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First-year files: Understanding the gap year

March 30th, 2021

Today’s first-year files entry has a different flavor! Although our writer graduated from high school and was accepted to University of Chicago last spring, she opted for a gap year and deferred her enrollment to fall of 2021. So instead of discussing her first year at college in today’s blog post, Jenny shares wonderful notes on the time she’s had for self-reflection and independent pursuit of several interests before diving back into intense academia in the fall.

Image via Education Corner

If you’re thinking about a gap year, be aware that each college has its own guidance for gap year requests, so this is not one size fits all. Once approved, typically gap year students do not need to check in with their admissions officer to report their progress throughout the year but they do need to respond to enrollment requirements such as tuition payments, registration for courses for their planned entry term, etc. upon the college’s request.

What you’ll learn from this Q&A is that gap years should have structure and purpose, and they offer opportunity for significant growth. We are grateful for the heartfelt information Jenny shared with us and we wish her continued success, health and happiness. We know her post will help students who are at a crossroads trying to make a decision.

Q&A about choosing a gap year

Q: Why did you decide to take a gap year?

A: My biggest motivation for taking a gap year was to slow down for a year. If you’re familiar with Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important matrix, I felt like my entire high school existence was defined by constantly doing Urgent-and-Important work––––there was always a paper to write, a test to prepare for, extracurriculars to participate in, and before I knew it, college application season rolled around. I signed myself up for too many things, and as a result didn’t spend any time doing the Important-but-not-Urgent work––––things like “getting enough sleep” or “figuring out what I want to do with my life,” which are just as vital as papers, tests, and extracurriculars but don’t have immediate consequences when I pushed them aside. I wanted to take a gap year to slow down and make space for the Important-but-not-Urgent work, specifically building healthy living habits and self-reflection. 

Q: What have you learned about yourself through the experience?

A: Now that I’m more than halfway through my gap year, I would say that its benefits are almost exactly as I expected: having the space to do the Important-but-not-Urgent things. I now maintain a healthy sleep schedule, exercise regularly, and enjoy spending time with my family. I got to know myself better, became more aware of my emotions, and thought about what I want out of my life. I also did some work––––part-time work in English tutoring and translating, running a product development project with my friends, and self-studying Spivak’s Calculus and a few psychology textbooks. 

Q: What were the steps taken for approval by U Chicago?

A: Applying for gap year was simple for me. I emailed my regional admission officer with my gap year request and a proposal, and they replied two weeks later with an approval. The exact application process likely differs from school to school, but I expect what they need from the student to be the same: a clear purpose and action plan to ensure that your gap year application is a well-thought-out decision. 

Q: Have you missed being in the classroom? And how might you approach your studies differently upon return?

A: What I miss the most from being at school is the structure. The biggest challenge I faced throughout the gap year is maintaining consistent motivation and productivity. At school, if you watch Netflix all day instead of doing work and wake up at noon, you will face consequences. During a gap year, however, you are the only one holding yourself accountable. I would say I had great work ethics throughout high school, but the lack of an external structure throughout the gap year blunted my productivity and focus much more than I expected. 

The silver lining of this is the goals I pursue now are chosen more purposefully. At school, it’s easy to strive for good grades for the sake of getting good grades or do extracurriculars for the sake of doing extracurriculars without ever questioning the value of good grades or extracurriculars in the first place. During the gap year, with its lack of external structure, I get to think about work in terms of “what I want to do” instead of “what the environment expects of me”. It allows me to align my actions with my own values instead of others’ definition of success, and I think that’s a mindset I’ll take with me with me when I return to school. 

Q: Anything else that you think high school seniors might appreciate?

A: Who I think will benefit from a gap year: If you are highly-motivated, enjoy self-reflection and independent projects, but felt like you didn’t have the chance to do either during school, then I think you’ll benefit from a gap year. There are, of course, other good reasons to take a gap year, but I lack the relevant experience to speak to them.  

Gap year planning tips: 

  1. Have a realistic and clearly-prioritized gap year plan. Gap year will go by faster than you expected, so if you, like me, made an overly-ambitious plan, then towards the end of the year, you’ll have to choose between accomplishing several goals. Putting your gap year goals into tiers of priority will you help you decide which goals to sacrifice. 
  2. Construct an external structure for yourself. Whether it’s holding an internship, joining study programs, or even just checking in with your friends every week about your work progress, having something other than yourself to hold you accountable will help you maintain productivity and focus.