Earlier this month eager students applying to Ivy League colleges were informed of their fates. Ivy League schools reported more applications this year than any year in history, along with more rejections than ever. This week the remaining portion of the estimated 1.5 million American students who applied to college this year rushed to their mailboxes and tried to guess whether or not they had been admitted by the thickness of those famous college envelopes, before tearing them open to read the letter. With so many applications, it's likely that this year will see more disappointed high school seniors than ever. So here's something different to consider while you are sitting at your kitchen table looking at your piles of acceptances and rejections.
Over the past few years a new post-high school option has been gaining traction. It's known as a gap year, it's essentially an academic year where you, the student, are in charge of your curriculum. What you do with this time is entirely your choice. You could start a project, travel, take an internship or a job, there are really no rules. If you always wanted to go to Australia, write a novel, work at the White House, this is the time... maybe you want to build a school in Kenya or maybe you want to dedicate yourself to relief work in Haiti. I've known someone who has done each one of those things in their gap year.
One of the most important functions of higher education is to allow students to explore their interests and passions. Yet, increasingly our culture has come to view the focus of these institutions to be exclusively laying the groundwork for a career. These two purposes should be deeply interconnected. Given that young people are more concerned than ever about having fulfilling and meaningful lives, before we head off to college we should have experiences that allow us to understand and reflect on what we want to do, what we can do, and what matters most to us. As high school seniors, school is all we've known. To go straight from high school to college, and then out into the big scary real world, doesn't leave you any time to explore your passions. While you might think you know what you want to do, without trying it -- and without trying alternatives -- you may end up pursuing the wrong thing throughout your college years.
Although opportunities during the summer and throughout the academic year are undoubtedly valuable, you get a uniquely meaningful perspective when you can make this process your singular focus. Between high school and college is the perfect time. Since so few people allow for this time, it's not surprising that so many people have mid-life crises and 360-degree career changes later in life. The common crisis that befalls college seniors around this time of year, leaving them wondering what they will do with their lives can also be averted by gaining the perspective and experience that a gap year can offer.
Gap years are quite common in several other countries including the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. But they have been slow to gain popularity in the U.S., until last year when more than 3,000 students reportedly took gap years. This year that number is expected to go even higher. Perhaps the main reason it's found a cooler reception here, is the overwhelming and intensifying pressure put on high school students to get into a great college. If college is a possibility for a young person in America, we are urged to enroll right away, to start moving as fast as we can, for fear that if we delay our entire future could be in jeopardy. I took a gap year and it actually changed my life. As a high school senior, I was madly trying to figure out where I would go to college in the fall, I didn't stop to consider that an alternative might actually suit me better at that moment. The direction and perspective that my gap year gave me was far beyond anything my traditional educational experiences could ever provide. I made a film and started an organization dedicated to getting young people involved in politics. I learned a lot about myself, I'd like to think I made an impact, I got to work in a professional field allowing my future plans to take shape, and it opened the doors to a series of incredible opportunities including being able to write this column. Although, I initially resisted the idea, wanting to stay "on track," I soon realized that this wouldn't "set me back" at all. While some refer to it as "taking a year off," you aren't taking a break from education at all. You are just engaging in a different kind of education, one that is more individually focused, and experiential. Since it is so customized, it will arguably give you the most effective results of any kind of education.
A truly well-rounded higher education can take many forms. It should not necessarily be limited exclusively to you can do while attending college. After all, alternative education paths worked out quite well for Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. While neither Gates nor Zuckerberg can say they are a college graduate, no one can deny they have both had unparalleled--but unconventional--educations.
If you want to take a gap year, it's really simple: you can either defer your enrollment at a school to which you've been admitted, or you can re-apply to a new set of schools in the following year. Almost all schools will allow you to do this without any trouble. In fact some schools like Brown and Princeton are actively encouraging students to take gap years. Don't worry, your spot will still be there. Even if you have been accepted into your dream school, that same school will be waiting for you one year later. In fact you'll probably enter college a year older, wiser, and a few steps ahead. So as you look at those envelopes on your table, remember that they might not be the final decision after all.
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