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The UnCollege Blog

Starting Your Application? Consider a Gap Year

Applying to colleges is an exhausting process. There’s the matter of deciding on the colleges you want to apply to, filling out the application, sending your transcript and test scores in and usually writing an essay. All that on top of normal senior year high school classes, homework, extracurriculars and/or part-time jobs. It’s stressful and hard and sometimes you wonder why you’re even doing it. Of course, it’s because you want to get into college, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the reason behind going to college.

For a lot of people, including myself, college is an automatic decision. “Of course I’m going to college. I’m an intelligent, hard-working individual. Why wouldn’t I go?” was a natural thought for me. But when it came to deciding where to apply to, an anxiety crept over me like the shadow of some dark cloud coming to wreck my day. When it came time to actually fill out applications, I was exhausted by the mere idea. I kept wondering why I hated it so much, this was what I wanted to do right? I wanted to go be a productive member of society, get an education, get a degree and have a better chance of a stable job after college.

But what was the real reason I was applying to college without any real thought? I felt pressure from my family, my counselors and friends to do it. I was supposed to. I never thought about what I actually wanted to do. I never asked myself the hard questions, and instead went along with what everyone was telling me to do. I went straight to college without thinking about it, and I regretted it because I went to a school that was easy to get into and overall just not for me. Then, I started asking myself the hard questions, but by then I had significantly less money than when I’d started. I wished I had taken a gap year before deciding where to go to college, or deciding on going to college at all. So after my first year, I took a gap year. It changed my life.

Studies show that students who take a gap year have a consistently higher GPA than those who don’t. They also have less of a chance of academic burnout and a heightened sense of purpose in their studies. Students who take a gap year also get a great chance to recharge after 13 years of schooling. It’s a chance for a fresh start before your college career begins. You’ll also have a lot of experiences that your peers who go straight to college are missing out on. You’ll learn skills, cultural intelligence and independence, all of which will help you whether you decide to go to college or not. Taking a gap year also adds a different perspective to your college application essays, and deeper self-knowledge that will show in how and what you write.

In addition, you’ll have a whole extra year to finish applying to colleges. Not that I’m supporting procrastination, but hey, extra time is pretty great, right?

There are a lot of gap year programs to choose from and different approaches work for different people, so make sure to do your research when it comes to what you want to do. You could sign up for a specific gap year program, or do your own thing, but you shouldn’t fall into the trap of just taking a year off. Your gap year is a time to grow and learn in ways you can’t inside a classroom. Whether that means gaining a new skill, travelling, volunteering or interning, there are programs that can help you and there are unlimited options of what you can do with your time and some creativity. Think of your gap year not as a year off, but a year “on.” A year where you’re investigating opportunities and learning in new ways before you head off to college (or whatever else you might want to do).

The benefit to a gap year that involves some time abroad (especially 3 months or more) is that, studies show, extended travel abroad makes workers more flexible. Having to adjust to a new location, language and culture is hard to do, but it benefits us in the long run, both professionally and personally. And it provides us with unique life experiences. That’s why the UnCollege Gap Year program starts with what we call a voyage phase, during which our fellows spend 3 months abroad. They have a number of options for placement during this time, and those options include what country they will go to, where they will stay and what they will be doing there. These options are structured so that fellows don’t end up wasting their precious time abroad, and spend the time learning a skill, interacting with people and learning from them. This phase is a life-changing time for the fellows and will give them experiences that will make them more employable and empathetic.

During the voyage phase, fellows are tasked with learning as much of the language of the country they’re in as they can. This is not only helpful in making the fellows bilingual (if they aren’t already) but also in a way of stretching their mind and comfort zones to see what they are really capable of. Learning a second language also is really great for your brain. It helps delay the onset of dementia and alzheimer's. In addition to that, it makes you more employable and gives you a better understanding of the world, other perspectives and your own language.

After the Voyage phase, our program has what we call a Launch phase which is multi-faceted. There are workshops about professional skills, personal effectiveness, learning and thinking and social capital. There is also has an emphasis on networking and going outside of one’s comfort zone. The fellows are assigned deliverables at some of the workshops and that can include anything from building a website for their professional portfolio or designing business cards to starting a blog or writing their resume. Here, they also gain connections to potential internships, pick up new skills, learn to live in a shared space and learn how to manage their time effectively.

The skills our fellows learn here are invaluable to their future employment. During this time, they also have the task of finding an internship for their next phase. Their internship phase will give them real-world work experience and teach them a lot about themselves. This will benefit them in whatever they choose to do after their gap year, whether that is college, a career or entrepreneurship. They will learn communication skills as well as hard skills that they couldn’t learn any way other than through experience.

The final phase of the UnCollege Gap Year program is a project phase, where the fellows have a chance to work on their own personal project for three months. Here, they combine the skills they’ve learned throughout the year and the connections they have made to produce a tangible product or service that they try to make a profit on. This not only teaches a lot of valuable lessons in life and entrepreneurship, but also provides a big project to add to their portfolios. This will be something that will set them apart if they are trying to get into college, a job or set out on their own path. The entire year will provide more real-world learning and self-knowledge than anyone would get just going straight to college out of high school, as is the case with any gap year program. Ours is different in that we focus on deliverables as well as experiences and personal growth. In addition to that, our program includes a year of individual coaching to help fellows achieve their personal, academic and professional goals, as well as stretch themselves in ways they didn’t think possible.

When you take a gap year, you have time to really think and learn about the world around you and yourself. You have the opportunity to call things into question, like how you work best, what kind of person you want to be, and what you want to do after your gap year. For some, that may involve calling college into question, or a certain major. For others, it may be rethinking their future career. Gap years are a personal experience, and everyone’s will be different, but they have been proven to have positive impacts, whether you want to go to college, start a career, start a company or just figure it out as you go. A gap year will give you confidence and independence, which are invaluable traits, especially at the age of 18 or 19.

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