Why everyone should take a gap year
A year later…
I would have wanted my high school self to take a gap year more so pre-covid.
My decision to take a gap year was largely influenced by COVID. The prospect of attending a virtual university as an international student… was far from appealing.
However, for the last four years of my high school, I had been working towards university and going felt like the next natural step. With the supermajority of my peers all going straight to university, even considering a gap year made me feel as though I was going to be “ behind”.
One year later and finally attending an in-person university, this is a reflection of my year and why my gap year was one of the best decisions I ever made.
This is very much a personalized account of my experience, so I hope you can take what you can!
The concern of unstructured time:
The prospect of having 18 months of unstructured time is terrifying and rightly so. (Since my school went online in March, exams got canceled, and lockdown hit, time off from formal education totaled to just under 18 months.) Given the last 18 years of most of our lives have been securely planned, putting your life on “hold” can feel like a silly idea.
My advice: Research and plan your year! Set Goals.
I tackled this by macro and micro scheduling my year. Researching a variety of events, activities, expeditions, organizations, and movements made me realize there were a lot of cool activities beyond academics I wanted to try.
Despite covid restrictions with limited travel options, visa complications, and postponed events, I found that the more research I did, the more opportunities I found. The more opportunities I found, the more comfortable I felt taking the year. When 18 months is divided into smaller chunks, each filled with activity, the year isn’t long enough to do everything.
Goal: experience as many different things as possiable
I divided my gap year into three large chunks. The first 4 months would be academic-based, the next 6 months for various experiences in Japan, and the last 4 geared towards my career (the other 4 months were unstructured time due to quarantine or time before starting university). This structure allowed me to feel freedom during the 6 months. After those initial 4 months, no matter what I did in those 6 months, I would already have something under my belt that I had achieved.
This is what my gap year turned out to be — there were some things I had planned that I didn’t end up doing but there were also some unanticipated experiences.
First four months in Singapore: pursuing academic interests in maths and computer science. Preparing my resume and finding potential opportunities to ensure I was prepared to apply.
Six months in Japan: spending 2 weeks volunteering on a farm, 2 weeks at a driver’s license camp, 3 months working at a ski resort, 1-week traveling solo around northern Hokkaido, 1-week surfing, paragliding, and 2 weeks backpacking around Nagoya, Kyoto, and Osaka.
Last four months in Singapore: interning and skateboarding.
Main goal: to experience everything and anything. To take up opportunities that I wouldn’t normally be able to take if I was in school/university/working.
Sub goals: gaining confidence in programming, adopting a lifestyle I’m proud of, exploring vegetarian/veganism, finding a work/life balance, going paragliding, obtaining my manual driver’s license, upkeeping my academics, spending time with my parents, making Japanese friends, traveling alone, talking to strangers, etc.
The concern of missing out:
Between completing high school, going to university, and getting a job, there aren’t many times in your life when you can take a year off and not fear the consequences.
Doing nothing is a valuable experience in itself.
Given you are already accepted into university, even if you did “nothing”, in a year’s time you would still be going to university and your life would proceed.
There is no “missing out” in a gap year as you would still be going to university! Just a year later. You would still have all those experiences that your peers would have and you would still progress forwards.
The concern of falling behind academically:
Now that you are in charge of yourself, you can truly explore things you are interested in! Without the stress and pressure of deadlines and adhering to a school curriculum, you can explore conventionally non-academic topics. You might be surprised by what you are interested in!
As an intended mathematics major, a fall in my academic skills was one of my top concerns. I didn’t want this year to place me at a disadvantage. To remedy this, I signed up for multiple tuition agencies and became an online tutor for high school maths and social studies. This meant I was not only continually reviewing the material, but I was also learning new concepts as well as reinforcing my understanding.
I also spent a significant amount of time learning unconventional academic content such as researching nutritional facts, watching climate documentaries, and reading about world events. I would start by seemingly aimlessly browsing google until I realized I would naturally gravitate my searches to specific topics — the topics I care about!
