Why College is Not “One Size Fits All”

I still remember the exact moment I decided to take a gap year. I wrote the last sentence of my college application essay, shut my laptop, and burst into tears.

“Sweetie, what’s wrong?” my dad asked when I walked into his room.

“I can’t do this anymore,” I said. “I can’t go to college right now. I want to take a year off.”

I chose to take a gap year, in part, because I was dealing with an eating disorder in my senior year of high school. I needed time to recuperate and learn to be myself again. But while my parents were incredibly supportive, I got a lot of questions and strange looks from others. People didn’t understand why I would take time off when I seemed so motivated and did well in school.

“Won’t you get bored?” they asked.

“How will you get back into school after your year is over?”

“What if you decide to never go to college?”

Their doubts were made worse by the fact that, while some of my friends on gap years were teaching in Israel or interning in Somalia, in my first semester I didn’t seem to do much of anything. I spent most of my time trying to get right with myself. My difficulties weren’t something I shared with strangers, so to most people, it looked like I was just sitting around twiddling my thumbs. They didn’t realize that I was doing exactly what I needed, even if it didn’t seem to make sense. Even if it didn’t fit their model of the “right” college experience.

Do you know the experience I’m talking about? I’m sure you’ve heard it before. “The best four years of your life.” Tons of fun, and some work, too. Beautiful liberal arts campus. Dorm or sorority living. No debt or financial issues in sight.

I’m sure there are some people for whom college is the best time of their lives, but there are many for whom it isn’t. Spreading the belief that there is only one type of college experience makes it harder on those whose experiences differ from the norm.

College is not “one size fits all”. It doesn’t always take four years. It’s not always at a fancy liberal arts college. It doesn’t always mean living in a dorm or a sorority house. Sometimes it means living with your parents, or your partner, or by yourself. Sometimes you sacrifice where you want to go for a financially smarter option. Sometimes it is a brilliantly happy experience, and sometimes it’s sad and lonely. For some people, it is both. And that’s a good thing.

Of my very closest friends, not one had the experience you read about in books or see on TV.

One friend spent a semester interning in New York for credit, and ended up graduating in three and a half years.

Another friend spent a year and a half at a private university, then decided take time off and transfer to a community college. He’s now preparing to transfer to our state school and graduate there.

Yet another loved her college experience, but decided to take a semester off to work at a non-profit in Latin America. She’ll still be graduating on time.

And then there’s me. I took a gap year, and chose the college that made the most sense for me financially  even if it wasn’t the school I was most excited about. During college, I took a semester off to write and focus on my health. I’m the better, and happier, for it.

The fact is, our differing experiences are what make us richer, better, more interesting people. They help us learn to face challenges, pick up life lessons, and grow as people. That’s how it was for my friends. That’s how it is for me.

If your experience is different from what you expected, that’s okay. If you thought you’d be happier, or going to school somewhere else, or studying something different, that’s okay, too. There is no one college experience, and no right way to do it. If you are making the right choices for you,  that’s all that matters.

Sara Laughed

Author: Sara Laughed

I'm Sara, a blogger, programmer, and American abroad. I live in the Netherlands my boyfriend and our 11 plants, and in this space blog about my life, discoveries, and mistakes. Follow along here or on social media!

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  • My college experience was wonderful and terrible all at the same time.
    I loved my school and my professors, I loved the area, and I met my husband there within a month of starting my freshman year! But college was also where Satan attacked me more than ever before. I become very confused about how to distinguish God’s voice between my swirling emotions, and my anxiety was awful. I have never been so under attack. I am so blessed by my husband, and by the amazing things from my college,and I am so glad I went there (I wouldn’t change it!) but it was also the hardest point in my life. I have very bitter-sweet feelings.

    Kristin // thepeculiartreasureblog.com

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Kristin! I’m sorry to hear it was a trying time, but I’m glad that you wouldn’t change it!

