This is what a gap year is for: to explore the world and put what you want out of life into perspective.
Pretend your fingers are dancing on the hardback edges of a novel. The pages are blank. I suppose you’d contemplate writing your own story there, but right now I have to tell you mine. This story is personal. I’m telling it because I feel it might benefit you. This is life at its most fickle as it pertains to me. It is the best of times and the worst of times. It’s a gap year.
I didn’t blow out birthday candles my 17th year on planet Earth hoping for a gap year. It snuck up on me. It was like walking down a beautiful road toward a vague destination, taking a few sharp turns with an upside-down map and landing in a completely different town.
During my last year in high school, I was doing the senior hustle and bustle, getting my grades up, paying senior dues — all the f**k-s**t that comes with senior year and getting the hell up out of there.
Not that I hated it or anything. Senior year is when school comes to a head. It was quite a bit of work, and senioritis had set into my bones like a handprint in cold cement, but I was prepared to defeat that feeling. I was gonna graduate! Yes! Graduate! I would never see those people ever again! I had my fair share of friends and cool teachers, but I was so glad to be moving on.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t had a lot of time to join in on the college hustle. I made sure to do a few things, like fill out my FAFSA and take my ACT. (Crucial things, kiddos. Always get that stuff done as early as humanly possible. They’re a bitch later in the year.)
I did plan on getting a job to make money, but getting into universities was only slightly less important than making it out of high school. I still wanted to go to college, but managing my senior year and college documents had become difficult because there were so many things I was uninformed on and my parents weren’t much help, so I focused on ending my high school career the right way, workload and all!
It was worth it, though. The change from high school student to alumna had come in a flourish of pointed caps, and yellow and red robes. The satisfying payoff of diploma, cash for graduating and the end of high school forever left me reeling with excitement. I looked forward to a bright future.
But it didn’t happen that way. Not exactly.
I wasn’t in a completely stable living situation. Sure, the birds still flew and the sun still shone, but it felt like life had pulled the short straw out of its ass and my mom and I were paying for it. I loved the people I stayed with, but what is a carpet in a small living room compared to the soft fluffiness of a bed?
My mom struggled with health issues, and during my senior year of high school steadily tried to find a place for us to live. She also had a new boyfriend she somehow forgot to tell me about until running off with him one night and returning in the morning. Apparently everyone else had seen the signs except for me. Of course, it hurt. Of course, I had to adjust. It was all I could do.
I had already moved around a lot, but adapting to a new neighborhood I was only vaguely familiar with was no small thing, though I hid it well. All in all, not what I wanted for my life. It sucked. But I got through it.
I traded one living room floor for another, and while I was grateful, it was even less fun. I had to take care of my grandmother, who had problems with her eyesight and needed help. My mother’s plan was to send me there for a week, which turned out to be a lie. At first, it was great. We got along. But I had absolutely no desire to be there.
Finally, after a long session of ups and downs and strained laughter and pounding headaches, my mom, her boyfriend, and all piled up inside a U-Haul and moved into our new space. Soon, I was in my own house, christening my own room as a lair and sleeping on my own sheets.
Revisiting college on the backburner
College, for the most part, had been on the backburner. Finding a job was harder than I anticipated. I felt ashamed for a little while. At the time, I didn’t know about things like early application or waiting until the spring to start applying again. It was a bit late in the game, so I thought my time was up.
It was hard knowing that my friends were either in colleges or had jobs to generate their own income. After all the moving and the new schools and the struggle and sleeping on people’s living room floors, I still felt as if I had nothing to show for it. I felt a certain pressure to jump into the rushing river that was life and college and the daily grind. I felt as though there was nothing people could really compliment me for. I turned 18 that summer after high school and had no idea what else I was supposed to do except find a job and get into college — and none of that was happening for me. I thought I had nothing at all.
I did still look into college because I didn’t want to lose hope, but I had no money, which meant I couldn’t even apply. I was nowhere. It was dark pit of gray into which I was sinking slowly and painfully. My self-esteem was pretty low, though I hid it quite well. I just felt completely alone. It’s like I was stranded in the middle of the hottest, driest desert with no way out while my friends tasted water from a nearby well. I could not partake of that well. They may have had their own struggles, but their lives looked like catharsis and luck and good tidings while I grasped at burnt straws.
