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.