When I applied to college, I did not consider every option that was available to me. I applied with the same mindset that many other students have at 17 and 18 years old, which is that going to college was simply what people our age did. We go to elementary, middle and high school before ultimately applying to four-year universities where our parents hope that we pull it together and figure out what to make of ourselves. We assume that this is our single shared story, that most people go down this path.
This simply isn’t true. Not only that, but why would we want it to be?
After receiving a spring admission from NC State four years ago, I was informed that I had the option to do virtually anything that I wanted for my first semester of college. I could’ve gone to another four-year university or a community college. I could’ve traveled, worked or volunteered. I had everything available to me, and yet, I was incredibly unhappy with this offer. In my mind, I needed to have as close to a college experience as possible, which meant that I felt obligated to to go to school. With every door available to me, I chose the one that I felt others would judge the least.
We allow this preconceived notion of how life works or what the college experience is to guide us, when in reality, this is the time to consider every option. In this era of COVID-19, where the education we pay for and will likely go into debt for, has become virtual, students need to choose what will be most beneficial to them for long-term success. Taking a gap semester, or even a gap year, could very well provide that. And these shouldn’t just be options that seem available to us now or when crisis occurs, but all the time.
There are endless possibilities and opportunities for enrichment when taking time off from school. Leaving school for anything has a negative connotation, but you have the opportunity to go abroad, gain more work experience in a city you might want to live in postgrad or even take on a co-op or internship without the added burden of juggling school and extracurricular activities.
According to Business Insider, Robert Clagett, who was a former senior admissions official at Harvard, said that students who take gap years "will frequently be more mature, more focused, and more aware of what they want to do with their college education." In high school, students typically go from learning a preset curriculum eight hours a day to being expected to declare a major for their next four years. With the option to take a break before going off to college, students are benefited from experiences outside of school and an idea of what career they might want to pursue.
Colleges push for their students to graduate within four years, and while this is a great achievement for some, this shouldn’t be considered the standard of excellence. We should be encouraging our students to do the unconventional, to go after every opportunity, even if it means taking time off and coming back later, more vibrant, thoughtful and considerate of the world around them.
Even more than taking a gap semester or year, we should recognize that there is no single story in college. There are many people who go to college but it’s not reflective of the entirety of young adults. Not everyone has the financial ability to pay for a college education. Some people experience losses in their families or realize that college isn’t for them altogether. Some of our most life-changing experiences happen in college, whether they are positive or negative.
If you’re thinking about taking a gap semester or time off in general and are looking for a sign, this is it. In some of the most formative years of our lives, we should be encouraged to have real life experiences. When I think back to the person I was at 18, I wish I’d looked on the brighter side of the circumstances handed to me. I wouldn’t change what I chose because it’s led me to where I am now, but who knows… maybe it could’ve been better.