(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.
Other articles in this series
If you find this topic interesting, you probably would be interested in these other articles I’ve written:
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.