How to handle gaps in your education and career in MBA essays

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.


How to tackle career and education gaps in MBA Essays

 
Top 10 MBA Admissions Officer - SudsThe 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!


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Sudershan Tirumala //
Sudershan Tirumala
Suds' association with the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth (an Ivy League university) as Regional Director has given him rich & unique insights about international & Indian applicants that very few admissions officers have. In an exclusive series for MBA Crystal Ball, he writes on a wide range of topics from MBA admissions to careers.

35 Comments

  1. Shashank Yadav says:

    Hi Sudarshan Sir,
    I have a 3 year gap between 10th and 12th due to illness.I finished 12th from Open Schooling. I am pursuing BBA from IP University,New Delhi and expecting 70+%.Should I apply for Mba programs in US after getting work ex?

  2. Suds says:

    Hi Shashank,

    Thanks for your question. You should absolutely apply once you get adequate work experience. Make sure you do well in GMAT. You should also explain the illness part clearly in your application – the challenges and how you overcame them. Just make sure you’re able to answer any question that maybe asked, without that question ever being asked, . That’s the way to go about building the strongest case possible for why you’re the best candidate for the school.

    All the best!
    Suds.

  3. Sudipt says:

    Sir, during my btech from college campuss i got a job in it company but the joining date was postponed as recession was going on that time.so i started to prepare for entrance exam and after 1 year got admission in national power training institute. Now i am working in power plant and want to pursue mba.i want to know whether gap after my btech will affect my eligibility for admission in executive mba course…thanks in advance

    • Suds says:

      Sudipt,

      Thanks for your note and for the question. Recession is typically a time when many companies revisit hiring done early on, so your situation is not atypical. The question then becomes how you’ve utilized the intervening time and what you’re doing as a result of it. I think based on what you’ve mentioned above, you should be able to make a case for your candidacy. The one thing I’d encourage you to think about is what else you did in addition to preparing for the entrance exam (such as an activity that you’re passionate about) and not forget to highlight that in your application. Good luck with your endeavors.

      Best,
      Suds.

  4. Pratyush Choudhury says:

    How do you justify the case of having taken a drop year but having decent grades?

    • Suds says:

      Pratyush,

      Thanks for your question. I don’t think there’s any special justification. Simply state the facts and explain the situation in an optional essay. That should take care of it.

      Hope that helps.

      Best,
      Suds.

  5. Gm says:

    Hi sir,
    I have completed my MBA in 2013. After MBA I start preparing for competitive exams. I tried my best level to get in govt services it could not happened. Now iam trying a job in mnc but there are not considering due to gap. How to overcome the situation.
    Thanks

    • Suds says:

      Gm,

      Thanks for your note and appreciate your question. I’m not sure if you worked prior to and/or after the MBA. MNC or home-grown conglomerate, if you walk into the interview confidently and not have uncertainty writ large on your face, I’m fairly certain you’ll make it to the job sooner than later. At that point, you’ll need to be judicious about ensuring high performance and not making too many job moves in the initial years to lend a sense of stability on the resume. Hope that helps. All the best in your future endeavors.

      Best,
      Suds.

  6. SUDHIR says:

    Hello Sir,

    I have worked with a good technology services company for more than 2 years after graduating from a reputed engineering institute. I left the company just to focus on my MBA dream and prepare for CAT. However I messed up with my CAT and couldn’t score as expected.Now I have started worrying about my future . How should i handle the situation from now? Should I try again next year for CAT ? Should I take up a job and prepare for cat again? Should I altogether forget MBA?

    • Suds says:

      Sudhir,

      Thanks for your note and your question. I’m noticing this trend of taking off from work and preparing for competitive exams more and more among applicants. In general, it’s not a great way to showcase one’s multitasking skills. And of course, the issue will exacerbate if the exam outcome isn’t as expected. I suggest you start working as soon as you can – with the prior company or a new one. And the next time you give CAT etc., please don’t quit your job, but try and persist with it while you tackle the preparation. That’s a much better way to demonstrate your ability and commitment. Good luck with your endeavors.

      Best,
      Suds.

  7. Jack says:

    Hi Suds, I am currently contemplating a career break to travel around the world for a year with my girlfriend of whom I have been in a long distance relationship with for the past 3 years. After the trip I plan on looking into applying for MBA programs.

    My background is working in Corporate Finance for a major oil & gas company for the past 3 years, I have a very strong GPA from a good undergrad school and have completed levels 1 and 2 of the CFA and come June I hope to have completed level 3. While I travel I plan on picking up some freelance work and pursuing some volunteer opportunities, but for the most part it will be full time travel.

    I am very worried about how this career break will be perceived in the application process for an MBA, I would really appreciate some professional tips, advice or insight?

    • Suds says:

      Jack,

      Thanks for your note and the question. How the gap will be considered by the admissions committee depends on how you explain the gap in the application. Of course, you need to be truthful and that’s the bottom line – but be more articulate about how the trip has helped you evolve your personality, what sort of activities have you got involved in during your travels, etc. That is a lot more interesting than simply saying that you traveled the world. Good luck with your travels and enjoy reconnecting with your girl friend.

