An empty slate of 400 days — what do you do? Here’s the top 5 reasons for my gap year before MIT

I’ve been listening to the Wicked soundtrack every hour of the day for the past week. Been on a musical-binge, what can I say? One verse sticks out to me as a perfect metaphor as to why I ended up taking a gap year.

“The trouble with schools is

They always try to teach the wrong lesson

Believe me, I’ve been kicked out of enough of them to know

They want you to become less callow, less shallow

But I say, why invite stress in?

Stop studying strife

And learn to live “the unexamined life”

Dancing through life”

Wicked, Broadway Musical

Pacing around my room, rehearsing my reasons, I was pretty nervous the time I asked my mom about taking a gap year. Knowing her, I prepared lots of counterpoints. Ultimately, after long talks and doubt, she was kind enough to let me take one. After a few months in, I’ve thought to share my reasoning to help anyone else making their decision. Beware: This post is sprinkled with many quotes as those are what helped me most in figuring all of this out.

Roughly a month before the deadline to decide on my gap year, I was still unsure of my choice, but the process I’d used to figure it out felt right. My train-of-thought was clear: talk to as many people as possible. I was clueless, so I gave myself 1 month to aggressively network for anyone who knew anything about a gap year. I had around 15 conversations and kept detailed notes of each contact before making my final decision. This eclectic bunch included high school alumni gappers, pro bono gap year consultants, current university students, teachers/professors, and close friends. There was a common thread that left me shocked: every single person recommended a gap year. In fact, many wished everyone would take one.

“No one ever regrets having taken a gap year, but plenty of people regret not having taken one.”

Matt McGann, MIT Director of Admissions

Frankly, I was planning on taking a gap year regardless of COVID-19. It just happened to be the cherry-on-top of this whole 2020 fiasco.

The visual feeling of a gap year: uncertain, yet enchanting

My top 5 reasons, explained

1. A resource-strapped, chaotic, and isolated college experience wouldn’t be worth it

In May, though it was hard to tell how universities would handle the situation, everyone knew at the very least that it wouldn’t be the same. It would have to be done in some alternative fashion — remote, delayed, or some other remedy. I wanted to fully experience college. This year wouldn’t provide that chance at all, but next year might. Actually, the following year would absolutely be better because having 1 year of coronavirus experience versus 0 years would make a world of a difference. For my major, learning engineering without its kinesthetic components would’ve been a nightmare, let alone the fact that this would’ve been schools’ first run at a new, large-scale learning format. College experience aside, not taking a gap year would’ve also logistically made no sense for my situation. The massive cost of school in time and money would be put to waste by lacking people, dorms, labs, resources, and being immersed in bustling Boston. Essentially, I’d be experiencing college but stripped of all the best parts.

Everyone would be remote for months, not just students. Everybody. I asked myself: would I rather be on my computer doing anything I want — learning guitar, refining coding skills, databasing for the 2020 election — or on my computer frantically adjusting to intensive college courses that have never been taught online before? The choice was clear.

2. There’s no better time to take off and deeply understand oneself

This time in life, coming-of-age, gives you maximum freedom and minimum obligations. It would’ve been harder to convince my family of a gap year without the pandemic, but I did have my points. This is one of the more cliche reasons but bear with me here. What does “understand oneself” really mean, anyway? Finding Nemo puts this well when Marlin and Dory eject from the East Australian Current.

Timestamp: 0:34–1:15

Gets me every time. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the flow of life that you forget why you’re doing things. You can’t fully notice the flow until you’re out of it. External forces — status, wealth, people — are quick and seamless in pushing people along for the ride. Gap years sound scary in part because you can basically do whatever you want, but that’s also the beauty in it. It feels as though you’re out of this constant strive for the next thing. Suddenly, your schedule is cleared.

What do you choose to do with all of the time in the world?

That’s the driving question that leads to the immense benefits of a gap year. The maturity, clarity of thought, and drive that gappers develop is none like any other that you’d experience in school.

3. The conformist, career-hyperfocused mold is much easier to fall into otherwise

“Not wanting to break stride is the American way.”

Lee Stetson, UPenn Dean of Admissions

“I don’t think there’s any rational explanation to just run to college. There’s no reason. It’s just what everyone does.”

Gerrit Lansing, Sewanee Gap Student

12 years of grade school. 4ish more years of college. Then the rest.

