“Thirty percent of freshmen…go away to college only to recognize — either because of their grades, their habits, their mental health or all of the above — that they’re not ready for college life.” This statistic from the New York Times may seem shocking to some, but many of us may be able to relate.
College is hard. I’m a senior now, in my second to last semester, and it’s still hard. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun and rewarding, and worth it, but it does mean that many of us – despite the best efforts of our secondary schools, parents, etc. – are ill-prepared to tackle college. If you’re like me, you’ve spent most of your life in the same town, following the same routine: wake up, school, extracurriculars, homework, sleep, repeat. Maybe the weekends and vacations offered variation, but for the most part, you’ve known only one way of life. William Stixrud and Ned Johnson say it best: “for so much of these students’ lives, their parents, teachers, tutors and coaches have told them what to do and when.” Going to college and suddenly being responsible for yourself can be a shell-shock.
Stixrud and Johnson have more words of wisdom: “if you question your teenager’s readiness for college at the end of high school, you cannot expect that he or she will be ready by fall. It takes time, practice and some failure to learn how to run a life.” So how do you prepare? A gap year, they say (and we agree!), “can help students mature so that when they do enroll, they are more likely to be successful. For highly stressed, high-achieving students, a gap year offers time to recover from high school before tackling college.”
I’ve written before about my regret in not taking a gap year for myself. Though I did return to college after freshman year, it certainly wasn’t easy. In fact, the fall semester of my sophomore year were some of the most difficult months of my life. I was withdrawn, constantly exhausted, crying or sleeping all the time. I went to one or two of my eight class periods a week. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the Behavioral Medicine office, discussing the possibility of taking a semester off, that I realized how unprepared I had been for this part of my life.
I’d done really well in high school, maintaining an impressive GPA in all honors and AP classes, being on the cheerleading team, and participating in multiple clubs before and after school. On the weekends I held a part-time job and volunteered. I considered myself responsible in high school, and looking back, I still do for that age. I packed my own lunch every day, drove myself everywhere, got my homework done without being nagged, and paid for a lot of my own leisure expenses.
But I didn’t know how to properly study for a college exam, or maintain a strict budget. I didn’t know how to cook a meal, work a laundry machine, or clean a bathroom. I didn’t know how to maintain communication with roommates, advocate for myself in a job or internship interview, or make an impact on a community to which I was new. And that didn’t magically change when I got to school. I didn’t absorb these skills by osmosis from my parents or my peers; I didn’t pick up on it easily. All that happened was that the skills I didn’t know suddenly became more important and necessary and I still didn’t know them – and I began to collapse under the pressure.
Luckily, with support from my parents, doctor, and the school, I did finish that first semester of sophomore year, kept my scholarship, and returned to school the following semester after a much-needed winter break. But not all students are so lucky. Some can’t afford to return to a school where they didn’t succeed as expected. Some are so burnt out, so mentally taxed, that returning right away isn’t an option.
So in my opinion, Stixrud and Johnson are right. If you aren’t prepared for college when you graduate high school, it’s ok – and maybe better! – not to go right away. You can’t learn the necessary life lessons in a week, or even a month. That’s why I wish I had done, and I recommend, a program like Winterline. Doing a gap year gives you a longer period of time to learn these lessons so that you aren’t overwhelmed, and the ability to do so while traveling with a group of your peers makes the lessons so much more fun to learn. A gap year gives you world experience that you just can’t learn at home or in the classroom, and opens your eyes to how many ways of life there are.
You don’t have to maintain that “wake up, school, extracurriculars, homework, sleep, repeat” routine. Immersing yourself in different cultures will show you how rich and fulfilling your life can be with different experiences. And if you decide to return and go on to college, as many do, you’ll be armed with skills that you’ve learned hands-on, making your school experience as smooth and as fun as it’s meant to be.