      Best,
      Suds.

  8. Prerna says:

    Hello sir,
    I have 3 years of gap after my graduation(BBA). This year finally i am going to take admission. Will i get a job after mba? Will the gap affect my career?

    • Suds says:

      Hi Prerna,

      As mentioned above, it depends on how you explain the gap – any exigencies due to which the gap was as long as it is would be helpful when the admissions committee evaluates your application. Once you get into business school, do as well as you can possibly manage on the academic front so that any questions on your pre-MBA life become moot point when you are interviewing with companies. Hope that helps.

      Best,
      Suds.

  9. danny says:

    Hello Sir,
    I am a student currently pursuing a B.E degree in computer engineering from Mumbai University , I took a gap of a year to get into an engineering college, I got into one and now after two years my performance has been poor I was held back a year to clear my failed subjects , now if I do continue engineering and manage to meet the eligibility criteria of a renowned college for an MBA degree
    1.Will my gap years be a roadblock to get into the course?
    2.Will I be rejected on terms of my poor performance in undergraduate degrees
    AND
    If yes should i quit engineering and take up a new undergraduate course altogether , start again ,perform better and pursue MBA?

    • Suds says:

      Danny,

      Thanks for your questions. There are no easy answers here. It seems to me you’re pursuing engineering without necessarily being keen on it. I think it’s imperative that you really introspect and make sure you launch yourself into a stream you truly are interested in. That’s half the battle won when it comes to academic performance. Once you start pursuing things you care about, the sagging academic performance will also improve. By worrying about the MBA at this point, you’re putting the cart before the horse. I’d rather you figure out answers to the more immediate questions you’re facing and once those are sorted, you can think about next steps – MBA or otherwise. Hope that helps.

      Best,
      Suds.

  10. Srinivas says:

    Hi sir
    My name is srinivas and i am 2013 engineering passout. After that i gave competitive xms till 2015. I ve done 1 year apprentice training from 2015-2016 (doesnt count as work experience). Post that i been giving competitive exams and it didnt worked. I am 27 years old no job experience and less grades. I have 1 year gap after school too.
    Is going for an mba a blind ambition

    • Suds says:

      Srinivas,

      Thanks for your question. While I have no silver bullet, I do think you have a lot of self-reflection to do in terms of what you want to do and how you want to go about it. Understand out what you’re truly passionate about and pursue that rather than thinking about an MBA. Once you get things started, I’m sure everything will fall into place and will give you a new perspective. A few years down the lane, maybe you won’t even need to worry or think about the MBA since you will have been independently successful.

      Good luck with your future endeavors!

      Best,
      Suds.

  11. asmita says:

    sir, i completed my B.tech in 2014 and after that started preparing for govt. exams but didn’t succeeded .So now i want to do Msc in management from europe …. i am confused that do i have a chance of getting into a b school there because i have no experience and 3 years gap.

    • Suds says:

      Hi Asmita,

      Thanks for your note and the question. Why don’t you take up a job before thinking about further studies? That’ll prepare you to better understand the curriculum in school, and it’ll demonstrate to the school that you’re a compelling candidate due to your excellent job performance. Work for at least three years and try to make the gap irrelevant to the extent possible through ongoing extracurricular activities, good recommendations, etc. Hope that helps.

      Good luck!

      Best,
      Suds.

  12. Vikash says:

    Hello Sudarshan,
    I did my graduation in 2014 but had some backlogs and left it. But now in 2017 I gave that exam and cleared my graduation. And now looking for mba in usa. Am I eligible for this? I’ve 4 years gap in total.

    • Suds says:

      Vikash,

      Thanks for your question. It’s not about being eligible for MBA or not. Candidates with eclectic backgrounds get into business schools and do spectacularly well. It’s about what you’re doing and how you’re portraying it – what have you done in the intervening time and can you articulate it in a compelling manner? Think about those critical questions and then revisit the MBA idea once you have solid work experience (maybe you already do in this four-year gap?) Whatever your next steps, wish you good luck in your endeavors.

      Best,
      Suds.

  13. Abhishek Gupta says:

    Hello Sir, My name is Abhishek i have done my Civil Engineering Undergrad in 2015. But after 7th sem i met with an major accident ( Head injury- almost i was dead at that moment, was on ventilator for around 8-10 days). So after that my whole year was spoiled. My doctor advised me to not take up a job for atleast 1 year since it will be very dangerous for me to work in hot Climate and dust. Then I planned to give CAT 2016 but my scores were very low. So right now i have no relevant Work experience and I am preparing for CAT 2017. So Would i be able to justify my case before the admission authority in the interview?

    Please answer..

  14. Suds says:

    Hi Abhishek,

    Thank you for sharing your background. First and foremost, you’re a fighter. To come out successfully from such a traumatic experience is in itself a commendable achievement irrespective of who thinks what. Keep up the same spirit and move forward with your plans – success in your mind and intent in your actions. If someone has an issue with your situation, it’s their frailty and not yours. All the very best!

