We are all well aware and well-versed with the cycle that happens in the pursuit of our education. We go to high school, get good grades, work hard to be accepted into the post-secondary college of our dreams. And once we're accepted and step foot onto the grounds of that college of our dreams, we are hit with another reality: four more years of this.
Don't get me wrong, education is a beautiful investment. But it seems crazy that we're expected to go to school for our entire childhood, and then do so for a huge portion of our young adulthood, back to back, no breaks.
It's no wonder more and more people are finding value in taking a year off from school for a smoother transition into adulthood.
One incoming college student that famously took a gap year was Malia Obama, who took a gap year before starting at Harvard this past fall. She did an internship, she traveled, and she allowed herself to experience life before immersing herself in her education. More recently, actress Yara Shahidi reflected a similar mindset. In an Instagram post, she explained, "I'm taking a gap year to dig deeper into all the things that bring me joy..."
Back in 2001, before Yara made taking a gap year an official thing, I took a gap year to get some much needed growing up out of my system.
But whereas she is taking one, I helped myself to three.
I didn't spend them traveling through Western Europe to become more worldly and expose myself to different cultures. I didn't start penning a profound autobiography about how the mean streets of North Philly made a woman out of me. I did what many predictable 18 year olds would probably do: Worked a s**t job, chased after my boyfriend, and found myself forced to want more from my life after a while. And even though those three years weren't necessarily spent soul searching, I know that I would have never ended up with a degree without them.
First things first, let me be honest: I started feeling the hell out of myself in high school. I survived a very awkward time in puberty filled with wire-framed glasses (before Chris Brown and today's hipsters made looking like a nerd cool) and the gap between when my mother stopped doing my hair and finding a good salon.
Before high school, my life resembled all those #tbt pictures of Drake before he finally found a good black barber in Toronto. Being awkward and looking a mess in middle school left me a lot of time to get good at grades, but once I hit high school and got some hazel contact lenses and some micro braids I got a Kanye West type of conceit and you "couldn't tell me nothin'". Needless to say my head emerged from the books and didn't leave being in some boy's face for four years straight.
In 2001, come prom night, when my Algebra 2 teacher revealed to me before the main course that I was only graduating because she needed to get right with the Lord. For the past few months, I had been filling out college applications only because that's what everyone else was doing. The idea of college didn't phase me at all. Who gave a damn about a college dorm when I had been spending the night with my boyfriend in his for months? I never put much thought into a major because at the time the only thing I knew I was good at was writing. But what teenager wasn't writing angsty poetry? That didn't mean I was going to be the next Maya Angelou.
So, after spending the year visiting colleges and taking the SAT's twice, I made what I now think was the smartest decision of my whole high school career: I decided to take a gap year. OK it wasn't as much as a decision as it was a default move because I made no effort to take the steps to actually attend college.
Luckily, my parents weren't the type who thought a degree made the difference between climbing the career ladder or holding a cardboard sign while straddling the lanes of a busy boulevard. But my mom wasn't down for her kids sitting in the house and just "figuring it out"; if we weren't going to school we had to work.
One thing no one tells you about gap years is that sometimes you'll feel like a complete loser.
While my friends visited home for the holidays and talked about Art History and iced coffee on the quad, all I had to contribute to the convo was that I finally got a key to the register at the ice cream shop I managed. Most of my days were spent memorizing banana split orders and being up under my boyfriend literally and figuratively. But the gap year is something you can't fully appreciate until you graduate college. Once I figured out that I could make a living out of writing and a successful career wasn't just limited to writing novels or TV sitcoms, at 21 years old, I decided I go to college two hours away from home.
I had no car, but I did have enough insight to know that if I went to school in my hometown of Philadelphia I'd find myself in the same situation I was in high school: completely distracted from the books and in some boy's face. I knew it was best for me to be at moderately sized liberal arts in Amish country confined to campus where I could focus and get a good dose of culture shock, but close enough to home so I could retreat to my comfort zone of corner stores and public transportation if necessary.
So, do the statistics prove that gap years are harmful?
