in Musings

Advice to High School Students: Take a Gap Year

My sister is in her final year of high school and is applying for colleges right now. I’ve thought about what kind of advice I’d give to her, or what I would tell myself at 18.

I’d say it boils down to just one thing:

Delay your college acceptance, and take a gap year.

I didn’t do it myself, but it’s what I would do knowing what I know now.

When I was in my last year of high school, I was eager to leave. I was sick of studying, excited at the prospect of living by myself in a big city, and desperately wanted to meet new people. However, I thought attending college immediately after was the only option. It was just what you do after high school. I had heard of a gap year before, sure, but I wasn’t aware of anyone who had actually done it.

I also had a deep fear of missing out. All my friends were headed straight to college, and much of our conversation that year revolved around who got in where, which classes we were going to take, and how cute the girls would be at various schools. Not going to college would mean that I would be left behind by my friends, that I’d graduate a year later, and that everyone in my classes would be younger than me. These thoughts further prevented me from considering any other option but to go to college right away.

Things ended up working out relatively well, but sometimes I think about that gap year and what it might’ve done for my personal growth. I would have continued to play online poker and develop my skills at a time when I was making an hourly rate of $100-200/hr. I could have used that ability to fund my travels, live abroad in various countries with zero obligations for months at a time, fully immersing myself in new cultures. I could have met new people, learned new skills, appreciated exotic arts and foods, and checked a myriad of items off the bucket list.

I write as if I’ll never have another opportunity to experience all this, which is false (I hope!), but for most of us it gets more difficult to do these things as we age. Life inevitably gets in the way in the form of responsibilities. For the first quarter of our entire lives, most of us simply do as we’re told, following the well-beaten path. Rarely do we have a chance to take an exit and do things fully for ourselves. Gap years offer this at just the right time.

I looked into what the process of taking a gap year is. It turns out to be very simple.

Apply for colleges as you normally would. Get into the best schools you possibly can. Receive your acceptances. Then send in a written request to the school’s admissions office explaining why you need time off. Every college has their own deferment process, so you should check and make sure you do it before the deadline, but this is generally the way to do it.

Colleges themselves are very receptive to students taking gap years now. Studies have shown students who take a gap year enter college more motivated, mature students with higher GPAs. A handful of colleges even offer scholarships for students who have taken gap years, including Harvard, which has long encouraged the practice.

So what is an 18-year old to do during this year off? Here’s a list of my suggestions:

  • Start a business. Find a problem and get paid to solve it. Regardless how small this venture might be, it’ll be great experience. And literally no one will care if it fails.
  • Use some of that gap year scholarship money you hopefully earned, or money you’ve saved up working that part-time job to really explore the world. You will learn what poverty is, how to stretch a dollar, and understand you are not the center of the universe.
  • Create art. Write and publish a novel, or two, or three. Learn how to paint. Or how to play an instrument. School often saps you of your inherent creativity. This is the time to rekindle it.
  • Work at a non-profit. Learn what generosity is, and how to serve the needs of others. Lots of kids in college say they plan on working in a non-profit after graduation. Why not do that after high school?
  • Master a game. Learn poker and chess and find underground games to play in. It’ll teach you new ways to think and manage your emotions. You’ll socialize with others who share your interest and maybe make money doing it.
  • Work for free at a variety of different jobs. Test out the waters before you decide on a career, even if it’s just shadowing someone for a couple days.
  • Create a documentary. Choose an issue you’re passionate about, find a question to answer, and document your journey.
  • Start a YouTube channel and try to grow it to 10,000 subscribers by the end of the year. You’ll learn new skills and how to speak in front of a camera, how to grow an audience, content creation, and more.

The point is, you can use this year off to pursue literally anything that interests you.

Because here’s the thing. Practically speaking, there is no difference between finishing college at the age of 22 and finishing at 23. In fact, the average college graduation period is five years, so most students are actually 23 when they leave. There is absolutely no rush, contrary to what I mistakenly believed at 18. My initial fear of missing out was also entirely misguided. I was only thinking about the friends that I would leave behind, and not the new ones I would inevitably make as a result of taking that year off.

It is also without a doubt a better choice to take a year off between high school and college than it is to take a year off after college. With the former, you’ll already have an acceptance letter in hand. You’re mitigating your risk, and no one is expecting anything of you still. The latter, however, means that you’ll likely be taking an entire year off without any job prospects, probably be burdened student loan debt that will begin to accrue interest, and employers will question the gap on your resume.

Some might say 18-year olds are largely unguided and don’t have the discipline to follow through on one of the above. Maybe, but paying six figures to figure it out in college seems like a poor investment. Even if all you do is work odd jobs doing manual labor or washing dishes, you’d gain some kind of experience and save money to pay for college.

One of the most important things that this gap year might bring is the answer to whether college is even right for you, and what you want to get out of it. Most 18-year olds don’t have the necessary experience to answer this. I know I didn’t.

And as mentioned, the best part about deferring enrolment is you’re not entirely forgoing college. Not yet, at least. You have that deferred application in hand, always hedging your bets. And in case one of your ventures truly does take off, you can continue down that path. College can always be delayed, but a successful business can’t.

This is my advice to my sister, or any student in high school reading this right now. Take a gap year, explore your talents, cultivate new skills, see the world with fresh eyes, and come back a better person.

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