By Jean Fan
At last week’s Under 20 Summit, UnCollege hosted a breakout session where we discussed the value of taking time off from school. Sitting in a large circle, we went around and described the multitude of things we would do if we had a year of free time. Responses varied, but all involved the idea of doing something, of learning something. No one said anything along the lines of, “If I had a year of free time, I would sit at home and watch re-runs.”
That led us to a question: is a gap year time on or time off? Because a “gap year” is generally time spent outside of the classroom, the automatic assumption is that during this year, you’re not learning anything. That’s an unfortunate assumption, because it’s wrong. We can’t confine time we perceive to be “learning time” solely to the classroom. Especially in the UnCollege community, we know that any time spent doing things is time spent learning.
As we went around the circle of participants and shared our answers, faces lit up as people described all that they could do or see or accomplish in a year. Yet only a small number of them would actually go on to take a year “off.”
What are people scared of? (Answer: many things.) During this session, we realized just how many reasons there were to not take a gap year, to not take that “risk,” and to instead go straight off to college. Many of them seemed like valid excuses. Each has an equally (if not more) valid counterargument.
Here are 3 common responses we got from people who wanted to take a gap year, but who weren’t convinced they could. We’re going to dispute them.
1. “My parents are against it and wouldn’t support me.”
This is an argument that I personally struggled with. I come from a relatively conservative Chinese family, where going to a top school is expected. A gap year wasn’t something that was even on my parents’s radar.
What I had to keep in mind was that my parents genuinely wanted me to succeed. All I had to do, then, was convince them that a gap year could be an important building block in that success. Realizing that my parents might have a skewed idea of what a gap year entails, I made sure to clarify that I wasn’t planning to spend a year wasting away on the couch. I explained why it was important for me to take a year off, giving examples of what I wanted to learn, do, and accomplish. I ended by reassuring them — because I will be going back to school — that a year or two of my life is a very short period of time.
Now my parents have come around. In fact, they’ve even come up with their own line of reasoning: they believe that the real-life experiences I’ll have during my year off will hone my leadership skills. This way, when I do go to school, I can lead, not be led.
I realize, however, that not all parents will have as positive of a reaction. Some may flat-out refuse to support you. Still, that shouldn’t deter you from taking a year off: the ability to defy authority, take risks, and make emotionally difficult decisions is important, especially if you want to do something different. In the end, it comes down to this: who are you living your life for, your parents or yourself?
2. “My school won’t let me.”
This can be a tricky one. Some schools, especially private universities, automatically allow or even encourage students to take a gap year. Others, particularly public schools, don’t. If you’ve already been accepted into your school of choice, and it generally doesn’t approve of its students taking time off, here’s what to do.
Start out by writing a school administrator (the dean of admissions, perhaps?) a nice letter or email. Explaining why you want to take a year off, and convince them that you’re actually trying to take a year “on.” Arranging an in-person meeting to discuss your options might also be a good idea.
If the answer is still a resolute “no,” it’s time to weigh your priorities. Are you sure that this school — one that acknowledges the value of you taking time off, yet still refuses to allow you to do so because of some sort of bureaucratic logic — really the school you want to go to? If you answered “yes,” maybe you really shouldn’t take a year off.
There are always other options, of course. Here’s an idea: perhaps you could “hack” your way into a year off by taking an extremely light course-load. One class?
3. “I scared that I won’t learn or succeed without the structure that school provides. Plus, I don’t know what I’d do.”
If not now, when? Learning is lifelong, so the earlier you’re able to learn outside of the classroom, the better. In fact, if you take a year off and practice learning on your own, that will only make things easier for you when you go back into the supportive framework of a school setting.
This argument is perhaps the easiest to overcome. Nothing is in your way except for you. The first step is to realize that your fears are normal, especially if you come from a traditional school setting, where you’ve been coddled your entire life. Understand that everyone else is scared, too. After that, you need to come to terms with the fact that this fear will most likely never go away. Learn to act even when you are terrified. It’s called taking risks.
For those of you who believe that you’ll flounder during your year off because you won’t have anything to do, ask yourself this: what do you want to do when you get out of college? This is your opportunity to start getting hands-on experience now, in the form of an internship. This way, when you get out of college and start working, you won’t think to yourself, “Wow, I actually hate doing this,” and resent yourself for spending the past four years of your life studying to work in the wrong profession.
If that doesn’t sound appealing enough to you, ask yourself this: what would you do with a year of freedom? What do you want to learn? What do you want to create? What do you want to accomplish?
In the end, no one’s going pressure you into taking a year off. It’s a decision that you have to make for yourself, and one of the least risky decisions you’ll ever have to make.
After all, a gap year is just that — a year. Over the course of a lifetime, that’s nothing. That year, however, has the potential to be one that you never forget. Isn’t that worth the risk?
Did you enjoy this article on gap years? If so, don't miss the following on the same topic:
- Interview with a Gap Year Fellow: Nick Mares
- Introducing Our Inaugural Gap Year Fellows!
- Question Everything: A Gap Year Experience
- Starting Your Application? Consider a Gap Year
- Takeaways From My Gap Year Voyage
- Talking to Parents About Your Gap Year
- The Best Gap Year Options for Teens
- UnCollege Gap Year Brochure
- Why I Wish I Took a Gap Year Before Starting College
- Why Leaving Home Helped Me Discover Who I Am
- Why We Decided to Take a Gap Year... And Why We Won't Stop Talking About It
- Why a Gap Year is More Than “A Year Off” From School