  • Wow I completely agree with this. I withdrew from school last fall because I was sick and then I transferred last semester and I was so worried about what people would say both times. The truth is, it didn’t matter because those were the best decisions I’ve ever made. Glad to hear someone else understands!!

    http://www.jenna-grace.com

  • Great post! College is totally diff case by case. I love and hate college. I take my last class in January and I’ll be done with undergrad forever!!!!!! Whew, that makes me happy lol. After 5 1/2 full years of living on my own, transferring, changing majors, making mistakes, getting saved, getting engaged and Lord know what else (lol) I am ready to say good-bye. I am no longer a college enthusiast, though I believe it can be done much better than what I did. But I envy my fiance’s decision to not go to college and go directly into his trade/career out of high school. Well, I love your thoughts on this! You are not any less accomplished or productive than anyone else. God’s plan for you is just that…His plan for YOU. He is a redeemer of time and He will do exceedingly and abundantly beyond your expectations. He doesn’t think of you as a later-starter, He is with you every step of the way, no matter where you are!

  • I really enjoyed this post, Sara.
    It really is very true — not everyone is going to have the same exact experience.
    I graduated in 4 years and loved my experience and I know some people who took 5+ years which is just fine!
    It’s just another thing that makes us all unique.
    xoxo, Jenny

  • I 100% agree with you! I really don’t think they should promote the fact that you are “supposed” to be done in four years. They should, however, give you an estimated number of semesters completed to be done. It took my husband and myself FOREVER. Literally forever. And my husband is starting grad school towards his CPA in August. Here’s to hoping this time it’s only one year hahahah

  • I agree that every college experience is different. And I always think it’s important to focus on your health and happiness first. Also that picture is Oxford! I miss it!

  • Such a great post! College was both the best and worst time of my life. I spent a whole semester suffering from practically constant nosebleeds brought on by stress, another semester battling a strange combination of insomnia, fatigue, and migraines, and let’s not forget the semester spent in an alcohol fueled stupor. In between all that I found amazing lifelong friends and really learned a lot of myself but college left me feeling trapped. I think it’s incredibly brave for you to listen to what you and your body needed before signing up for a full four years. I wish I had felt like I could have taken a semester off when I as dealing with serious health issues. Thanks so much for sharing your side of things. xx Merisa | Monogrammed Magnolias

  • This is such a great post! This could not have been any truer! The college experience is so different for everyone!

  • That was huge for me, too–getting that no one has to understand what I’m doing and why it’s important to me. When you know what internal work you need to do, you need to do it.

    This resonated with me so strongly, thank you THANK YOU for this timely and beautiful reminder to stay the path.

    xo Ximena

  • This is all very true. I’m glad you found the right path for you, even if it’s not what everyone else was doing. I’ve loved my college experience, but I’m having different thoughts about post-grad. I have to keep telling myself it’s okay to take my own path!

  • I can completely relate to your experiences. After high school I decided to leave home in order to get a degree in Japan even though no one could understand why I would do something that crazy. But I never regret making this decision since I am now learning so much more about myself and life in general, especially since I am meeting people and experiencing things I would have never encountered back home.

  • This post is definitely something that a lot of people need to hear. Thank you for sharing all of this. I am sure this was a difficult post to write. So glad you did all of that on your own terms.

    xo,
    Sara Kate Styling

  • How have I never read this post before?! It’s like you’re reading my mind! I, too, took a gap year. It was unexpected and possibly the best choice i’ve ever made. I always planned to continue straight on to college after high school–but I was offered a full scholarship to do a study abroad program around the world. The catch was that only a handful of students did this as a gap year program, the rest were juniors and seniors in college. This was terrifying. And I would have to take an extra semester off before college. It was scary, but I couldn’t turn it down. It changed everything. I wasn’t even 18 when I started my program, and by the end of it I wasn’t even the same person. I turned down my dream school and started the college application process completely over again. Now I go to a much small school, and I study something completely different than I thought I would. College has been alright. Honestly, it’s not the best four years of my life (I’m graduating in 3 because I’m eager to finish), and I’m okay with that. Thanks for reminding me that college is only a small fragment of the big picture.