Sudershan ‘Suds’ Tirumala, Regional Director at Tuck School of Business (Dartmouth), provides advice and tips on how to tackle breaks and gaps in the career and education.
The GAP – and it’s not the apparel company.
I’ve talked to applicants frequently who have expressed concerns regarding a gap in their professional experience. While many applicants don’t have to contend with this situation, there are quite a few who do.
Maybe they had to take a break from their undergrad due to a family emergency. Maybe the gap was while they were at work after experiencing burnout. Possibly, the urge to do something different – a break from the routine – a sort of rejuvenation.
The question posed often is this:
I have a gap in my experience (or studies) for reason X, Y, or Z. How do I communicate it to the Admissions Committee of my dream school? Am I out of contention due to the gap? Do I even stand a chance for an admission?
The answer to this question is, in two words: “It depends.”
It depends, not on the fact that there’s a gap in your work or education. Rather, the Admissions Committee is interested in knowing what you did in the interim – during the gap – that either fell into your lap or you were forced into due to circumstances.
How did you respond to the situation? Did you let the situation gain control of you or did you take charge of it?
The ultimate question the Committee is trying to pose to you, in other words, is whether you dealt what life handed to you with maturity. The question is not even so much about whether you were successful in your efforts or not. The question is simply – how sincerely did you try and what was the outcome?
If you demonstrate through your essays and accomplishments that you really did everything you could and faced what life threw at you with aplomb, you’re probably in pretty good shape.
I had the pleasure of getting to know someone who did something amazing. He was pursuing a very successful career. He was the only son, and was based in a different city than where he grew up. His aged parents were still living in their hometown.
His mother fell really ill and had to be hospitalized. Rather than let the father face the situation alone, the son took a 3-month sabbatical from work to be back with his parents and help his mother recuperate. While his mother started down the path to a slow recovery, the sabbatical wasn’t nearly enough time to get his mother back to normal. So he took the call to quit the job and continue to help his parents at home.
Three months became six months and six months became eight months. He was there for his parents all along and really, what more can a son ask for – the opportunity to be with his parents when they needed him the most! His mother made full recovery and is back to her usual self and regular routine.
And the dutiful son did something else while he was helping his parents. He had a lot of time on hand, and prepared for CFA. Not only did he prepare well, he actually aced the exam.He ended up finding another job in the same city on the basis of his qualifications and is doing very well professionally. What a way to make a difference to his personal life as well as professional career!
You, the reader, tell me. Don’t you think the person being discussed is already a winner in life? MBA or no MBA, admission or no admission, did he not just make the most amazing things happen for himself and for his parents? Does he really need to even convince anyone why he has the gap in his work experience?
There’s maturity, emotional intelligence, and filial responsibility all embedded in this real life story and it really doesn’t get much better than that. I’m not even sure whether this individual wants to pursue MBA any more. If he does plan to pursue his MBA, will he get into his dream school? That’s a function of how strong the rest of his application is and how competitive the applicant pool itself is. But the point is this individual has done everything he needed to, and he did it in an exemplary manner.
Let me also take the opportunity to address another quick question that keeps rearing its head every now and then: academic performance.
At some point or another, we all have given one or the other competitive exam in order to pursue an undergraduate degree. We’re so bruised by all the comparisons and peer pressure in the run up to the entrance exam that once admitted to college, there’s a tendency to let go and actually have fun with friends for a change after having slogged the past 2+ years. Nothing wrong with that. But like clockwork, these abominable exams surface akin to the legendary monster Hydra’s heads at the end of every semester! So you had better got your act together rather quickly.
Should you consider pursuing an MBA at some point in life, those pesky business schools will look carefully at your undergraduate performance along with everything else that’s part of your application. And if your academic grades are not very impressive due to the “letting go” phenomenon and you never really pushed the grades back up in those four years of undergrad, that doesn’t speak very highly of your candidacy.
But there’s no time travel possible, so you can’t really go back in time and fix your grades. You’ve been out of college for some time now, and there’s not much you can do about your undergrad academics that are frozen in time.
At that point, the thing that usually comes to your rescue is the quality of work you’ve been doing and how you’ve been perceived by your colleagues and supervisor. Have you performed well at work? Or have you continued to be a victim to the “letting go” phenomenon even after graduation? Something else I’m seeing more often now-a-days is candidates buttressing their undergrad academic performance with part-time courses or online courses, thus demonstrating their mastery over all things quantitative as well as their own destiny.
All power to you, as you work on addressing potential gaps in your application and as you put your best foot forward to pursue the MBA and post-MBA career trajectory!