By Maya Abdel-Wadood

Taking a gap year is becoming increasingly popular among high school graduates. Regardless, the concept never enticed me – why would anyone intentionally fall an entire year behind their friends and classmates? Who would want to delay their career and goals? Wouldn’t they have to spend the rest of their lives playing catch-up? This rigid mindset is the reason why, when I failed to get my student visa in time for my first year at the University of Pennsylvania, I felt stuck and frustrated. I couldn’t believe that attending my dream school was suddenly slightly out of reach, and that there was nothing I could do about it. 

After a brief period of inevitable (but extremely unproductive) sulking, it hit me – I had an entire year to do virtually whatever I wanted. I could either continue to dwell in self-pity, or I could take advantage of this gift of time. 

Alas, my unintended gap year is the reason why I am writing this blog from the beautiful city of Paris. It is why I’ve had the opportunity to work full-time in data science, a field I have always been fascinated by, but never felt like I had the time to explore. This “setback” empowered me to spend a month exploring the parish of St. Mary, Jamaica while volunteering at a local kindergarten. It has provided me with the time I needed to gain valuable work experience in various fields, from medicine to teaching.

By touring new countries solo, working full-time in distinct career fields, and interacting with people from starkly different walks of life, I’ve pushed my own personal boundaries and forced myself well beyond my comfort zone. Before my eyes, my gap year transformed from the obstacle standing between myself and my dream school into a vessel for learning about myself and the world around me. 

Being guided by the things you genuinely care about, without the nagging question of “will this help my college application?,” is a liberating experience like no other. I’ve gotten to learn so much about myself, my interests, and my values – giving me a new level of self-awareness that will inevitably help me when I begin my college experience next year. I’ve been able to enroll in online courses and pursue certifications in a broad range of disciplines, becoming both a Certified Personal Trainer and a Data Analyst in SQL within the span of a few months. I have had time to wind down and read dozens of books that challenged what I once thought I knew about the world, and have refined my cooking skills through experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen. 

Every person’s gap year will look different. Don’t let the pressure of trying to impress others or fear of “wasting” the year drive you to spend it on pursuits you don’t genuinely care about. Even staying home for a little while, recuperating without the added stress of schoolwork and exams, can be a reformative experience. You’ve completed 12 years of school – take the break that you deserve and spend it as you wish. De-stress for as long as you need, travel to the places you’ve always wanted to visit, read books that fascinate you, and engage with your own community or find your place in new ones.

University isn’t going anywhere – and it is never too late to attend or apply. The expectation to continue your educational journey directly after high school is exactly that – an expectation. It’s the streamlined process you grow up hearing about, and it becomes difficult to imagine yourself as the exception. Yet, once you realize that everyone’s journey occurs at their own pace, and that a year means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things, it becomes easier to accept that you may be meant for a less conventional path. At the end of the day, how often do people really ask “how old were you when you graduated college?” 

Unforeseen circumstances can be frustrating in the realm of university applications, but flexibility and open-mindedness are the keys to taking them in stride. Being able to adjust your perspective and see the closing of one door as the opening of another is vital. Remind yourself that the opinions and demands of others are independent of your own journey, and that the trajectory of your life and education is ultimately in your own hands. Taking a gap year may not be for everyone, but you never know – sometimes the unconventional choice can yield the most rewards.