It’s easier to follow what one’s always known for 16 years — tradition, assessments, and measures — than to break some rules and avoid repeating lives already lived.

I play with Rubik’s cubes, so this next story only feels fitting.

While we’re at it, here’s my collection

Contrary to popular belief, cubers who constantly learn new methods, practice daily, and check all of the other boxes aren’t always the fastest ones. Instead, the best cubers I know started off with no manual. Yup, they figured out the cube all on their own. The process looks like flinging yourself into trying, failing, failing again, and continuing to attempt until success. People who’ve learned with a manual, like me, struggle to understand the cube as deeply as those who began with no rulebook to play by. I wish I had begun with only a cube, nothing more.

“The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.”

Tom Bodett, American Author

That’s how I see a gap year in reference to life. It allows you to throw yourself into the water and see how far you can swim. Without a doubt, this experience incites people to really do something different and make something of their living. Some of my friends, including myself, are pursuing passion projects that’ll hopefully make a positive, tangible impact on our respective communities. No non-profits for the sake of non-profits, rather, trying at something more. Gap years help find that genuine drive and conveniently gives you time to pursue.

Also, cost-benefit analysis-wise, starting college at 19 vs 18 is a marginal “setback,” if you even want to call it that, in exchange for an irreplaceable, formative experience. It is better to get a grip of yourself now before entering college or whatever you decide is next. This is a time for crucial introspection while in the transition into adulthood. In fact, it’ll make the post-college transition a breeze compared to the typical existentialist, hectic time one would have (well, you’d probably still experience this, but to a much lesser extent).

4. You get ahead of the game and better-equipped for your career

I admit people bring their own element into school and pursue things differently, but a gap year heightens that even further. This is a matter of what you do when you can do what you wish. Gap years display the qualities many employers look for: courage, curiosity, open-mindedness, self-reliance, easy-to-work-with, and a willingness to do something new or different. These experiences make you stand out when chatting with future employers and on paper.

You’re a black sheep in the herd.

That’s valuable. School can look very similar amongst students. A degree is a degree, but a gap year is not just a gap year. Here are a few ways that a gap year can boost job prospects.

  • Gain real work experience (NGOs/Startups/Fellowships/Internships/Jobs). See how far you can go without a college degree and build upon it from there. It gives you a perspective on what degrees really provide you and surrounds you with adults. I dread LinkedIn, but that’s also a good place to search for work. P.S. I worked a data job and was the youngest person on the team—it was terrifying. I felt like everybody knew everything and I knew nothing. Hands-down it was the steepest, most exhilarating learning curve ever.

“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”

Confucius, Chinese Philosopher

  • Expand your professional network. You have time to nurture the connections you already have and focus more on putting yourself out there. I made a list of all the career-y people I knew and had calls to chat about future plans and such. People like to help people. This is also a great opportunity to find mentors.
  • Become more financially aware. You can learn to make money on your own and manage it. It’s honestly a bit overwhelming trying to figure out what one can do to make money, but better to get a jab at it now than later. Personally, most of my income comes from freelance tutoring.
  • Cultivate priceless soft skills. You gotta speak more for yourself now—that takes gall. College gives you people to talk to. A gap year forces you to actively seek people. You’ll learn how to effectively talk, email, call, and all-in-all communicate.

5. Gaps make college more worth it

Going from school directly into another makes it harder to adjust without breathing time in-between. There’s a reason why the first semester of freshman year is infamous for its breakdowns and crying fits. Having this pocket of time to adjust and grow before entering higher education can make you more sure of why you’re even going to college in the first place, what to major in, and what to do beyond. You walk into school with a greater air of certainty.

“Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”

Mark Twain, American Author

People who take gap years tend to do better in school. While correlation doesn’t imply causation, gap students largely cite their gap year experiences as reasons for their academic success. I could put the research here, but you can search it up yourself. Dozens of articles and papers note this phenomenon. I’ll let the following quotes speak for themselves.

“Students who had taken a year off had consistently higher GPAs than those who didn’t.”

2011 study by Robert Clagett, Middlebury College Dean of Admissions

“A lot of our students say when they enter as freshman that they have a greater sense of purpose in their studies”

John Luria, Princeton’s Bridge Year Director

“Students who take gap years are more successful in their university studies than…students who enter university straight from high school.”

