I attended college at an elite northeastern university and as I mentioned in my first post, the culture was completely different in New England than it is in the rural south. Sometimes the differences are major (like the political and sartorial differences I talked about in my earlier post) but sometimes the differences are much more nuanced. By the time I reached my junior year of college I knew that I wanted to take a year or two off before I made any major decisions about graduate school. I always assumed that I would get a graduate degree, but as I came to the end of my college career I found myself torn between getting a PhD in my undergraduate major and going to law school as I had always assumed that I would. There was also the third option of getting a joint JD/PhD, but that is a beast of another nature entirely.
When I studied abroad I met quite a few people who took time off before college or between degrees and the more I thought about it the more I liked the idea of taking time off. It would give me a chance to work at a law firm, focus on studying for the LSAT, and it would give me more time to think about and do a good job on my applications. Plus, I wasn't the only person at my school with that plan. In college I primarily hung out with a group of six people. Of those six people, one took two years off before law school to do a fellowship program, one took two years off before law school to work at a tech company in India, one took a year off before medical school to volunteer and roam about the planet, one started a graduate degree, but is taking time off now because she too is having problems with Crohn's Disease, one is working in DC and deciding whether or not she wants to go to law school, I took one year off to work at a law firm and a second year off for medical reasons, and of our entire group only one person went straight into a graduate program in Management after graduating from college.
Based on the people I met studying abroad and my friends from school I felt like I was making a completely normal decision, or at least I did until I came home to the south and started getting weird looks when I told people I was taking some time off to weigh my options. It was a response that I never expected. I know quite a few people in my graduating high school class who took 5 or more years to finish their undergraduate degree and that is considered normal. I finished my standard four year degree on time so I'm not sure why the idea of a gap year seems to throw people so much when there are students my age and older who still haven't finished college, but somehow it does.
That said, the same people who thought it strange for me to take a gap year are the same people who seemed skeptical when I told them I was applying to law school. When I discussed the application process with others I found that I frequently got responses like "I know a lot of people who have applied and got rejected everywhere" and "you must need really good test scores to go to a school like that. What did you say you got again?" My undergraduate school has a really good track record when it comes to getting alums into grad school, but that didn't seem to matter. After a while I got really tired of hearing that kind of discouraging comment about my educational prospects. I knew that I was capable of getting into graduate school (and a good one at that) and I didn't really need that kind of commentary while I was filling out my applications.
I went through the law school application process during the 2009-2010 admissions cycle with the expectation that I would start law school in August 2010. I was accepted at one of my first choice schools (Top 20, baby!) by late February 2010, paid my seat deposit and was prepared to start orientation when I had a lapse in my health and needed major surgery in late July. I thought about trying to start anyway, but abdominal surgery (even when it's done laparoscopically) is no joke. A couple of weeks before orientation I contacted the admissions office at my chosen law school to discuss deferring for a year. The Dean of Admissions was incredibly understanding and told me they would be happy to have me in the class of 2014 instead.
I'm sure you're asking yourself what the point of this post is, and I suppose that the answer is this: if you are a soon to be college graduate and you aren't sure what you want to do with your life you don't have to make a hasty decision and take on an expensive degree before you are sure it's what you want to do. Take some time, think about who you are and what you need to be happy and when you are ready you can make a mature and composed decision that you will be happier with in the end. If you are older and thinking about switching careers, don't let anyone tell you that being a non-traditional student is weird. These days it is becoming more common to take a more meandering path through higher education and there is nothing wrong with that.
Between the stress of college and the physical demands of having Crohn's Disease it was better for me to travel at a more relaxed pace. I was judged for my decision, but I'm okay with that now. I learned a lot about people, life, and the working world during my two years off and I feel that those lessons will be valuable when I start school in August. I have matured a lot in the two years since my college graduation and I think that will give me an advantage in my studies that a new college graduate won't have. Is it traditional? No, but traditional doesn't always mean better anyway.