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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Engrossing: Considering a ‘gap-year’

Published: November 19, 2010
Section: Opinions

Around this time of year, it is common for high school seniors to be stressing out about college applications. Many of my fellow first-years will look back at this time last year and laugh (or cry) as they remember how wrapped up they were in the college admissions process. My story, however, is a little bit different.

It may surprise you to know that at this time last year, college was not a part of my immediate game-plan.

I was tired of classroom education and burnt out from a competitive high school experience and wanted nothing to do with classroom education at any point in the near future.

Though I knew that I would someday need to seek higher education to gain career training, I also knew that I had absolutely no clue what I wanted to do with my life and no idea where I wanted to go to college and I didn’t really see the point in draining my college fund as I tried to figure that out.

So, you might be wondering how I ended up at Brandeis?

I didn’t have some type of realization that convinced me college was really the place for me; and I didn’t have a crystallizing moment where my life calling became clear.

Going to college was simply the “normal” thing to do—at least according to my parents—and who was I to go against normalcy?

Looking back on it, I wonder if the normal thing to do was really the right thing to do in this situation.

All around the world—particularly in Western Europe and Australia—it is common for students to take a year off—or a gap-year—in the interest of getting some much-needed downtime from years of rigorous academic work.

Many institutions of higher education are suggesting students take time to relax, recollect and blow off some steam before they re-enter academia and begin to prepare for “real life.”

In 2006, the dean of admissions at Harvard College, William R. Fitzsimmons and director of admissions at Harvard College, Marlyn E. McGrath, teamed up with adjunct lecturer in psychology at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Charles Ducey, to deliver a report on the state of undergraduate education in America.

Their joint report is titled “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation” and provides a look at the academic journey of competitive students from pre-kindergarten preparation to post-graduate education.

They examine in depth the “burnout” phenomenon that more and more students across the country (including myself) experience every year.

The pressure to be admitted into the best universities often starts in early middle school and doesn’t let up until students have reached their terminal degrees.

The report from Harvard warns against this type of prolonged pressure, claiming that the “quest for college admission is only one aspect of a much larger syndrome driving many students today.” It suggests families leave room for fun and unstructured time in the midst of intensive education and, above all, it promotes the merits of gap-years.

Gap-year “results have been uniformly positive. On May 19, 2000, Harvard’s daily student newspaper, The Crimson, reported that students who had taken a year off found the experience ‘so valuable that they would advise all Harvard students to consider it.’”

Many families are worried that taking a gap-year will negatively affect students’ work ethic, but “Harvard’s overall graduation rate of 98 percent is among the highest in the nation, perhaps in part because so many students take time off,” according to the study.

Potential gap year programs can feature anything from a year of service to the nation, a year of traveling, a year of working or just relaxing. However, no matter what gap-years feature, “students are effusive in their praise. Many speak of their year away as a ‘life-altering’ experience or a ‘turning point,’ and most feel that its full value can never be measured and will pay dividends the rest of their lives. Many come to college with new visions of their academic plans, their extracurricular pursuits, the intangibles they hoped to gain in college, and the career possibilities they observed in their year away. Virtually all would do it again.”

If Harvard suggests gap-years with such enthusiasm, I don’t understand why so many American parents are against what has been found time and time again to be a successful way to get students into the right mindset for college.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy here at Brandeis. I’ve made a lot of friends and have gotten involved in a variety of exciting activities.

I’ve also learned many important things. For example, I’ve figured out how to attend five club meetings in one night, how to write a six-page paper in two hours, how to effectively Sherman-shop and how to survive on four hours of sleep.

However, I don’t know if I can honestly say that I am any closer to knowing what I want to do with my life than I was at this time last year.

Sure, I’ve narrowed it down a bit—International Relations, Comparative Literature, Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, Business, Economics, and anything related to math or science are all out—but my list of prospective majors is far too long and amorphic to do anything close to declaring.

I know that this is a common point of contemplation among my first-year brethren and that I have plenty of time to “figure it all out,” but I can’t help but feel like I’m wasting tuition—a.k.a. my parents’ money—for me to be messing around and taking somewhat impractical classes.

I can’t help but wonder what my college experience would have been like if I had taken Harvard up on their suggestion and had taken a few months off to breathe and figure things out before jumping into this intense world of higher education.