As a high school student in a prestigious Brooklyn preparatory school, a gap year was never presented as a viable option-and indeed, neither I nor anyone I knew took one. Instead, my classmates and I attended weekly meetings with a college counselor and aimed our applications at the most impressive colleges that we could – given our respective secondary school achievements – hope to be accepted to. Then, after months of high-stress and repetitive form-filling, the acceptance letters came and we each made our choices, which were then recorded and proudly displayed on a massive poster in the front hall of our alma mater. There were multiple tallies next to Brown, Princeton, Williams, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and Vassar; but not even a category for the unheard of “gap year.”
I had always been a fairly unimpressive student, earning mostly high C’s and low B’s, which were average marks for the average individual, but exceptional marks for a student who had scarcely ever completed a homework assignment. But my disinterest in academics aside, I counted myself lucky to have been admitted into Kenyon College, and enrolled there immediately without a second thought.
By my sophomore year my lack of interest had caught up with me and degenerated into depression. My class attendance became more and more infrequent, and my grades slipped and then plummeted. Before I knew it I had withdrawn and moved back to my parents’ house, beginning my first “gap semester” since pre K. I spent two months holed up in my room with a stack of books, and two months working at a Barnes and Noble before deciding that my out of school life was a shy side worse than my in school one and returning to Kenyon. I lasted one and a half semesters further there before dropping out altogether.
In the [slightly-more-than-a] year that followed, I got an ESL teaching certificate from SIT, worked as an English teacher for about 11 months in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, traveled to the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, and Republic of Georgia, moved to Washington DC where I worked as a teacher in an after-school program and a secondhand bookstore, and finally enrolled first part-time, and then full-time at American University, where I currently study literature and hold a 3.74 cumulative gpa.
Taking a year off from school is only as valuable as the attitude you bring into it. If you enter it in desperation, desperation will likely be a pervasive emotion throughout it; and if you enter it because someone-a parent, perhaps – urges you to do it, it likely won’t matter if you spend the year teaching orphans how to hang glide in Australia or chopping tomatoes in France. You will go a child and come back a child – a child who has done something interesting, maybe, but a child nonetheless. The most important things a person can gain from a gap year are independence, self-confidence, and world perspective, and these are only attainable if the endeavor is entirely self-motivated.
Much of the year I spent in Ukraine was disastrous. I dealt with a wide variety of illnesses in potentially frightening or painful hospital situations, power and heat outages, severe flooding, severe weather conditions, flawed administration and a chaotic work environment, overwork, and countless encounters with corrupt police and passport agents, and shady individuals on the street. I still refer to my experiences there as the most important of my life, but when I look back, very few of them were positive.
Though it may not seem like it, I am not suggesting that if you are considering a gap year, you should seek out all of the abuse the world has in store for you and grab it by the ankles. The reason I gained so much from my year in Ukraine was not that it was difficult and traumatizing, but rather because I went there without any help from my parents (plane ticket, wages, and monthly rent and utilities were included in the job), and for all of the problems that I had there, I faced and solved them myself. I felt that I had done unaided what very few people I knew had ever done, and I felt infinitely more capable and legitimate because of it.
Most of my friends had graduated and gotten “real” jobs by the time I got back, but I still felt like an equal alongside them.
If you are considering taking a gap year, by all means do! But it isn’t a time to bum around at home, while your mom cooks for you and does your laundry. Set a goal that is well beyond what you think you’re capable of, and then find a way to make it a reality. Don’t negotiate funds out of your parents. Work menial jobs, sell your precious PlayStation on eBay. The more thought you put into it the more precious your goal will become, and when you finally reach it, you will know that you achieved the single greatest goal you could envision, and you will be ready to do anything.