When you’re 17, you’ve just barely survived the college application process, and your world is about to change dramatically, life can look a little too big.
While it’s perfectly normal to be a little vague on what you will do when you “grow up” at this juncture, how much uncertainty is too much?
I applied to a slew of schools—11 to be exact—and had little idea what I wanted out of a college, and even less idea why I picked the schools I did. They ranged in every vital quality: location, size, program strengths, campus type, you name it. This noncommittal attitude was undoubtedly obvious on my apps, resulting in a lot of rejection.
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After about the 7th rendition of “we regret to inform you…” I was ready to turn my attention elsewhere. Having heard about the mystical “gap year” that some creative, adventurous high school graduates took before jumping into school, I began brainstorming how to spend my gap year. It seemed like the solution to my uncertainty—a way to find the answer to those big questions of what I wanted to do, where I would fit at school, and what was right for me. On top of that, I could evade the weighty, all-consuming question of where I would go to school.
If possible, I had even less idea of how I might want to spend a gap year than I did about where I wanted to go to college. There was no particular project I wanted to pursue, nor did I have a clue where to start seeking an internship, or even what field I might want work experience in. If you haven’t guessed already, the answer to my uncertainty was not to be found in an even more uncertain venture.
As spring sprung and graduation approached this open world of possibilities weighed on me even more than the prospect of going to a school I felt little connection to. So, when I received my acceptance to the University of Virginia, a feeling of all-consuming relief swept over me (and my parents).
Throughout my college years, and even since, I have often wondered if I really would have benefitted from a gap year, or found some sense of purpose. Given that I still haven’t found that sense of purpose, I doubt it would have been all that beneficial. At least not yet.
Figuring It Out
For some, a gap year after high school is the right call. Those people tend to have a plan though, and that is vital. There are stages of your life when having no clear, driving purpose can be great (your 20s for example), but the recent high school graduate, used to structure, academic rigor, and a bounded community within the walls of school and home, is not one of those stages.
For me, and for many other high school graduates who are struggling to figure out their purpose, college is exactly where you should start “figuring it out.”
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I switched from major to major even into my third year of college, never able to shake that feeling of uncertainty. I watched friends settle into majors they truly owned, and continued to feel keenly my own lack of passionate direction.
Four years on, with a sense of deja vu, I found myself once again at a crossroads without a signpost. Another graduation approached, my future stretched before me, and I was at a loss. This time, I was playing for keeps. Beyond the pressure of simply needing to earn a living, I felt all the pressure of choosing the “right” job. As my peers pursued positions at top consulting companies or Investment Banks, landed high-paying software engineering jobs, or stepped onto the bottom rung of the political hierarchy in D.C, I felt little affinity for these career tracks.
In many ways it is wonderful to be open at this age—I had a new idea every week of what career was perfect for me. My world was wonderfully wide, but as anyone who has been through these stages of life in recent memory can tell you, this wide openness is not all the blessing it seems. Too much possibility comes with directionless-ness, a scary thing to face at any age.
I was unable to picture myself joining the ranks of young professionals in this or that city. But as graduation approached, and family and friends continually asked, “So, what’s next?” I felt positively panicked under the pressure to join the lemmings.
So I didn’t. Instead, I finally took my gap year. When I found a short-term teaching program that would allow me to live and work abroad, I didn’t hesitate. That was the kind of open-ended adventure I had been craving without even realizing it. When I received my acceptance, and it sunk in that I would be spending 8 months after graduation living on a small, obscure island in the Caribbean, I had this sense that it was “right”—a gut feeling I had not yet felt about any decision in my adult life.
What to Expect from a Post-College Gap Year
My post-College gap year was exactly what a gap year should be: incredibly challenging and equally wonderful, and chock full of personal growth.
For many, graduating from college is your formal entry into the world of adults. You are now responsible for directing your life outside the safety net and relative predictability of the school setting. Everything from finding a place to live (student housing is the minor leagues, friends) to budgeting that monthly paycheck to finding your way around a new city, or island, in my case.
On top of your typical early adulthood struggles, I found myself navigating the bureaucratic purgatory of the Visa process, packing my life into a couple bags, and setting off for a faraway dot on Google Maps. I can’t quite convey how difficult it was to adjust to living in a foreign language and in such a foreign setting, and there were moments when I positively despaired at ever settling in.
But I still never doubted that it was the right decision. In the midst of the chaos and longing for anything “familiar” or “normal” I knew that through this experience I was becoming the kind of adult I wanted to be: someone who isn’t afraid to pick up her life and move across the world to start a new adventure.
