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Friday, May 4, 2007

Post-Tribune
Merrillville, Indiana

Educated Advice Columnist
Gerald M. Bradshaw

Take time away from college if you need a break



Not every student completes an undergraduate degree in four years. Some students take time off before completing their degrees. Some need to work, want to travel, join the military or just take time off on order to refocus on what they really want to do with their lives. This should present no problem for them if they intend to apply to a top law or business school later on. It could work to their advantage.

Most professional schools prefer applicants that have experience in the real world before they apply. There are exceptions. Math and physics majors are prized right out of college. Their outstanding analytical skills are increasingly in demand in the private sector. Still, most top law and MBA programs prefer students to have a few years life experience behind them.

The admissions process is the same for all students. Students who take five or more years to graduate must keep in mind that they will still be evaluated on the same criteria as other students. Their GPA and LSAT/GMAT scores have to be competitive. An important aside: while it isn't always well known students may be required to submit their LSAT/GMAT scores when applying for an actual job. Reporting test scores is becoming standard practice. Companies are paying six figure starting salaries and don't want to risk hiring a disappointment.

Typical is a client who came back to college after taking off five years to pursue a film career. It didn't work out and now he wants to complete his undergraduate degree and apply to Harvard Business School. His grades and SAT scores are in the top 10 percent so he is building on solid fundamentals. The rest is up to him and how he differentiates himself.

The first task I gave him was to write a short autobiography. This is extremely important if one has to account for more than a few gap years. A strongly written autobiography can often tip the scale in your favor. It can even be used to help beat students with better academic records. Many of my clients spend a month or more writing their autobiography before they get it right. The first sentence of the first paragraph is the most important one. It must be powerful and make the reader want to read the rest of the story.

My client started out this way. "I arrived in Hollywood with only the name of a soup kitchen in my pocket." From there he went on to write about his experiences as a prop man, standup comedian, a waiter at Wolf Gang Puck's Spago in Beverly Hills and finally his time in China. At first he left out the interesting parts about being a waiter and so on. He felt that they would bore the reader and were non-academic and so he played them down. I thought they were amazingly interesting-just the kind you can easily identify with and offering brilliant insights into his drive and personality. It told of how he bucked the traditional four years of college and went off on his own for a few years to try something different. Now he is ready to assume the responsibilities of a career in business. I believe Harvard or any other MBA program will give him a fair scrutiny.

After the autobiography I recommended that he take a few extra math classes to round out his Asian Studies major. He spent a year in China learning Mandarin. These math classes will show that he also understands how important quantities skills are becoming in the business world and that it is not all based on having an outstanding personality and salesmanship ability.

So students who to take off a few years before graduating should have no fear of falling behind. In many cases the experiences gained will work in your favor. It is fairly easy to fall back in the groove once you return to college. Just don't forget to take those years spent away seriously.


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