A NY Mag article revealed that Malia Obama just may have made the right move by taking some time off and waiting until she was free from the watchful eye of the secret service to start college. Although there hasn't been much research done on the subject, a recent study reveals you should really do what works best for you because in the end it won't make a damn bit of difference. A paper published last year in the journal Developmental Psychology followed more than 2,500 students from Finland and Australia found no significant difference in growth or outlooks for the future and career prospects, nor in general life satisfaction for those who went straight through school and those who took a gap year or two:
“In the light of our research findings, a gap year between secondary education and further studies is not harmful, especially if the young person only takes one year off."“When these adolescents are compared with those who continue their studies directly after upper secondary school, those who take a gap year quickly catch up with the others in terms of study motivation and the effort they put into their studies."
There is some evidence however that gap years are particularly helpful for students like me who struggled through high school:
“Australian and Finnish students who did not take time off before university were more committed to their academic goals than their peers who had – but on the other hand, they were also more stressed than the students who'd taken time off."
If I got anything from my gap years, it gave me a head start on getting to know myself, which I noticed was something my peers struggled to do if they just followed their parents' wishes or applied to where all their friends were going.
Considering taking some time off in between degrees? These suggestions may help you decide if taking a gap year is worth the wait:
1. You have to know yourself.
I think many people underestimate what a difficult transition it can be to go from high school student to college student, when you're seventeen or eighteen. If you're not the best with self-discipline, or are coming from a home where you had rules or curfew, going away to college could be a shock to your system. During freshman orientation, the President of my undergrad gave a speech and advised us to look to the person on our left and our right because, chances are, they wouldn't be there at graduation. He was right. I saw so many students burn out before second semester, grades in the trash because all that freedom went to their heads and they didn't have enough discipline to choose studying over taking shots on sorority row.
It's not that I didn't party and spent all of my college days in the library, but by the time I got to school I had gotten most of that out of my system, and had the maturity to know that things have to be done in moderation. Better still, I didn't waste any of Sallie Mae's money spending semesters getting my ish together.
On the other hand, gap years aren't always the greatest option for everyone. When I was a high school senior, the best defense for going straight to college that many of my teachers and adult mentors had was: “If you don't go now, you never will."
For some people, that's true. I had friends that good jobs peddling cell phones making great money for a year or two only to realize that they didn't want to be working at a kiosk in a mall forever. Take a look at your track record. Are you a self-starter or do you have difficulty getting motivated? If so, the best option may be to go straight to school or stay on some kind of educational track regardless.
2. You have to put your career goals on a timeline.
For myself, I didn't see a particular expiration date on being a writer. In fact, a little more life experience actually helps when it comes to writing. But other careers like acting or becoming a doctor have set timelines, and unless you want to be in med school when you're 45, taking a gap year or two might actually harm your educational path more than help it.
3. Stay productive.
If you don't spend your gap years growing up and getting some life experience, it doesn't matter if you're seventeen or twenty-seven, committing yourself to a program of study is going to be a waste if you don't take some time to prepare for it. I still look at some of those gap years and think all I did was sling soft serve, but the truth is, I gained valuable skills like time management, learning how to work with all kinds of different people, staying focused under pressure and developing a good work ethic: all things that prepared me to be a better student and professional.
If you're going to take a gap year or two, don't just waste it learning how to handle your liquor and perfecting your dab. Just because you're not sitting in a classroom doesn't mean there aren't other ways to educate yourself.
4. Consider the costs.
If you can make it through undergrad without selling your soul to Sallie Mae, I salute you. For others, financial aid doesn't seem like that big of a deal until your drowning in student debt with no degree to show for it and a job that can barely cover the cost of the education you didn't finish. No matter what kind of degree you're going for, education is a serious commitment. Even if you choose to bail after a semester, that doesn't mean you won't find yourself with a student loan bill every month.
Be honest with yourself. Are there less expensive ways to meet your career/educational goals? Are you taking out loans just to party and be on your own and be able to say you're in school?
5. Unique opportunities are sometimes worth the wait.
A chance to be a wealthy family's nanny in Australia for a year is an opportunity that may not come often. And if the untimely deaths of Prince or David Bowie are any indication, you never know when an artist's world tour might be their last and you might want to take a year to be a stan and follow them across the globe. School is an experience that will more than likely always be there, but I'm all for making memories and taking advantage of opportunities that may not be.