least get frowned upon by the admissions committee?)

And if so: How much should I go into details about my situation? Should I mention real-life incidents, or should I just say that I had excruciating circumstances, and I had to back off and I couldn't find something interesting to do in the meanwhile?

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I'm going to give a slightly different advice from the previous answers. I don't want to counsel dishonesty here, but I think it would be very unwise to write anything in your personal statement that suggests any mental health problems, especially if the only thing that needs explaining is taking a semester off.

I want to emphasize that I think the stigma around mental health problems is very unfair and based on ignorance. However, the people reading these applications will have probably internalized it to some degree: if you, for example, mention attempting to commit suicide, that will be the most vivid and memorable thing from your application, whereas your master's degree ending a semester early will be barely noticeable. I think you will probably be fine not mentioning it at all, but if you do, I would just say it is for health reasons, or to prepare for moving to another country (which are, of course, true). One of the primary things an admissions committee will have in mind is whether a student is capable of finishing the program, while not creating a lot of trouble for people in the department. They have had pain-in-the-butt students before, and would really prefer to avoid having any more. Mentioning "personal and social challenges" or "excruciating circumstances" (which, incidentally, sounds very strange in English; it's hard to imagine what you really mean by it) is not going to give them confidence that you won't make a lot of trouble for them.

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I got a little lost in your projected chronology, but I'm not going to exert myself to trace through it because under the circumstances, I imagine it is hard for you to know exactly what the future will bring anyway.

I would encourage you to speak with the professors who are going to write letters of recommendation for you, and your director of graduate studies, about your concerns. It sounds like your professors have your best interests at heart.

However, in general, a good approach for applications, when health or mental health issues have caused a delay, or a gap, is to write a short statement saying pretty much that. There is no need to go into detail, and in fact you can just say "health" issues, and omit "mental."

Regarding how much damage can be done by a gap: one gap of a semester or two, in and of itself, as a blip against a strong backdrop, if handled in a way that would not flag you as a risky admissions prospect, would not have a damaging effect.

Women often take some time off when giving birth or adopting. As academic opportunities expand for women, this is getting more and more normalized. Men sometimes take some significant time off for family reasons as well.

I wonder if you might want to consider auditing one course during your upcoming treatment period? It need not be in your field. But whether or not it would make sense to do that would be a very personal decision.

I wish you all the best for your recovery.

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Now-a-days university's do what is considered a "holistic review". They will ask for a personal statement on why you want to be granted admissions into a particular program. There, you can write out your situation for them to take into consideration. Without that, on paper it could look bad because on paper, it shows that you did not try to work on a research project and perhaps you took a semester off because school is easy. (Again, I stress that this is what it might look like on paper.) With your personal statement, you could shed light onto your situation.

You should at least try to apply because if you don't then you will never know what could have happened. However, as with anything you apply for, there are other people out there competing for the same spot. People who may have better grades and experience. Your focus would need to be on how you differentiate from others and how you can contribute to the program in your own unique way.

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  • Thank you. How much should I go into details about my situation? Should I mention real-life incidents, or should I just say that I had excruciating circumstances, and I had to back off and I couldn't find something interesting to do in the meanwhile? – Martin Jan 14 '17 at 16:06
  • @Martin You can go into as much detail as you feel comfortable. You can be as specific as you want or as general as you want. These are personal circumstances. I will say this - excruciating circumstances can mean different things to different people. What might be a big deal to you may not be a big deal to someone else. (Again, this is all on paper.) – Michael Jan 14 '17 at 16:09
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Though the reviewers above make some excellent points, if indeed your GRE scores and academic records are as strong as you say I would not worry about this gap time. I believe resumes are looked at carefully but not quite as carefully as seeing a gap as such and tossing you aside or even questioning the reasons, especially if the rest of your application is appealing. I have learned this both as an applicant and reviewer of applications for learning programs.

The most salient point made above in my opinion is "talking with your recommendation writers". It maybe good for them to know your plans to apply to grad school and see if they will support you in advance, gap or no gap. I'm currently a doctoral student at a "top 5" school in my field, but that's not why I'm hear. I came because I thought the best people to work with would be here. Rather than worrying about rank, I would suggest you consider the exact work you would like to do and WHO you would like to do that work with. With the right community everything else, including your jobs afterward, will fall into place just fine.

For the challenges you face, life and taking care of yourself is more important than any career move. If a school does not want you because you took care of yourself then they do not deserve you - and would you really want to be there anyway knowing they only care about what you produce while not supporting you personally?

Hope you get to take a deep breath and take the time you need to get things straight. You can take care of the rest afterward, and your allies will appear to help you along the way and guide you to the next steps for where you want to go. Good luck and best!

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