The other day, a high school junior and I were working together to help fine-tune her career choices.
She’s considering a career in mechanical engineering.
But first she’s going to interview some mechanical engineers to determine if it’s really all she imagines it to be.
While brainstorming questions to ask them, she said, “I want to know how being an engineering major affected their college experience. Like, will I be able to have the kind of college experience I want and still be an engineering major.”
Which begs the question: what kind of college experience do you want?
“It’ll be my first time away from home,” she said. “I want to be able to explore other aspects of me. I want to be able to join clubs and activities that weren’t available to me in high school. I want more flexibility with my time to relax and discover more about myself.”
That’s when I had to break the bad news to her.
It’s not 1965 anymore.
College is no longer brimming with carefree co-eds cavorting in the quad.
I remember flipping through my parents college yearbooks: pages filled with dances, sing-a-longs, debates, and lawns of lounging students on a sunny day.
As a teen, I imagined that – if I could just survive high school – I’d earn my ticket into paradise.
There I’d find kids like me who raised their hands in class and volunteered for bake sales to raise money for the local dog and squirrel reconciliation center. You know, people who cared about stuff that really mattered.
I’d finally have the time to do what I wanted, when I wanted, HOW I wanted. I’d finally get to study the things I found interesting and go to the bathroom without asking permission!
That’s where I’d finally figure it all out and become the confident, bold woman I knew was hiding inside.
But that’s not what I found.
To be fair, I did find moments of the silliness, seriousness, and freedom I sought. And, I didn’t need a permission slip to go to the bathroom.
But the pressure to perform did not go away.
Oh, no. It increased — exponentially.
In high school, the pressure to perform came from the idea that if I didn’t do well, I wouldn’t get into a good college.
In college, paying over $40,000 a year, it cost money to fail.
In some ways, that’s good. It helped me focus and take the endeavor seriously.
But I was 18!
What I wanted more than anything else: self-exploration.
That’s what our prospective engineer wants to know: will I have the time and energy to be able to explore?
Developmentally, that’s the time when we long to know the world from our own experience, not from what other people tell us.
We need to see, touch, taste, smell, feel the world for ourselves.
But in the high pressure environment of college in 2016, students can only experience brief moments of that exploration before getting back to class or tackling the next paper.
Plus, we’re being asked to make the high-stakes live decisions when we’ve never been outside of a classroom.
While we may have the freedom to decide what we’ll majors and minors, we have so very little information to confidently make the choices that can profoundly influence our lives.
Is there another way?
“Have you ever considered doing a gap year program?” I asked the brilliant budding engineer.
She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, no. That’s not for me. I need structure. I need to be around other people my age. I need to get experience in something that will help further my career.”
“What if you have a misconception of what the phrase ‘gap year’ means?”
“What do you mean?”
“Taking a gap year can mean all kinds of things. Yes, it could mean not going not college and playing video games on your parents’ couch for a year. But it could mean teaching in Guatemala for 6 months while you earn college credit.”
“Wait – what? You can earn college credit during a gap year?”
“Oh, yeah! Gap year programs can be super-structured or totally up to you. You can stay in the U.S. or travel internationally. You can travel alone or with other college-aged people. You can get paid and earn college credit at the same time. You can gain experience in engineering or teaching or whatever. There are tons of options.”
“But would it hurt my chances in college?”
“Not at all. In fact, many colleges, like top-notch schools, are strongly encouraging students to take a gap year program or two before starting college.”
“Because they see how stressed students come in from high school. They see that it isn’t healthy, and it leads to more problems than people realize. They also see how much better students perform who have taken an intentional gap year. They have a vision and an energy. They’ve been able to feed that side of themselves that wants to explore, to discover themselves, and to learn what really matters to them.”
“Wow, I never thought about that. But won’t I be behind all my peers?”
“Honestly, that is a very high school concept. But when you move into the adult world, it just doesn’t matter. Who cares if you are a little older when you start college? You can hang out with whoever you want. In fact, you’ll have that much more confidence than the other students. Then when it’s time to apply for jobs as you graduate, you’ll have more depth and experience than the others in your class. Gap year programs offer huge advantages in many ways.
“Oh, you can do it at any time. It doesn’t need to be right after high school. Maybe you take a semester or two and then opt for a gap year or semester. It’s up to you.”
Have your cake and eat it, too.
When students imagine the great college experience, they fantasize about independence and self-exploration without the punishing stress they had to endure in high school.
Far too often, they find that college is just a higher-pressure version of high school with more stress and more constraints on their time, finances, and decisions.
Many gap year program options can offer the best of both worlds.
Students can still go to college; it’s not about NOT going to college.
It’s about providing a sabbatical from academia while students experience the developmentally appropriate exploration they crave.
Then when students return to the classroom, they are more driven, focused, thoughtful, energetic, and ultimately more successful.
Explore the options.
Here are a few resources to break open the misconceptions about gap year programs:
Most importantly, know you have options.
There is no right way to do college anymore (if there ever was).
Students can create the experiences that meet their needs.
These experiences, though, don’t need to happen on one college campus and fit neatly into a yearbook.
Yearbooks are over-rated.
Self-discovery that leads to well-being, college success and career fulfillment: totally worth it!
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