    Suds.

    • Abhishek Gupta says:

      Thank You so much for such appreciation but its not worth justifying 3 years before them i think so. This thought giving halt to my preparation. Should i do some online training or any other course. If you think so then please suggest something. Thank You!!

      Abhishek.

      • Suds says:

        Abhishek,

        You could take up whatever courses/training you think would be most helpful in plugging the gap to some extent, but you should first develop confidence in your own abilities and communication skills. You will have to interact with people in group discussions, interviews, etc. and put your best foot forward. So it’s imperative you focus on improving your self confidence. Hope it all falls in place for your CAT plans.

        Best,
        Suds.

  15. Rohini says:

    Hello sir . I have done btech in biotech and then could get a proper job so took a gap of 2 yrs and prepared for mtech and then got a job in an IT company ever since then I have been working in the IT company for the past 3 yrs and now I am really bored of this IT job and want to go for executive mba so am I eligible ??if yes can I go for executive mba in -hr . What are the good colleges in India and can I sit for placements after completing the course??

    • Suds says:

      Hi Rohini,

      Thanks for your note and your query. In my view, Executive MBA is more for candidates who have a lot of corporate experience and want to use the MBA as an opportunity to become the leader of the business unit or the company in which they work – and usually they don’t switch the field they’re in. I’d say it’s a bit too early for you to contemplate a E-MBA. Moreover, you’re looking to move into a completely different path, namely HR, which makes you a career switcher. If you’re set on your plans, I suggest you look for a traditional MBA that has an internship built into it. Use the internship to get experience in HR and from there, branch out.

      Hope that helps. Good luck with your endeavors.

      Best,
      Suds.

  16. Meghna says:

    Hello sir,
    I completed btech in electrical engineering from a government college in 2016,as our college was new so no companies came for campus placement, I have been preparing for government jobs for last 1 year, but am unable to get any. I want to do mba, but thought job experience was necessary, now while searching for jobs there will be a 2 year gap in my career, to tackle that I am planning to take a French language course along with a coaching to prepare for Gmat and Cat. Will this gap affect my prospects of getting a good college or placements after that. If yes, then please suggest, what more can I do before giving the exam in 2018 to amend the situation?

  17. Suds says:

    Hi Meghna,

    Thanks for your note and question. Making the most of the MBA, according to me, is best accomplished with adequate work experience – whatever field of human endeavor it may be. GMAT preparation isn’t a valid reason to be not working, and as a matter of fact reflects poorly on the applicant’s ability to multi-task. While I’m sympathetic to your situation, have you considered pursuing a fellowship in Teach For India, which is a very rigorous process in itself? That unique exposure will develop excellent leadership skills that will stand you in good stead at the time of applying for the MBA. In case TFI isn’t workable, pick another non-profit of your choice (or if you get the job you’re looking for, that’s fine as well), but the idea is to do something that you can proudly showcase when presenting yourself to any admissions committee. Pursuing a French language course or test preparation instead may end up being the proverbial albatross.

    Hope that helps. Good luck with your future endeavors.

    Best,
    Suds.

  18. Nishant says:

    I did graduation in 2006 after that I joined an MBA institute in 2010 there was 4 years gap from 2006 to 2010 in 3rd semester of MBA I got compartment back in one subject then for some reason I could not give that exam by now. Now in 2017 I want to give this exam in which I got compartment in 2011. What is the career scope for me. What I will tell to my MBA institute about the gap. And what can be my excuse what will I tell them so that I appear in the exam. Can you tell me. And what can be my excuse when I face a job interview. Please tell me I have not worked anywhere by now. I am a fresher . I am 33. Please tell me

  19. Yadu says:

    Hi Sudarshan

    Thank you for the detailed article. I have a question on similar lines. I have ~8 years of experience in IT industry with ~2 years of international exposure. I am planning to do 1 year mba program starting in fall 2018 or spring 2019. Due to medical situation I have to leave my job now and take care of my family. I plan to use this time to do volunteer work for non-profit as well as freelance consulting and some additional courses.

    Do you think this break will affect my application adversely ?

    • Suds says:

      Yadu,

      Thanks for your note and the query. While I hope the medical situation resolves at your end, it’s commendable that you’re already thinking about using this break in the job as an opportunity to do some volunteer work. This effort will not go in vain – you just need to be comfortable in your skin to explain the situation to the Admissions Committee – whether through essays or during the interview process. It’s all about how you articulate it.

      Good luck with next steps!

      Best,
      Suds.

  20. Sophia says:

    I have been working since last five years in same organisation. Prior to that i have worked for a year in different organisation. Due to sensitive pregnancy, i have to be on bed rest for almost 6 months or more. Please let me know if this break would affect the scholarship/application acceptance.

    • Suds says:

      Hi Sophia,

      Thanks for sharing your situation on this forum. Since this is a personal medical situation, you should feel free to articulate the issue you’ve faced and describe the fact that you’ve handled everything with aplomb. That’s more ammunition for you as you make your case in front of any Admissions Committee.

      Hope that helps.

      Best,
      Suds.

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