The first thing handed to students as they approach their final year of high school is an SAT study guide, followed by the US News Rankings, lists of scholarship deadlines, and registration instructions for the common application. This is wonderful for many reasons. The United States is home to amazing research institutions and progressive academic minds. Students should want to be a part of this system; college allows an incubation and exploration period for excited young minds.
Yet, this systematic way of schooling may overlook the true needs of some students. The promise made between guardians and universities is that this investment will produce the happiest, most successful version of their child – and so it may. But is there another opportunity for students to learn how to be creative, to challenge themselves, and to be confident outside in their ideas?
This question welcomes a great deal of skepticism, which is why it is not often asked or even explored. What does an 18 year old know about the real world? How could they navigate without a degree to fall back on? If they don’t go to college right out of high school, will they never attend? Won’t they be lonely and bored?
What should be asked is how taking a gap year before entering college will help students. For some, college is on their to-do list, but there is little excitement about enrolling right after graduating high school. Would being allowed to construct their own time outside of the classroom make their footing stronger when entering school? May it even encourage more independent growth and allow for more confidence in making choices?
In the winter of 2010, I was beginning my final semester of high school. I earned very good grades and tested well, though I did not like the act of attending school. I would take any chance to be absent and could not wait until the end of high school. As my acceptance letters rolled in for college, I found myself thoroughly unexcited about the whole process. I loved being a student and I was more than ready to be in the college atmosphere, but I wanted time to explore the world on my own terms.
I started researching alternatives. What I found were a few books written for American students wanting to take a gap year, and lots of European students excited to begin theirs. I did not find a bunch of hazy teenagers or excuses to avoid college, but a vast array of exciting people and possibilities. I decided to pitch the idea to my family, who seemed a bit put off about the idea of not attending college right away.
When I learned about my school’s policy of deferment (which is quite common), I found that I reached a medium. I would essentially be promising to enter college the following year, but would be allowed to have a break before I began. The next few months were not as high energy and life-changing as I had anticipated. I felt doubtful, overwhelmed by choice, and even became a bit depressed.
What was I doing?
After reading dozens of positive stories about taking a gap year, I came across one very disappointed tale. This young man concluded his experience by warning, if you do not have a plan, you will not have a good time. You will most likely be bored and frustrated.
It seemed like the simplest solution. I found that I had been running around, unsure of what I wanted to do, and the days were slipping away. I thought an amazing experience would just present itself. I found myself feeling out of control because the external structure I was use to was slipping away and all my choices seemed identical.
How did I overcome it? I was honest with myself.
I asked myself what I really wanted out of this time, what did I want to accomplish, what did I want to see, what did I want to learn. I’ve always loved hiking, so that’s where my first stop would be. I researched different programs, and by the end of the summer, I was enrolled in an Outward Bound course in Utah. After completing the month long backpacking trip, I was off to Maine through the volunteer organic farming program, WWOOF. I worked as an intern on a farm for almost two months.
Both of these experiences were very rewarding, fun, and showed me a lot about my abilities. When I came home for the winter, I felt myself at a standstill. I became a bit frustrated that I was unsure how to spend the rest of the time and the feelings of being overwhelmed returned. After a few weeks of wallowing, I talked myself into rediscovering why I had made this choice. I wanted to manage my own time, why had I stopped?
I decided that maybe I wanted to travel, or at least save some money for school. So, I got a job. I started working in a coffee shop on my days in between being a nanny. I became okay with being at home and understood the benefits of taking time to work. Not only would I have my own money, but I was meeting a lot of interesting people and becoming more independent.
My summer before starting school, I decided to take a job in upstate New York at a sleep away camp. I was a counselor for a bunk of nine girls. It was a very stressful job, but worth it. It was a chance to work outdoors and make friends with people from around the world. A lot of international students come to America to work at camps.
I did not really take much time to reflect in between camp ending and college starting. It was only until I began school did I see the changes in myself. I really felt in charge. I felt confident and had overcome a great deal of my shyness. Not only was I happier, but I had become a better student. I seemed to have extra hours while my classmates were pulling all nighters. Not only did I end my first semester with a 3.6, but I held an on campus job in addition to volunteering and acting in a play.
I want to avoid romanticizing the entire experience. It was hard. I was lonely some of the time, but it taught me to reach out and find friends where I was. I was tired, unsure, and overworked at points, but I learned how to take care of my body better. What got me through this was not just checking off my goals, but meeting so many amazing people along the way. I found guidance in unexpected places and became okay with my own uncertainty.
I was reminded that your whole life should feel like time off. If you do not feel happy, change something. It may be a career, school, relationship, or even just an attitude. It is not an easy move to make, but it will not be something you regret. You must answer to yourself. Why commit to a place in life that you are not passionate about being in? When you align your actions with how you truly feel, the things you want in life will come to you.
While I entirely recommend taking a gap year, it is from my own experience that I do so. Only do it if that is what feels right to you. Know that it is a possibility, because many students in America are not even introduced to the idea. Do not avoid it because you are afraid; choose not to because you have better plans.
If you do decide it is what is best for you, here are some useful tips:
–If you do eventually want to go to college, look into deferment policies at the schools you are interested in.
–Most programs advertised for gap year students are costly. Either start saving up if you want to participate in one or try to find an alternative.
–Do not overlook getting a job, paid or volunteer. If your goal is to travel, try finding work in or around where you want to visit.
–There is nothing wrong with spending time at home. You do not need to travel to exotic locations to learn something about yourself. From spending time in recluse painting to interning at a newspaper- I’m sure you can find something that interests you in your area.
–Phone calls with people are much more effective in getting information than e-mail. You can tell a lot about a person over the phone that just doesn’t come across on the internet.
–Doubt is a form of self-evaluation; don’t let it make you feel powerless.