My Gap Year after 12th Std

(For the past few years, I have been encouraging 12th Std. students to take a gap year, and I usually give the example of Nishchala Bhandari who took a gap year and was very glad to have done it. For the benefit of other students, I asked her to write an article about her experiences.

This is the article is written by Nishchala, who took a gap year after doing her 12th Std in Pune, India, got a lot of interesting and valuable experiences, and later joined New York University (NYU), where she is now a second year student. She hopes that this article will nudge other 12th Std. students and their parents to consider taking a year off before college.

Update: After this article was published, Nishchala had this further update: “My experience with the gap year also greatly helped me get scholarship for NYU. In case any undergrad students are looking for how to get their applications to stand out in order to attain scholarships, a gap year might be an interesting place to start.”)

When I finished 12th grade, I had no idea what I wanted to do. The year seemed to have spun into such a blur of fast forward motion—with relentless examinations, endless stress, unnerving conversations with adults on my future—that by the time it was time to apply for college, I felt lost. I didn’t feel mature or skilled enough to leave home and jump into the even more tiresome rat race of college. I remember struggling to write my CommonApp essay in October—I felt like I was missing something.

Around December 2013, about a month before college applications were due, my dad—knowing how lost I felt—suggested that I take a gap year: a year off before starting college—no school; no classes; just a year to take a break and do whatever I wanted. Initially I was completely opposed to the idea. Why would I waste a year of my life? To top it off, I didn’t personally know anyone who had ever taken a gap year—what would people think of it? What would colleges think of it? It seemed like an outrageous thing to do. But finally my dad convinced me to read up on it before jumping to a decision.

Researching online on the gap year shifted my thinking. Although a gap year wasn’t all that popular, there were quite a few people who had done it, and their accomplishments that they published online were inspiring. In fact—and to my surprise—I found that many colleges in the US encourage students to defer their admissions and take a year off before starting college. Big shot universities like Harvard and MIT actually write, in their admission letters itself, that students should seriously consider taking a year off (you can read more about what Harvard has to say about gap years here). Harvard writes that its students who took a gap year “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.(…) Virtually all would do it again” (Harvard). After filling out notebooks with lists weighing the pros and cons of a gap year, and after reading as many articles I could get my hands on, I felt inspired and finally decided that I too would take a year off before going to college.

The decision was definitely not easy; there were times when I questioned whether or not I had made the right choice. The majority of the reactions that I got from my relatives and friends was coated with absolute disapproval. And the constant Facebook updates of my friends celebrating their newly found college lives only made it worse and made me feel like I was behind. But by the end of the year, I felt so refreshed and fulfilled that I too could proudly say that my gap year was a ‘life altering’ decision.

In the larger scheme of things, a year here or there doesn’t really matter. Of course though, taking a gap year has its risks. If you don’t use it well you might fall into a year long pattern of laziness which can be difficult to get out of. But if you do use it well, the effects can be rewarding! Since college applications are right around the corner, it is the perfect time for students to think about taking a year off. To help with this thinking, I’ve written about my year as an example. Although—please keep in mind—there is no such thing as a “typical” gap year since you can do pretty much anything; the sky is the limit! Below are brief write ups about the activities that I did during my gap year, and my overall experiences:

Fellowship with Make A Difference

In 11th and 12th grade, I used to volunteer as a teacher with the NGO Make A Difference (MAD); I would teach English to a class of 10 underprivileged children at the SOS center in Pune. So during my gap year (starting from early June 2014), I decided to take this a step further and applied to lead the education program—called ‘Ed Support’—for MAD in my city. My responsibilities as Ed Support fellow entailed recruiting a team of 60 volunteer teachers and 8 volunteer interns. Our team worked over the academic year (2014-2015) to teach English, Math and Science to approximately 120+ underprivileged children in shelter homes in Pune.

My fellowship journey has undoubtedly been one of the most brilliant and meaningful experiences I’ve been a part of. I had never before led a team at that scale, and I had never before felt like I was making such a positive impact on society at that scale. The sheer work that was required to establish the base for MAD Pune—we had about 850+ applications in 2014—meant that almost every day of my year went into working on the Ed Support program: conducting teacher trainings, interviewing applicants, reviewing classes etc. The journey was challenging, even frustrating many times, since the problems of poverty that the children were trapped in seemed too deep and too complex for a bunch of volunteers in their 20s to solve. But the experience taught us compassion, optimism and resilience, and how to take challenges one day at a time. In addition to this I got to scratch the surface of positive leadership—how to connect with people, motivate a team, skillfully resolve disputes, how to innovate—and learn brilliant skills that would help me throughout life.

