Why You Should Take A Gap Year Before University
Let’s be honest – who takes a year off right after high school? While there is significant peer pressure, parental pressure and school pressure to go right on to college, the adventurous few who take a gap year before university are richly rewarded. In the US there remains the misguided notion that you must go directly from high school to college. Everything funnels you into that endeavor: parents, teachers, peers, even finances. Highly competitive college entrance exams begin the painstaking process of college applications and lead to the tense months of waiting to be picked by your top choice university. A quick summer break and you’re back in the educational grind.
College starts at a time when most of us haven’t had enough life experience away from our parents and friends to know who we are or what we might want do with the rest of our lives. How could we! Yet we’re expected to begin college with a chosen major and lifetime career aspirations. Those in charge constantly ask “What’s your major?”, followed by the worst question, “What do you want to do?” So many of us lie to ourselves and others, planning for life in a world we don’t know much about yet. In the US, you are considered unusual and even dangerously misguided if you don’t continue your education immediately after high school.
Freshman year at a US university is designed to ease the transition into adulthood through orientations, Greek initiations and classes that will supposedly tell you what you should pursue for the rest of your life. As someone who struggled with picking a major until my senior year, I can tell you that none of those things worked for me. Who was I? What did I want to do? No idea. I never had the time to find out. The hamster wheel of studying, working and strategic volunteering continued through graduation from college. 16 years!
I took my first gap year working at a ski resort when I was 25, after working in a professional career. Leaving the career ladder was incredibly difficult, but I knew I needed some time to think about who I was. Colleagues, family and peers questioned my sanity. As I gave notice, my resolve was tested. Peppered with questions of how, why, you can’t, what will you do if… I did’t have all the answers but believed I would somehow find them on my journey. That year I met people from all over the world, allowed my dreams to flourish and, most importantly, had time to discover my true self.
Later, I backpacked around the world and met 18 year olds from the UK, Australia and New Zealand who were volunteering, working or traveling abroad. What bravery! So much more aware than I was at that age. Now, though more American teenagers travel abroad than ever before, it’s still unusual for them to take that precious year after high school off, away from what and who they know. I hope to see that change. Change happens slowly – take a year – enough time to gain useful knowledge about yourself and the world. A month or few weeks over the summer aren’t enough time for you to truly confront yourself and gain perspective. More and more US colleges, particularly the Ivies and smaller liberal arts colleges believe it too. A gap year experience demonstrates maturity and perspective. Ask your dream college to hold your admission spot and scholarship and leap!
Center for Interim Programs – US-based counseling service for those thinking about a gap year experience (for students and also those in all stages of life)
Planet Gap Year – great FAQ about a gap year and geared toward US students with a gap year program directory
NACC – nice site for explaining the gap year, why, how and links to directories for US students
Gap Year Fairs – look for one in your city bringing you information from reputable Gap Year organizations, interested students and parents, high school college counselors and Gap Year experts
Gap year.com – social network and travel advice website committed to providing you with everything you need to know about taking a gap year – geared more toward non-Americans but gives you another perspective and is open to all.
First Abroad.com – geared to Americans who want to take a gap year – volunteering, working, traveling or a combination, for lengths of 2 weeks to 2 years.
Gap Year Directory – geared toward UK citizens from the country where the gap year idea started (in the UK after WWII), this site has the most comprehensive listing of opportunities worldwide.
Good luck and don’t let peer, family or fear pressure you into doing what everyone else does!
Comments, questions? – now it’s your turn