Looking back on my education, I have two lessons to impart:
- You always have more time than you think you do, and;
- Taking a gap year between high school and college is one of the best moves a student can make.
I spent most of my formal education being afraid of falling behind. Counter-intuitively, it is precisely by delaying your college matriculation by a year that you get ahead in the game. Parents might often be afraid that this strategy will knock their teens off course, when in fact I wager it more often accelerates focus and maturity for life, academic and career goals, as well as the most important asset of all: self-knowledge.
Don’t mistake this essay as one of regret – I believe that contentment with the present makes all choices, good and bad, into necessary ones. However, my experiences are worthless should no one else benefit from this retrospective wisdom.
My assertion is that American high school students lead sheltered lives. They are usually assigned to public schools within a few miles of their parents’ homes, precluding much integration with their community at large. Because of this lack of exposure and engagement with the wider world, my college admissions essays were clumsy and belabored exaggerations of what I deemed formative experiences. One such example was having been a youth soccer coach for one season. Frankly, I hardly gained anything from that experience, but I thought it was what admissions officers liked to hear.
To do it over again, I would save up a bunch of cash from working a retail job, stuff a backpack and head to Vietnam after high school. And not just as one of those commonplace, meandering backpacking flunkies. In this country, we are in the enviable position of being native English speakers, which is an immediate marketable skill in the developing world. You don’t need a teaching degree to qualify for adding value to lives by teaching English. Through personal contact with bright-eyed, eager and ambitious learners of all ages but different cultures, those admissions essays write themselves.
The Vietnam example is an arbitrary one to which I am particularly partial. But there are myriad solutions to the gap year. One need not even leave the country; one need just leave home and strike it out on his own for a year, doing something like volunteering with AmeriCorps or Habitat for Humanity.
But I am a proponent of sustained foreign experience, not just a collection of stamps in a passport. Go to some second-tier city in France or Japan, or do the Trans-Siberian Railroad trip and make stops along the way. Developing countries do not have the barriers to employment that richer countries do, so it’s fairly simple to pick up work along the way. There are also “working holidays” available in places like Australia.
The point is to get creative and use the world of information at your fingertips — and not to feel compelled to move ahead with the arbitrary class of people with whom you have been pacing along. With youth, freedom and the future lying in wait, traveling and exploring new cultures (not to mention yourself) are truly once in a lifetime opportunities. I urge those in this fortunate position to make the most of it, before college sweeps you away.