Part Time Job at “Expression & Freedom Speech and Drama Academy”

In addition to my work with MAD, I was doing a part time job with E&F Academy (from February 2014 onward). I worked as a teacher assistant, and mentored several classes of students ranging from ages 8 to 13 who were learning poetry and drama. I wrote the annual script for the drama class, helped design the annual poetry, speech and drama curriculum, created weekly lesson plans for classes as well as designed the annual poetry book which was a collation of poems written by the students across the year. The classes provided a spectacular platform for me to channel and share my passion for drama and poetry; I learned the art of how to make teaching more creative and interesting by incorporating the magic of theater and poems. Furthermore, mentoring the classes helped me loose my inhibitions and transformed me into a more confident, creative and self-aware person.

Working on bits of the E&F curricula was a part of most of my days over the year. Having a paying part time job heightened my sense of responsibility, organization and accountability; it was not only an invaluable experience to include in my college applications, but it also equipped me with life skills which will stay with me when I get a professional job later on.

Shadowing PhD Students Majoring in the Field of Biological Sciences

For about a month and a half (from February-March 2014), I went to Chandigarh to shadow PhD students who were researching in the field of biology. After 12th grade, one of the potential majors I was thinking of pursuing was biological sciences, but I didn’t know exactly what that would entail, nor did I know which field of biological science I wanted to pursue; I wanted to get a first hand experience of what exactly researching in the field of biological science meant. What would I do on a daily basis? Would I have to work alone or with people? What kind of lifestyle would I lead? What kind of jobs could I get with a biology major, and how would they look like on a day to day basis?

To attempt to answer these questions, I went to IISER and Punjab University where I met with students pursuing Masters and PhDs in different fields of science. I got a chance to shadow, interact and ask them questions about their research experience and overall experience in their careers. The exposure was eye opening; research in the field of biology was extremely different from what I had in mind—it was nothing like what I imagined I would be doing when I used to study biology in school. I quickly realized that research was not an area that matched my personality, and perhaps it was time for me to think of a different field, or perhaps a different major entirely.

The year of down-time I got, away from the conventional lifestyle of school and classes and college applications, gave me perspective. Having that extra time to heavily focus on helping the underprivileged—a cause that I now know I want to continue working for in my career—and getting that extra time to teach my hobbies to my students at E&F—as well as learn from them—would not have been possible without the gap year I took. I felt like I had accomplished something real and meaningful for the first time in my life.

By the end of the year I felt rejuvenated, bold, and better equipped to handle whatever was to come next. I was ready to jump back into the rat race of fluctuating GPAs, examinations, deadlines, projects, college major selection, identity crises and everything in between. Even more, the time off made me feel more connected with myself; the choices I made over the year, the kinds of activities I engaged in and my journey of leading such a large team sculpted me and taught me skills and lessons that no school textbook could ever teach.

I remember hearing a quote from a play that went something like this: “It’s important to know what you want to be when your grow up, but it’s far more important to know who you want to be.” In our monotonous routines of school, examinations and classes, we often forget this. My year off implored me to introspect on what kind of person I was, what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to go. And now that I’m done with my first year of studying in New York University, I feel a transformation within me, and I can confidently say that I made the right investment in myself by choosing to take that year off.

So whether you ultimately decide to take a gap year or not, I urge you to—at the very least—consider the value it may add to you; the possibilities of all that you can do with your year might mark the beginning of a journey truly exciting.

Useful Links

A few websites I found helpful while researching on gap years:

About the Author – Nishchala Bhandari

Nishchala is going to begin her sophomore year in NYU. Her major is undecided, but she’s leaning towards Economics. She loves to photograph, listen to music, bake, read and travel. She is also weirdly obsessed with staplers. If you have any questions for her, you can contact her at nishchalab@gmail.com.

Should you encourage your child to take a gap year before college?

