Are you trying to game the system? Then, no.
Are you trying to get an inside look at the industry before committing your time and money to school? Then, yes.
Are you trying to develop skills that you can transfer to your ultimate goal? Then, yes.
Are you trying to “find yourself?” Then, no.
Do you need a break? Then, yes.
A student asked me this question at an event the other day. I hadn’t thought about it since college, but I immediately realized my answer was quite different from the simple “yes” I came to believe so long ago.
The difference between my answers is perspective. Today, if I wanted to know what a school was looking for in a candidate, the first thing I’d do is call the dean of admissions and ask every question I could think of. After all, speaking with prospective students is part of that person’s job. I expect truthful answers because the job requires admissions staff to recruit the best possible candidates and convince them to apply and attend. If anyone at the office is dishonest with me, I’d put together a terrible application and have no chance of being considered.
When I was still in college, I mistakenly expected decision makers to hide the ball. I’m not entirely certain why this was. My best guess is it’s a hardware problem. Specifically, the Us/Them dynamic our brains set up with extreme ease is one factor at play here. Neuroscience research shows that we tend to think of people outside our group as less trustworthy while thinking of people within our group as more trustworthy. So, when I hear my friend say, “John got into Yale. Here’s what he did,” I’m more inclined to believe my friend who is guessing at what factors convinced the decision makers to accept John than the words of the decision makers themselves.
This can lead to screwed up results. Let’s say John was going to med school, and before he did, he took a year off to work in order to increase his chances of getting in. Let’s further say that he got into a prestigious program that has nothing to do with medicine, learning skills that have no application to his future career. From my perspective, not knowing anything else about his application (after all, who has ever looked at their friends’ college or med school applications?), it’s easy to assume that this was the deciding factor. So, I operate on the mistaken belief that if I get into this same program, I will also get into med school.
If I called the school and John gave the school permission to discuss his application, the school would more likely to point to a variety of factors as the reasons for his acceptance. GPA and standardized test scores can show you’re currently prepared to do the work. Working within the field or taking a break can show you took time to think about your decision to apply before doing it. Working outside the field can give you transferable skills or allow you to try something else out (if you’re interested in that field).
Because admissions committees use a variety of factors in choosing who to accept, it’s best to make each factor as strong as possible. I’m certain that many students have been accepted to schools based in part on impressive-sounding titles that they would be hard pressed to explain if they tried. However, I know that if you’re going to join a club or take time between schools, your explanation will far more impressive if you’re doing things that you’re actually interested in. This way, you can speak at length about what you did and why without having to invent reasons. This can, in turn, show admirable qualities about you that you did not know would shine through in your writing or interview. These factors help the recruiters to determine whether you’re someone who’s a good fit for the class they’re putting together. After all, as I was once told by the dean of a law school – no one just writes, “I’m a great student, and here’s why…”