A month later, I had a lovely apartment with a view of the sea, a roommate, a car (nearly as old as me), and the start of the best tan of my life. Best of all, I carried with me a sense that I could do anything I wanted to in life. There was something tangible in my step, and most importantly in the way I thought about my future—nothing seemed impossible.
That is the first thing a gap year should give you—a sense of accomplishment, and the ensuing confidence to see for yourself a larger world. Whether it comes from completing a difficult project, taking on a job you never believed yourself capable of, or putting yourself out there in terms of location, you should feel growing pains during a gap year. That struggle is the also the reward, giving you the invaluable sense that you are capable of more.
The second vital takeaway from the gap year is perspective. At its core, a gap year is a chance to step off the beaten track, to leave the lemmings behind, and to gain a panoramic view of your own life. Find your priorities; discover what will make you happy. In stepping away from the intense pressures created in an environment of thousands of similarly-educated young people competing for comparable positions, you can focus on what you want, rather than what you should want.
My island year, full of warmth and wonder and memories I will cherish, was most valuable for the perspective it gave me. I never have had that epiphany moment where I realized exactly what I wanted to do with my life career-wise; I had a much more important realization: that I don’t need to have that epiphany—at least not now, and maybe not ever. Understanding my priorities is far more important than having a clear and driving career goal, and I would wager that’s true for most young graduates.
I would not have discovered my priorities in an office in Washington D.C. or New York, swept into the life of a young professional. I would have missed rediscovering my sense of adventure and openness to new experiences. There is a funnel effect that starts with college applications and leads you down an ever-narrowing series of choices from your major to your profession to your location, finally spitting you out as a mid-career professional who has never stopped and taken stock of what they want out of life.
Is a Post-College Gap Year For You?
If you are feeling funneled, or if you’ve read this far and thought a gap year after college could be exactly what you need, here’s my advice.
- The best action you can take is to step away from the pressures. Ask yourself if you are in the driver’s seat, or if, like those spooky self-driven cars, autopilot has taken over. Have you chosen the destination, or are you following the flow of traffic? More importantly, if you are following the flow of traffic, do you like the destination? These are good indicators that you might benefit from a gap—a moment or two to figure out what you want.
- Deciding on what to do with your gap year isn’t easy, but once you do, resist the urge to overplan, or you will lose out on the adventure this is meant to be. Ideally, whatever project, program, or job is taking you on this gap year is simply impossible to fully plan. No matter how much research I did before leaving for my gap year adventure, I never could have predicted or planned for it fully, and that was a blessing as it allowed me to discover my own capabilities more fully than if I had followed a neatly laid out plan.
- Don’t neglect financial considerations, and don’t underestimate your projected costs. There are always unexpected costs when relocating, and these only increase the further afield you are moving, or the more “unknown factors” there are in your relocation. Unlike with a U.S. relocation, you can’t exactly check Zillow to get a sense of housing costs, or know what to expect for cost of living, be it groceries or gas money. On top of that, there will be fees and unexpected expenses—from pricey Visa processing fees to an initial hostel or Airbnb as you apartment search. Make sure you have savings to fall back on.
- Give yourself a deadline. The beauty of doing your gap year post-college is that you don’t have a dorm to move into by next August or September, so your options are much wider. But that can be a danger, too. Don’t get complacent, or let your uncertainty about what to do with your career lead you to settle into a job that doesn’t inspire you. By setting yourself a time limit, be it an arbitrary number of months, or when your initial contract is up, that deadline will motivate you to continue to think hard about what you want, and what’s next for you. It doesn’t hurt that your family members, confused as to why you’ve run away from normal life, will continue to pester you about what you are going to do or be.
- Finally, be open. Once you are out there on your own, positively overwhelmed by the new experiences, the challenges, and the sheer unknown of it all, it is easy to shut down. But if you give in to that, you will lose out on all the “bonus” experiences that come with the foreign, adventuresome aspects of your gap year. So even if your brain is fried from spending a whole day trying to navigate a nonsensical banking system, or negotiate purchasing your first car in a foreign language, push yourself to remain open to the new set of people around you, and the unaccustomed set of customs. Go to that karaoke party, and sing badly in French, say yes to surfing lessons from a handsome stranger, or get a little lost trying to find a waterfall on an overgrown jungle trail. These are the highlights that will make all the challenge worthwhile.