Should you (would you?) encourage your child to take a “gap year” before starting college (i.e. after 12th)? If no, why not? If yes, how would you suggest the child plan the year? What activities/experiences would you hope for the child to take up? Does your answer change depending upon whether the child is going to do college in India vs the US?

My friend Suvikas Bhandari’s daughter just finished a very successful gap year. And she has written about her experience. In addition, I wanted the opinions of others who have gone through this in the past, or are thinking about it.

So I posted this question on my Facebook page and got a bunch of great responses, some of which I’m reproducing below.

Note: I am NOT talking about taking an year off to “study for the JEE.” The gap year is not about studying and academics. Studying in an Indian college becomes all about just the subjects, and that too, often theory. A gap year is about taking an year off so the child can travel alone, take up one or more jobs/internships, learn some out-of-the-way skills, and generally get life experience. A gap year helps with giving a sense of perspective, a sense of responsibility, and most importantly, an idea of what matters in the real world (which can help a lot in college to make you focus on the right things).

Gap is Good – But should it be well planned or not?

In general, most people felt that a gap year is good – but many qualified the statement by saying something like “gap with proper guidance for a limited time frame would be really productive” or “gap year but should have full plan on hand before u decide on it”.

On the other hand, Rujuta disagrees:

However, I am against having a detailed plan – I would say have a plan but be prepared to throw it out of the window when you think it isn’t working or your experience along the way takes you in a different direction. Plan to be out of your comfort zone…plan to do things you have never done before….don’t preplan what you want to learn….don’t get demotivated if all of the year wasn’t ‘productive’. I wish I had the opportunity to do this.

First Hand Experiences

The best comments I felt were first-hand accounts from my friends who themselves took a gap year (intentionally, or forced due to circumstances) and wrote about that.

For example, Idea Smith shared her own experience:

I don’t know if this is relevant but I’ll share something. I had a gap year of sorts just before I graduated (long story involving science-vs-arts battle with family, low attendance and ATKTs). In that time, I worked out, lived in another city for 3 months, interned with an ad agency, did a life program called the Landmark Forum and found my first boyfriend. Having that year really changed the course of my life because it gave me a chance to think and explore outside the rigid social construct I was in. After I graduated, I actually worked for a year alongside preparing for CAT. I didn’t need a gap year that someone like me normally would have, because I had had it the year earlier.

It also helped me discover that I would always need periodic breaks of that sort to collect my thoughts and refocus my attention. That’s what kept me from getting desperate in 2003, after the recession and when jobs were scarce. It’s also what allowed me to take a sabbatical in 2005 at a time when people were holding on to their jobs. And finally, all these helped me quit my corporate job in 2009 to do other things – knowing that it was okay to stop running, think and even do something else, without always having a 10-step plan and bulletpointed details down.

That was 15 years ago and I know a lot of things have changed. It might be good if the family/parents did not impose a lot of activities on their child. Instead, if possible it might make a lot of sense to encourage the child to think about what interests him/her and then help him/her find activities that let him/her explore it.

And Ankit Saxena had a similar story:

I have my own interesting experience on this one. I was forced to take a gap year in between my engineering because of attendance shortage, which meant I had to lose an year and also a complete 9 months free time without college.I was an electronic engg. student but always wanted to learn computer science (as I was good at it since childhood days) , but you dont necessarily get to choose the college and branch at your will.

So in my “gap” months , I had the best time of my life. I joined a tech startup based out of my college E-cell and learned how to write bigger softwares and not just palindrome programs. We implemented ERP for a Bangalore based company and made a POS solution for the hospitality sector – with Windows Mobile App for stewards in restaurant to take orders and implemented the system in a couple of big restaurants in Mumbai.

I learned about softwares, startups, business, execution and everything about sustaining chaos. Six months later I was leading software development for the company with a team of 6 engineers. All before I turned 20.

PS: I went back to studies after 9 months and topped my branch that semester and did my own startup from the same E-cell a year later.

So in hindsight, according to me, its always good to take a break from the social norm stream and explore what you like.

In Depth Reading on this topic

Manish Kumar suggests a couple of books that you could read, about Indian kids who took a gap year and wrote about it:

I have taken such break myself and I recently wrote about my experience here in a note. I also know many people who have taken “gap year” for various reasons…

If you’re curious, I would highly recommend 2 books by Indian kids who have taken “gap year” long ago.

