Spring break is just around the corner, but college is on the horizon: admission offers are rolling in and you’re weighing your options. You’ve gone through all this effort to apply to all those colleges, and you want to make sure you accept the right one. But what if you’re getting cold feet? What if college doesn’t seem like the right thing for you, right now? What other options do you really have?
Let me introduce you to the lovely gap year option. A gap year, also known as an interim year, a year off, a year abroad, or a student sabbatical, is an amount of time dedicated to self-exploration outside a formal academic setting, most often taken by students transitioning from high school to university or from undergraduate to graduate education. Students involve themselves in any sort of combination of work, internships, study, research, service work or travel abroad. The gap year option is an incredible way for students to grow in largely non-academic environments. So no, it’s not an extended vacation – it’s an unusual opportunity to better define who you are and what you want out of life.
I am a huge supporter of this alternative education option. Taking a gap year before my undergraduate education was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I’ve seen how temporarily breaking out of our formal education system has led many other young adults like me to incredible experiences that inspire intellectual, spiritual, and personal growth. (See our Adventures of Gap Year Hooligans series for more stories!)
Why take a gap year? Let me convince you.
1. You’re incredibly burned-out, and you need a break from school.
You’ve worked insanely hard throughout high school, taking honors courses, juggling a million extracurricular activities, surviving the roller coaster ride of teenage hormones. You don’t know if you can jump right back in to school with tougher classes, new roommates, a new environment, and a whole bunch of other things thrown at you. You’re not done with school for good, you just need a good break. This is another four years of school we’re talking about, and college is often much harder than high school. Your college experience could start out as a hot mess if you’re not ready for that. With a gap year, you could blow off some steam and unwind. You deserve it after all your hard work! And if you’ve been accepted to your favorite college, you can ask to defer your enrollment for a year, which means the college will save your acceptance spot in the next class of students and you’ll simply postpone your matriculation. Yes, you can have your cake and eat it, too!
2. You want time to do the things that you didn’t have time for in high school.
Maybe you just told yourself you didn’t have enough time, because you got so tied up in school work or helping family. A gap year could be the best gift you give yourself: a whole year of “me” time. You don’t have to regret not getting a job during high school, or not learning guitar, or never taking a backpacking trip to Yosemite with your dad. Many students take gap years to travel the world, doing community service projects in foreign countries or learning foreign languages in cultural immersion programs. Low on money? There’s plenty of exciting and productive things you can do close to home. Give back to your community by volunteering at your old high school or local soup kitchen. Get more involved in your youth group. Teach yourself a programming language. Build and grow a garden in your back yard. There are many, many ways to grow as an individual outside of the classroom. Whether you stay at home or travel abroad, take your life in your own hands and do the things that matter most to you.
3. You want to gain real-life work experience before college and save up some money before you start breaking the bank with college debt.
Not everyone splurges on a trip around the world on their gap year. I stayed at home and worked an internship with an educational nonprofit Summer Search. I started a college fund for myself from the money I earned nannying and waitressing. I started my own academic coaching business Study Monsters that later inspired me to double major in Mathematics and Computer Science. You can take the gap year option as an opportunity to explore careers or fields of study that you may be interested in later down the road. If you can’t find an internship, shadow a professional in the workplace or conduct informational interviews.
4. You didn’t get accepted to any of the colleges you really wanted, or you have no idea what you want to study in college and you’re neck-deep in freak-out mode.
Taking a gap year gives you time to reapply to other schools, and gain experience that could improve your college application profile. You shouldn’t go to a reach school if you don’t really want to go because A) college is expensive and B) college is about what you want and you don’t want this. If you’re worried about your studies, take a deep breath and read this article by Grant Roth. If you’re still worried about your studies, try taking some classes at a local junior college (a cheaper alternative for exploring many fields of study). You shouldn’t feel pressured to go to a 4-year college right away. College can be very expensive – it’s important to know which field you’d like to study as soon as possible.
5. You’re not sure that college is even the right scene for you.
It’s just what everyone else is doing, or what your parents expect of you. College is one of the most selfish decisions you’ll ever make in your entire life, and it should be. Your twenties are about discovering who you are, and if college isn’t who you are, you shouldn’t be ashamed.
I had a friend in high school who dropped out of UCSC after his freshman year because he wanted to pursue music. As a son of two high school teachers, it was hard for him to make that decision. Two years later, he’s not incredibly famous or wealthy from this decision but he’s incredibly happier outside of school. He works at a coffee shop, plays gigs at night, and takes a few culinary classes at the local junior college. He takes life day by day and he makes it work. That’s not the kind of life that works for everyone, but if you’re going to college for the wrong reasons – to live up to your parents expectations, to be close to your friends or boyfriend, to run away from home, to party your butt off every night of the week – taking a gap year could help you figure out if college is the right path for you.
In the end, a gap year is about taking the time to figure out what you really want in life. We’re not even 20 years old yet – we have all the time in the world. Our twenties should involve pursuing an education, but that education doesn’t always come from inside a classroom and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Take baking classes. Become an assistant basketball coach. Find an internship to explore a potential career path. The world is your oyster.