The next-best thing to taking a gap year? Realizing why you should take one after finishing college.
By Gwynn Lyons, Stanford University
After graduating high school and before starting college, many thoughts inundated my mind: Would I make friends? What would I study? What kind of person would I become?
But one thought, I now realize, was conspicuously absent: Should I take a year off?
Though taking a gap year didn’t present itself to me as an option at the time, it is something that I now wish I had more seriously considered before coming to college.
Why I Didn’t Take a Gap Year
The main reason I didn’t consider taking a gap year was simply lack of exposure: I knew very few people who had taken a year off before college, and none who had taken a gap year and felt that it was worthwhile.
I don’t recall my high school advertising any programs; my alma mater took pride in sending a high fraction of its graduates directly to college, and for this reason, perhaps, didn’t encourage people to delay matriculating.
Even if gap year programs had been advertised, I don’t think I would have looked into them, because I believed at the time that time off was wasted time. Traveling the world, working odd jobs, spending time busking or writing: All these activities seemed unworthy of my time when there were great books to read and theories to learn about.
I did not want to see my peers moving forward while I stood still, to occupy a frustrating liminal space where I was no longer a high schooler and not yet a college student, to delay the onset of the greatest four years of my life. I could not bear to stall my storyline.
Even if gap years had been well advertised and I had been interested, I think I would have faltered when actually attempting to plan out what I would do during the year off. A year of unstructured time seemed like a lot when the largest amount of time off I had ever had was three month-long summer breaks. I didn’t have the foresight to know what I would have wanted to gain from the gap year; my lack of direction would have paralyzed me.
Benefits of a Gap Year
If I had done some research about gap years at the end of high school, I probably would have found out what I know now: That, if spent the right way, they can be just as valuable as a year of school.
Time off allows people to reflect deeply about who they are, what they want from life and what steps they can take to realize those goals. More concretely, it allows them to work out important details of their college life, such as their major, so that they don’t waste time going in the wrong direction and racking up tuition bills. In my experience, people who have taken gap years are more grounded coming into college, and therefore more able to take advantage of their college years.
Another benefit of taking a gap year is diffusing burnout from high school. Gap years allow students to come to college fresh, ready to commit to their academics. In the intervening time between high school and college, students can determine what they’re really interested in: What they think about when assignments and tests and papers aren’t hanging over their heads. The break can be especially beneficial for students committed to school for the long run, such as pre-meds.
Beyond that benefit, a year off frankly can be a lot more fun than a year at school. Students have the unique opportunity to do whatever they want (within reason) at a time where they are accountable only to themselves.
One of my friends went to Spain for a few months for a homestay. Someone else I know stayed home and spent his time off singing in a local choir. If you have the option to postpone the stress of college when you are at the prime of your physical and psychological health, why not?
Finally, gap years give students exposure to the world beyond college. Students who travel or work on their own during their gap year get a sneak peek at some of the challenges and perks of adulthood, such as making new friends, navigating public transportation and designing their daily schedule. When they return to school, they know what awaits them after graduation, so they can better appreciate what school has to offer them.
A Fresh Resolve: Gap Years Post-Grad
Though I would have been a perfect candidate for a gap year, having arrived at college chronically undecided about what I wanted to do during and after the four years of school, I don’t regret my decision to start right away.
In part, that’s because I believe that regret is destructive. Beating yourself up about decisions you made without complete knowledge, and whose effects you could not have anticipated, means holding yourself up to an impossible, unrealistic standard. Even if that decision is as seemingly trivial as taking a gap year, it’s pointless to wish that the past had been different.
But I also believe that the rationale behind taking time off can apply to my life even after I have graduated. This rationale recognizes that time off is not wasted time, and that it can in fact be even more “productive”—in the sense of being restorative, stimulating and motivating—than work or school.
In its valorization of leisure, the gap year rationale combats social pressures that urge individuals to work continuously and intensely at the expense of their peace of mind.
Armed with this insight about allowing oneself time off, I have a fresh resolve about my post-grad life. I plan to work within the constraints of 40-hour weeks to make sure that I get some time off, even if it is a spare fifteen minutes here and there. Maybe I’ll take a walk everyday during lunch, or call my family during breaks. And maybe, between jobs, I’ll give myself a three-month hiatus to explore the world.
Even if large-scale breaks aren’t economically feasible, there are still small ways to embrace the spirit of the gap year after graduating. Time off might not be classified as a gap year after college, but both share the same ethos: That all time is valuable, however it is spent, and that every experience plots an evolving storyline.