If I could do it over, I would have taken a gap year between high school and college. I fantasized about my gap year during the last few months of high school. I would spend six months abroad, at least. I wanted to work on my Spanish and maybe also study a new language. Then I thought about maybe interning for an NGO in DC. I had always been curious about international relations. Oh, and I fantasized about sleep. Lots of sleep. High school was exhausting.
I floated the idea briefly by my parents, and I could tell they didn’t think it was a good idea to take any time off. For better or worse, I entered Harvard in the fall along with the rest of my class. I made things work for me. Freshmen fall was a little tough – I think it is for many students – but I made it through and had a great four years. Yet when I think back to the students I met who did take the year off, I realize how lucky they were. They started school with some huge advantages, and they knew it too. Every single student I knew in who took a gap year said it was one of the best things they had ever done in their lives, and here were some of their reasons:
1) Catch up on sleep
Most American high schools start ridiculously early. Even under the best circumstances, you probably aren’t getting enough sleep. It also doesn’t help that when you are trying to get into college, you are likely taking a course load packed with honors and AP courses, pursuing extracurricular activities, all while studying for the next standardized test.
When I was in high school, I averaged 5-6 hours of sleep per night. I came home from school around 4:30 p.m., studied often until 1am, and then woke up at 6 a.m.. I was exhausted to a point I (thankfully) have never again achieved. Sitting through class every single day I would literally need to hit my face repeatedly to stay awake and pay attention. When you live like this for several years you need more than a week to bounce back. I felt like I needed more than a summer.
College isn’t usually as bad as high school in terms of sleep deprivation. You usually get to choose your own classes, and even if you have a mandatory morning section, it usually won’t start until 9 a.m., or at worst, 8:30 a.m.. However, there is still a lot of pressure to do a lot of things at once. You have classes to juggle, your extracurricular activities, and all of the social options around you. Walking into college already with a sleep debt means your unlikely to catch up on your sleep. And when you are sleep-deprived, you likely won’t learn as well, feel as motivated, and enjoy your once-in-lifetime freshman year as much.
My friends who took a gap year arrived at school well rested and energized ready to take on the opportunities that came their way. Plus, they had gained an appreciation for sleep that made them manage their time more responsibly.
2) Find a passion
Taking time off will likely be the first time in your life your time is completely unstructured for a long period of time. Without having the commitment to complete coursework you can devote yourself fully to things that you may have seen in the past to be “extracurricular activities.” Over the course of the year, you could theoretically travel, write a blog, master a language, get an internship, and work a job. Or, you could learn a musical instrument, form a band, become a community activist, and start a small business.
A year is a lot of time, enough to give you the opportunity to try things out you have never tried or never pursued wholeheartedly to see what you really are passionate about. This is one of the rare opportunities in life where you can do this. There are very few risks for experimenting and trying new things. You won’t get a grade, nothing goes on a transcript, and no matter what happens during your year off, you will have a school to enter in the fall.
3) Gain an edge
When you get to college, you’ll find out there are many opportunities to take advantage of. A lot of these opportunities will be competitive. There are only so many spots in the singing group, so many positions in your professor’s labs, and so many summer fellowships to learn Portuguese in Brazil. If you had a year to gain more experience related to any of your interests, your odds of being chosen for these selective activities increases.
Upon receiving a summer grant to teach students in Peru, a friend who took a gap year said, “I just wrote an essay in my application talking about the systemic problems I observed in the Peruvian government during my three-month backpacking trip.” The average college freshman wouldn’t have these experiences.
4) Enter college engaged and with a plan
Probably the number one thing I heard from my friends that took a gap year was that when they arrived at college, they were really ready for it. They had a year to think about why they were going and what they were hoping to get out of it. They did not just sign up for random classes their first year and join every activity in front of them, but they came in with a plan. Even if the plan was that they wanted to get a well-rounded education before choosing a field to specialize in, they came in with a strategy on how they were going to do that. Many students (including myself) come in thinking. “I’m here. Everything is awesome. I guess I’ll just pick whatever, and I’ll figure out what my educational strategy is by next semester.” Then we fumble through our first semester or even whole first year until we figure out how to do things better after that. If you come into college fully engaged and with a plan, you’ll make better use of your short four years of college.
You can take off a gap year at other times besides between high school and your first year of college. I did know some students who took time off during college, but it is harder. The biggest disadvantage to taking time off while you are in school means not graduating with your class, which can be socially disruptive. However, for some students, this can make sense despite the sacrifice. I had one friend who had no idea what she wanted to major in, and she wanted to gain more real world experience before just charging ahead with one. She got two internships in both fields, each 6-months long, and she made her decision before coming back to school. It worked out great for her, but even she said it would have been more ideal to do something similar before starting college.
If you are about to finish high school and are contemplating a gap year, I’d advise you to strongly consider taking advantage of the opportunity now. You don’t know if it will come again. It may end up seeming too hard to do during college. And you’ll think, “I’ll do it the year after.” And then the year after college will come, and your friends will say, “If you take a year off, it will look like you couldn’t get a job and then nobody will hire you.” So you take a job, and then you realize, “I have a job so there is no way I can take a gap year!”
These kinds of decisions can be tough, but there will never be a perfect time. If you feel strongly about taking some time off, there are few better times in life than right before starting college.