I remember my junior year, sitting in the carry out office of the Chinese restaurant where I worked after a long day at school. I still had to read and take diligent notes on fifteen pages of AP US History, compose a draft for an English essay and study notes for upcoming bio and French tests. I remember staring at the Point-of-Sale screen, realizing I wouldn’t be able to start on any of that for another three hours. Exhaustion washed over me. By now, my love for learning had completely evaporated. I knew I needed to find that love again. I needed a year off. It was in that moment that I had decided that there was no way I wasn’t going to take a sabbatical before going to college.
Having gone to a college-prep high school, there was little to no discussion of the possibility of gap years from the school administration. The flood of questions senior year from friends and family were always, “Where are you going?” Rarely did they ask, “What are you doing after high school?” Admittedly, it felt a bit weird at times being one of the only people in my grade who wasn’t going straight to college. Gap years always required more of an explanation than simply the name of the college you were going to, and since I wasn’t enrolled in an official program, I felt like I had to map out exactly what I was planning on doing with each day for fear of sounding like I was just taking a year “off.”
The moment I was accepted into American University, I drafted an email to the Director of Admissions, begging for deferment. All doubts about taking a gap year had completely vanished. In my letter, I mapped out how I had planned to spend my gap year, including prospective projects and travel and work opportunities. I made it clear that this year would be a time of enormous, self-imposed growth.
My gap year officially started in August, after a long summer of independent travel. I kept my job at the Chinese restaurant and picked up a second one at a clothing store down the street. During my free time, I undertook independent studies of linguistics, feminism and environmentalism. I interned at a greenhouse and volunteered at an ESL Conversation Club. I gorged on books like candy, stopping in the library looking for one book and leaving with five. I traveled with friends when they were home on breaks, and topped off my year with a three-month internship in Iceland.
For the first time, I got to pursue what I wanted without the heavy weight of college acceptance and test scores always in my peripheral. I was passionate before, but the passion I held now to work and study was unrestrained by competition with other classmates, and the addiction to validation from a letter grade. I had glorious autonomy over my days that I hadn’t experienced since... ever.
Growing numbers of youth across America make the decision every year to defer enrollment to four-year universities and instead enroll in a gap year: a self-motivated year in which students embark on personal exploration of their passions; working, traveling and studying independently for the first time in their lives, without the pressure of grades and peer competition. The American Gap Association cites research by economists Elisa Birch and Paul Miller finding that, “Gap Year students are perceived to be ‘more mature, more self-reliant and more independent’ than Non-Gap Year students.” In a study of 900 students, Sydney University found that gap experiences led students to have stronger scores their first semesters at university. What’s more, students who take gap years have a firmer grasp on what career path they’d like to go down and report higher rates of job satisfaction later in life, as reported by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson in a private study of nearly 300 gap year students.
If I had gone to college right after high school, it would have still been about the grades. It would have been about going through the standard motions, getting through the familiar system. My gap year gave me a sense of clarity that I would otherwise not have grasped. And I still learned so much, despite not having four walls and a whiteboard in front of me. I set reading goals so I didn’t veer off track, and it surprised me how much more information I could absorb from a book when there wasn’t so much pressure to read it. I truly feel like I had learned more in a year on gap than at any point during my high school career (Granted, my experiences in high school were necessary to set me up for a successful year).
My gap year gave me the opportunity to think long and hard about what kind of impact I wanted to have on this planet. What did I want to do for this world, and how did I want to do it? I’ve always had ideas, but my gap year was the time when the floodgates really opened and my creativity became productive, and my vivid daydreams became my daily schedule. I realized that I didn’t want to jump straight away into getting my degree, because I wanted to change the world before and while I was getting my degree.
A note on privilege: There is enormous privilege in gap years. Demographically, gap year students are largely white and come from families of higher income. Most gap year programs carry exorbitant costs, and despite myriad scholarships, many students are still locked out from such opportunities. There is a lot more work to be done to make gap year programs more accessible and inclusive to students of all backgrounds.
If you think I missed the mark on some areas in this piece, please send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lead image credit: Miranda Dotson