The Journal of Higher Education

If travel were more of a thing this year, you’d also gain a 1st-hand, global, and well-informed perspective on the world

Gap year programs, galore! There are many work programs where you work a bit in exchange for housing and food. Some pre-made programs exist that allow you to explore countries and help their communities, though, those can be pricey. I don’t plan on doing one. Affordable options are out there, even ones that pay you to do them. I find that cold-contacting organizations and talking to anyone you know abroad helps you put a firm foot in the door. Finding friends to go along with is more fun and safe. I plan on Europe with a few friends this coming year if the coronavirus allows. Benefits of global travel include experiencing different cultures, mastering a new language, and having a more universal view of the world. Can’t go wrong with any of that.

MIT-specific gap year things to note

Some tips for other incoming beavers

  • You’re automatically enrolled for the next year if you choose to take a gap year. I know some other schools make you reapply (essentially going through the college applications process again), so I’m grateful that MIT guarantees admission for gappers. Heck, they even let you take a 2-year gap.
  • MIT doesn’t offer any gap year programs, but some schools do. I kinda like that since it forces you to explore more and avoid School 2.0.
  • It’s unbelievably easy to submit a gap request. I sent a quick 1 paragraph email and got approved right away. This was a stark contrast to some of my friends who submitted incredibly detailed plans and waited weeks for approval from their respective schools, some of which were denied. MIT is pretty chill. In fact, here are the screenshots:
Automatic reply from the gap request form
Email request
  • The school supports—even encourages—gappers.

“My hope is that you will at least consider, just for a moment, taking a gap year

We at MIT are among those college admissions officers who are supportive of students taking a gap year.”

Matt McGann, MIT Director of Admissions

The cons

I’d be remiss to not bring this up–no sugarcoating. There are a few cons that I’d like to address because gap years certainly aren’t for everybody.

  • Personal: You may get easily sidetracked or feel uneasy with independence.

Gap years are hard if you don’t feel like you’d do anything. Being in communication with friends and people helps keep you steady. Also, plenty of gap year groups exist on Facebook, LinkedIn, and others to help guide people along the way. Besides, gap years are way more common in other parts of the world like Europe and Australia. It isn’t completely out of the convention and is quickly catching on in the United States.

  • Career: You’re taking a break, so there could be lost momentum if not planned correctly. Transitioning back to school can be difficult if you haven’t been doing things.

This one isn’t that hard to solve. This year shouldn’t be an intense working period, rather, it’s a rejuvenation. So, allow yourself to gravitate towards things you like and get rolling. I’ve found this approach really fun.

“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Mark Twain, American Author

  • Logistics: It can be expensive and requires a good planner or someone that’s able to adapt well.

The logistical issues worried me the most. It depends on your situation, but I haven’t found it too difficult to handle. At first, it was a bit tricky trying to figure out marketing for tutoring and finding any paying job amidst this pandemic, but it’s doable. You can talk with people and ask if they have any ideas or anything open at their work. Local, labor jobs work. Computer-based, remote ventures also work. Play around. Besides, gap years don’t cost that much if you plan your budget effectively. For example, I plan on taking minimal planes, using hostels and such for lower housing costs, and working in the early months of my gap to save money for the rest. Going with friends in Airbnbs also helps trim down costs. In any case, there’s a way to fund your gap year. With the pandemic, I’ve been home most of the time like everybody else anyway.

Final thoughts

A gap year has given me the time to get still and allow myself to pursue things I’ve always wanted to pursue. Those things on the back-burner have resurfaced and I just love it. My lists of passion projects, skills, and excursions can be tackled head-on, and for that, I’m grateful for the opportunity to take on these 400 days.

There are some upcoming posts that detail what I’ve been up to, but, for now, just know I’m so relieved that I decided to embark on a gap year. My approach has been simple: do things you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. I don’t want a college-repeat; I’m on the hunt for something new.

Some family, friends, and mentors seemed skeptical of the idea, so here’s a quote that I heard in a gapper’s YouTube video that made me decisive, which may also help inform your decision:

“Others questioning why you had done something for weeks is nothing compared to you questioning yourself about why you’re doing something for years to come.”

All in all, gap years give you the time that you always wish you had. If you can keep your focus and values in line, there’s not much to worry about. It might just be the perfect fit, keeping you dancing through life.

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Kanokwan Tungkitkancharoen

Kanokwan Tungkitkancharoen

MIT mech-e undergrad, pepper-challenge chaser, and big Spotify geek