Benefits of a Gap Year
A new mindset:
- an alternate view on the value of experiences
- change in the value of time
- finding purpose and motivations
- breaking out of society’s expectations
- meeting people from different backgrounds
- becoming friends with older people
- learning to talk to “strangers”, making neighborhood friends
Independence and sorting life out:
- traveling alone
- learning to be comfortable in your own company
- taking care of yourself
- gaining financial independence
Taking a year off also made me exponentially more prepared to go to University. Moving into a dorm, making new friends, adjusting to a new culture/country wasn’t a brand new experience. I also had an extended summer to sort out my visa documents, health forms, bank accounts, phone plans, and other logistics.
This next section is some stories from my year:
An expedition into the cold:
One of the most significant parts of my gap year was my week-long solo travel expedition around northern Hokkaido in the dead winter. With temperatures bearing up to -30°C and blizzards on a weekly basis, travel was already difficult. Given covid, I restricted my travel destination to rural areas. This meant this trip took two months to plan — the countryside transportation hours were very intricate and complicated. Booking my own hotels, transport, and traveling on a budget took effort! My final trip included a drift iceboat cruise, visiting an ice village with igloos, a self-guided Hokkaido food tour, visiting the highest elevation frozen lake in Japan, staying in a hostel, and going on a drift ice swimming expedition. What I hadn’t anticipated was the difficulty of getting from A to B in the freezing climate. Armed with a small suitcase and a backpack, the 10 minutes walk, as stated from google maps, from the station to my hotel proved to be a 30-minute battle. Constant snow meant the icy roads were covered in knee-deep powder snow.
Stranges to friends:
During my time at the rural northern village in Hokkaido, I asked another person to take a photo for me. In our short exchange, we realized we were both university students on a gap year and that we would both be in Tokyo later that month. A quick exchange of numbers secured a coffee date with a stranger who is now someone I am still in regular contact with.
The seasonal job I worked in at Hokkaido Japan provided dormitory accommodation in return for work and compensation included ski/snowboard benefits (life passes and rental passes). The lifestyle I was leading was extremely similar to college but instead of studying, I was working.
Up until I graduated high school, for the most part, my friends were around my age. However, at the ski resort, I was the youngest person working — the average age of my new friends was 25.
I met those who had backpacked around South East Asia for 6 months, those who had quit their business day job for a change in lifestyle, those who had visited over 100 countries, and those who had spent their life transitioning from seasonal job to seasonal job. The people working at this ski resort came from an extremely different background than I — both academically and socially. However, I found they all had one thing in common: all of them had countered the very strong cultural conventions that pressurize a stable job status in Japan. I believe this ideology is captured by this quote: “No point in life if you're not enjoying yourself. You need to live your life how you want to! (translated from Japanese). They reminded me of the importance of making deliberate and intentional actions. They also inspired me to do what I wanted, happen.
Having little to no previous farming experience, I didn’t have many expectations when I arrived at the apple farm in rural Nagano, Japan.
But what I didn’t expect was for the farm to have a huge digital focus. The farmer I was working for had the aim of revolutionizing Japanese farming with technology and he loved anything to do with machines.
Upon realizing I had the required skills, I had the amazing opportunity to completely redesign and create the farm’s E-commerce website. I was able to apply the recently nurtured web development skills I had built during the first four months of my gap year.
Besides the digital work, I also picked and bagged apples, stacked crates, and wrapped straw around baby apple trees to prevent them from freezing. All were truly back-breaking labor. However, the occasional apple I got to pick and eat straight off the tree made it all worth it. They were most certainly the best apples I have ever eaten in my life.
Not to mention, the first-hand experience of cultivating food has given me a different appreciation for the food I eat on a daily basis.
This experience reaffirmed my goal of the year to experiment with different opportunities. I was constantly surprised by how relevant and interconnected seemingly disconnected experiences ended up being.
For a complete list of all the activities I did: A Comprehensive List of My Gap Year Activities