I used to watch the people I lived with go about their days as sure as rain. God, they knew who they were and had some idea of what they wanted in life! What about me? I didn’t know anything. I just thought the job and college was what I had to do. I felt pressured to become an adult and I didn’t know how — and it was painful.
I was numb. It was a horribly blank space.
The company you keep matters
But then I joined VOX, a nonprofit that publishes content by teens, for teens. It was a great and productive way to manage my time. Aside from my usual hustles, I was doing a lot of things that I loved, which were writing, reading and learning. I was also hanging with friends more.
I believe the company you keep is very important to your personal development, and I was glad to know that my friends were as driven as I was. While I searched for a job, I learned how to communicate a bit more with professionals and keep note of important things like my social security number and the exact street where I lived.
Things that used to be so foreign and “adult-like” were now things I had to do. I had to learn to dress for interviews, talk to people about salaries, take myself to the doctor and other places, pay for my own food, get my own clothes (with my own money) and so much more.
But I also experienced a sense of freedom as I was more informed on the things I used to think only my parents took care of.
I was an “adult.” I was mature. I also got to meet a lot of new people. I realized in my gap year that life is truly what you make it. There is no one who’s going to remind you to do this or go to that meeting or apply for that job. You have to do it yourself. You also have to make decisions for yourself.
Gap year lessons
Before my gap year, I thought I had to ask my mother for everything: where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do, what I could wear. Now, I get to make these decisions on my own. I thought it was great. I could stretch my own wings and fly. But it was also overwhelming in a way. There were so many choices I had to make, and there were so many ways it could go awry.
To fight the tide of responsibility crashing so suddenly into my life, I focused on what I needed to do for the moment and what I wanted out of my life. Having goals, big or small, really simplifies things. I learned to connect more with people who could help me — people who weren’t always my friends and family. I made lists of things to busy myself with. I love to write and to sing, and I wanted to perfect those skills.
A gap year can be whatever you want it to be. I learned a lot, but I also did things for myself and hung out with my friends. Most importantly, I learned a lot about myself. I’m still learning about myself. I honestly think that this is mostly what a gap year is for: to explore the world around you and put what you want out of life into perspective.
Ultimately, a gap year is a year off to breathe and find your way in life before you launch into college. You don’t always have to rush into college. In fact, according to CIEE, a nonprofit study-abroad program that now offers gap year programs, students in all levels of academic standing take gap years. Harvard actually “encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way,” according to the university’s website.
We are often told to jump straight into college because it’s supposedly the best way to go in life, and while college has its benefits, it isn’t for everyone right away. College is a great path way to take because it provides a better chance of financial success and a higher standard of living, but it offers you a chance to achieve these things. There’s no guarantee. Going to college shouldn’t completely define how you run your life or what your life will be like. If you’re unsure, you can take some time to figure it out.
In the meantime, you can get a hobby or join an organization that pushes you creatively, reconnect with friends, get a job to generate income, or explore your city, your state, your country, your world. Cheesy, I know, but the possibilities are endless.
Some personal tips for having a gap year:
- Find something to do. Don’t just waste a whole year sleeping on your couch or sitting at home. Take the time to refine the skills you already have. What do you like to do? Find a way to make them better.
- Create structure. Set goals for yourself. What do you want to have accomplished at the end of each day or week or month?
- Look toward the future. This gap year won’t last forever, so figure out how you want to end this thing. Do you want a job? Do you want to go to college? Do you want an internship? Take the time to figure out your end goal.
If planning doesn’t work for you, check out americangap.org/planning.php for some ideas. There are gap year programs, AmeriCorps, job prep programs, and just teens like me and many others who find internships and jobs and learn about life!
Now, I’m working on attending college, but I can honestly say that taking a gap year was a great move in my life.
Catherine, 19, has worked as an intern and is reporter for VOX who loves reading, singing, writing, Chinese food and supervillians. And she’s now enrolled in
This article is also in our Back to School print edition with many other Grad Countdown stories. Pick up a copy at your metro-Atlanta high school, or contact Susan@VOXatl.org if you can’t copies at your school.