(1) Free From School by Rahul Alvares.
(2) Learning the Heart Way by Samyukta

The printed copies are not available for these books, but I guess Gutenberg project has soft copies. Both are highly recommended for older children – maybe 8th standard & up!

(Manish also points out that Marathi hardcopies of these books are available from BookGanga.com)

Avinash Punekar pointed out one possible downside of a gap year:

BTW, most Indian companies tend to reject candidates with education/career gap automatically.

Note, however, that some companies do it, not all or even many. Also, if a company has a stupid policy like this, I am not entirely sure of whether you should be joining this company.

There are many other interesting comments which I’m not reproducing in the interest of keeping this short, but please check out the original discussion.

Research: Which skills result in increased salary/career success

LessWrong.com has an interesting article about a study of what skills/tactics correlate with higher salaries. Specifically, the authors analyzed 200 studies of career success and their causes, and tried to figure out what skills have the highest correlation with higher salaries.

According to the article, here is what results in highest chances of success:

  • Find managers (or other seniors) who will “sponsor” you (i.e. take an interest in advancing your career)
  • Be politically savvy
  • Convincing people with rational arguments works better than lying to them
  • Flattery works (especially if the target does not realize you’re trying to flatter them; but even when the target realizes it)
  • Act modest
  • Avoid blatant self-promotion

Here are some interesting excerpts which give interesting data-points and actual numbers from the study:

Ng et al. performed a metastudy of over 200 individual studies of objective and subjective career success. Here are the variables they found best correlated with salary:

Predictor

Correlation

Political Knowledge & Skills

0.29

Education Level

0.29

Cognitive Ability (as measured by standardized tests)

0.27

Age

0.26

Training and Skill Development Opportunities

0.24

Hours Worked

0.24

Career Sponsorship

0.22

(all significant at p = .05)


(For reference, the “Big 5” personality traits all have a correlation under 0.12.)

Before you get carried away, remember this:

Before we go on, a few caveats: while these correlations are significant and important, none are overwhelming (the authors cite Cohen as saying the range 0.24-0.36 is “medium” and correlations over 0.37 are “large”).

This table gives an idea of which tactics work best for career success. Higher numbers are good. Lower numbers indicate that those tactics don’t really work. Negative numbers indicate that those tactics will actually hurt your chances.

Recently, Higgins et al. reviewed 23 individual studies of these tactics and how they relate to career success. Their results:


Tactic

Correlation

Definition (From Higgins et al.)

Rationality

0.26

Using data and information to make a logical argument supporting one’s request

Ingratiation

0.23

Using behaviors designed to increase the target’s liking of oneself or to make oneself appear friendly in order to get what one wants

Upward Appeal

0.05

Relying on the chain of command, calling in superiors to help get one’s way

Self-Promotion

0.01

Attempting to create an appearance of competence or that you are capable

of completing a task

Assertiveness

-0.02

Using a forceful manner to get what one wants

Exchange

-0.03

Making an explicit offer to do something for another in exchange for their doing what

one wants

(Only ingratiation and rationality are significant.)

This site has a lot of information on how to make rational appeals, so I will focus on the less-talked-about ingratiation techniques.

So, modesty is good, self-promotion is bad. Here are details of how to present yourself:

Self-presentation is split further:

Tactic

Weighted Effect Size

Comment

Modesty

0.77

Apology

0.59

Apologizing for poor performance

Generic

0.28

When the participant is told in generic terms to improve their self-presentation

Self-promotion

-0.17

Nonverbal behavior and name usage

-0.14

Nonverbal behavior includes things like wearing perfume. Name usage means referring to people by name instead of a pronoun.

And finally some more details about flattery:

If you are talking to your boss, your tactics should be different than if you’re talking to a subordinate. Other-enhancement (flattery) is always the best tactic no matter who you’re talking to, but when talking to superiors it’s by far the best. When talking to those at similar levels to you, opinion conformity comes close to flattery, and the other techniques aren’t far behind.

Unsurprisingly, when the target realizes you’re being ingratiating, the tactic is less effective. (Although effectiveness doesn’t go to zero – even when people realize you’re flattering them just to suck up, they generally still appreciate it.) Also, women are better at being ingratiating than men, and men are more influenced by these ingratiating tactics than women.

Read the full article, it has a bunch of interesting references that the motivated reader is urged to read.