As a child, you receive constant instructions on what to do from the adults in your life. Where it was okay to go, what to eat, where to play, who to play with. As you get a little older, teachers take on this role, too. This isn’t a bad thing, of course; you were a kid. But now you’ve been told what to do for 17 or 18 years. If your life is anything like mine (which it may not be), it has been structured by other people telling you what to do, and you’re probably pretty used to it.
Oversimplified? Well, probably. Still at least kinda true? I think so.
For me, this was the main reason I didn’t want to go to college right away. Though I really am excited to go to college, I wasn’t ready. I wanted to learn how to structure my own time around my desires and interests, and not out of student-ly obligations. I wanted to define myself outside of my role as a student, and fill my days exactly how I wanted to before settling into another 4+ years in a school system
Now don’t get me wrong: there is infinite knowledge to be gained from others, other people have tons of wisdom to offer, and college is a great thing, but taking time off from school was one of the best calls I’ve ever made.
There are so many reasons to take a break from school. You might be feeling burnt out after high school. Maybe your interests don’t totally match up with a school setting right now. Taking time off to work and save money may be a great idea for you. Maybe you’ve caught a travel bug. Or, maybe you aren’t sure what you want to study in college yet and don’t want to start before you’ve thought about it a bit more.
Maybe you’re hesitant to pursue a gap year as an option. It can be hard to decide what to do with all that time. But the thing is, there are so many options. You can live at home and volunteer somewhere in your community while working part-time. You can do Peace Corps, or Americorps, or work in a national park, or backpack out west, or train puppies, or work at a daycare… You can take a gap year with a program such as Rotary Youth Exchange, or plan the details yourself. Ask around your community, school, relatives, friends…You never know what you may find as a gap year option. The best part is, you can tailor your itinerary (or lack thereof) to what you want, who you are, and what you want to learn.
I decided I wanted the freedom to go where I wanted and to not be tied to the strict schedule of a program, but that isn’t for everyone. I also knew that I wanted to be in nature. A wanted a break from urban Minneapolis, so I decided to use my connection in rural California.
How do you do it?
While I was deciding whether to actually take a gap year, I was also applying to colleges. I ended up simply deferring my enrollment to McGill university; the process was really quite easy. Almost all schools allow you to do this, but make sure to check with the school first. You can also reapply to colleges during your gap year, though this can be a little harder without the support of your high school.
I decided to set my year up in “semesters”, having 2 main projects during the school year time frame. It looked something like this:
September and October: Traveled on the West Coast with a friend from high school, while based out of my uncle’s land in Northern California. Worked on art, read a lot, helped with projects around the land, went hiking.
November: I worked as a cook and laborer on a forestry crew. We were clearing dead brush to reduce the risk of forest fires in the area and cutting down trees in a former pine plantation to restore the forest to its natural state.
After the west coast portion of my year, I came home for a few weeks.
January-April: Going to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to volunteer with a human rights non-profit that works with garment factory workers, sex workers, and others. I’ll be their writer and communications person. I’ll live at a house with 3 other volunteers.
May: I’m hoping to travel around Southeast Asia before coming home for the summer!
I’m only a few months into my year, but I’ve already learned so much. My sense of independence and self-reliance has improved a ton. I’ve become more motivated to learn for the sake of learning again (I finally have time to read for pleasure after years of only required readings in school). I’ve met some great people, improved my sense of street smarts and who to trust while traveling, and have had a ton of fun doing it. I’ve been at home the past few weeks and after talking to my friends who are at college right now, I am so thankful that I made the decision to wait on school.
Thinking about taking some time before heading to college? Here are some resources for researching gap year programs and options:
Also be sure to check out your Career & College Center at your high school. They’ve got lots of great connections and programs to recommend.