Imagine you were given nine months, right now, to do whatever you want. No school, no responsibilities, no expectations. How would you spend your time?
I found myself in this situation when I graduated high school in South Africa in December 2016. Due to the difference in semester schedules between the southern and northern hemispheres, I had to wait quite a while before starting my journey at Minerva as a college freshman. I was ecstatic! After 12 years of gruelling hard work (or so I thought, before college came round and showed me otherwise), I was ready for a break!
Those nine months went by like a whirlwind. I learned some invaluable lessons, but in hindsight, I wish I’d been given more of a heads-up about what the experience would be like. Unfortunately, where gap years are still viewed as the inferior choice for high school graduates, it’s difficult to find constructive advice. If I had to sum up what I wish someone had told me before taking the plunge, it would start like this:
1. You need a plan, seriously. It doesn’t matter whether that plan is working a part time job, travelling the world, or living with your grandma and volunteering at the local animal shelter. If it’s a plan, it’s a plan. You need a reason to wake up in the morning. I realized three months into my “mini gap year” that I still had no idea what I wanted to do with all my time. I started becoming frustrated because I felt like I was wasting this precious opportunity. You’d be surprised, as soon as you are no longer bound to a familiar routine, things start to unravel, very quickly. What helped me immensely was simply choosing to wake up a little earlier every day (because, yeah, even people who have no obligations shouldn’t be waking up at 11 am every weekday) and setting one goal to accomplish.
2. Speaking of plans, don’t forget to plan ahead. Before starting my gap year, I told myself that I’d use the time to figure out what I want to study in college. I’ve always been the kind of person that’s interested in everything, and the pressure of choosing a college major is a big reason why I chose Minerva in the first place, which has an unconventional undergraduate program that provides more flexibility than most universities. But I quickly became aware that telling yourself “I’ll figure it out along the way” is far easier said than done. In the beginning, I wasn’t really focused and I wasn’t challenging myself to get experience in different areas. Gap years are the best time to experiment and prototype. If you’re interested in working in a particular field, go out and job shadow someone; get a part time job; read up on college courses in that field. You’ll never again have this much time to truly test your preferences.
3. There will be lows. Don’t panic! Contrary to popular belief, gap years aren’t always fun. Sometimes, they’re deeply challenging on a personal level and require you to really question who you are and what you want. I definitely felt this way during my three months working at a hotel in Germany. While I was surrounded by amazing and caring people, I also struggled with the language barrier and sometimes felt very isolated and lost. During those times, I wanted nothing better than to get back into the routine of school, where I was enveloped in the comfort of what is familiar and predictable. These were the moments when I realized that “learning” can take on different forms, and I needed to learn to be independent and to adjust to new surroundings. It was difficult, but it was also necessary. I would say that gap years are most valuable because they teach you the things that school can never teach you.
4. Money matters. Money makes the world go round, and it also makes your gap year a lot more enjoyable! I started doing part time coaching work and freelancing to supplement my savings. There are a number of ways that you can make money during your gap year, and it’s also a wonderful opportunity to challenge yourself to be self-sufficient.
5. It is absolutely worth it. I actually wish people had encouraged me more to take a gap year - perhaps then I might have prepared better for it. My gap year taught me to take learning into my own hands, to embrace risks and challenges, and to never settle for what is the norm. I’ve seen how that brief period in my life has influenced my outlook even now in college, and I recognize that it was important to break away from the bounds of convention to realize my full potential. Are you considering taking a gap year? My ultimate advice: go for it!