Mind The Gap Year: 6 Considerations for a High School Senior

I have quite a number of friends who participated in The Gap Year, taking a break between high school and college. The results were mixed. As a graduating high school senior, I thought the idea of a gap year was ridiculous (why put off something I had been planning on doing since elementary school?) but now that I’m nearing graduation I see its value a lot more clearly. Here are a few things I wish I had considered three years ago.

1. Burnout is real. Throughout high school and my first two years of college, I filled my schedule with extracurriculars, classes, and travel, reasoning that I’d only have one high school and one undergraduate experience, and that I should try to get as much out of both as I could. However, at the end of my sophomore year, I realized that I wasn’t enjoying my work. My grades, my health, and my mood took a few heavy hits before I realized that the problem wasn’t that my major and my work didn’t fit my interests; I was just completely exhausted, mentally and physically, and the only possible solution was rest. Burnout isn’t a sign of laziness or weakness, but an occasionally unavoidable symptom of overwork. Unfortunately, if not dealt with in a healthy way, burnout can sap energy and waste time, and at worst can interrupt academic ambitions or make retention and learning impossible. I know plenty of people who became burned out earlier or later than I did in their academic careers, and productively used time off—often in the form of a gap year—to refresh themselves and to rekindle their passion for their work.

2. Once you start school, it’s hard to stop. A summer abroad in England and a light course load in my fall semester helped me recover from my burnout, but the process was slow and frustrating because I never found time to completely relax. My heavy reliance on financial aid and scholarships, the yearlong lease on my apartment, and my desire to graduate at the same time as my peers made the prospect of taking a semester off seem impossible, and my four-year class plan couldn’t easily be reorganized since the classes I needed to graduate were only offered in particular semesters. I chose to lighten rather than to pause my work, but academic and financial limits prevented me from lightening it as much as I would have liked to. By starting college, I had laid a fairly inflexible groundwork for the next four years, and two years later I had little choice but to stick to it, regardless of the fact that a break would probably have been extremely healthy at the time for me, both academically and personally.

3. Once you stop school, it’s hard to start again. Many students who take a gap year never return to their studies. College is demanding, expensive, and very tempting to postpone indefinitely once you’ve shifted away from the “school mode” mindset. Consider how committed you are to getting a college degree before deciding to take time off.

4. If you’re going to take a gap year, do something meaningful with it. Many students take a year to travel to incredible places or to gain valuable work experience, and return to school with amazing stories to tell and a unique perspective that ends up enriching their education. The ones I know recount these experiences as easily the most valuable part of their gap year.  Others take a much-needed break, or save up money in order to be able to spend more time studying and less time working once they do enter college. College is fantastic, but so is the rest of the world, and both places have a lot to offer. The last thing you want to do is feel like you’ve done nothing but waste time while others around you have grown and learned.

6. Admissions offices don’t discriminate one way or the other. Again, the key is not where you spent your time but how you’ve used it. The things that appear on your resume and in your essays represent your interests and your character, whether they took place in a classroom or on a mission trip to Ecuador. A good friend of mine, who sat on an admissions committee for many years, once told me that some of the most interesting candidates he ever interviewed made themselves stand out by using a gap year to acquire unique experience.

There is no one perfect path. Just as everyone’s college experience is unique, every gap year is unique as well. If you’re really not sure, check with your university of interest to see what their policies are about taking time off. Three short years after starting college, I’ve already had to begin considering whether I’ll take time off before graduate school. Twelve months isn’t very long, just like four years (shockingly) isn’t very long; and ultimately, whether or not you take a gap year after high school won’t determine whether or not you succeed in life, whether you’ll be happy, or even whether you finish your education.

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Courtney Tran is a student at UC Berkeley, studying Political Economy and Rhetoric. In high school, she was named a National Merit Finalist and National AP Scholar, and she represented her district two years in a row in Public Forum Debate at the National Forensics League National Tournament.