I am applying to college this year, but I'm feeling really uncertain about my plans. I'm thinking about taking a gap year but I don't know much about it. I want to run in college but I'm not sure if I'm good enough or if I'll even have a cross-country or track season this year. Can you help?
Stressed student-athletes everywhere
Every person I’ve met who’s taken a gap year has said some variation of the same sentence: “It was the best decision I’d ever made.” This isn’t hyperbole, but is the literal truth based on my experience of talking with hundreds of college students and young adults over the years. And I, too, was lucky enough to decide to take a gap year and, just like all the others, it really was the best decision of my young life.
What is a gap year?
A gap year is when a student takes a year (or several years depending on how wealthy your parents are) as a break in their educational (or career) journey. The most common time to take a gap year is between your senior year in high school and your first year of college, but I’ve also known students who’ve taken gap years during college, college graduates who take a gap year before starting work, or even adults who take a gap year once they’ve begun working (though, this is usually referred to as a “sabbatical year” or something similar because adults want to feel more distinguished).
Gap years have traditionally been more of a European phenomenon, but are becoming more common in the United States. I took the most traditional gap year after my senior year in high school. I’d already been accepted to college and, after a simple letter deferring my acceptance for a year, I was all set. During that year, I worked various jobs, continued my athletic training as a distance runner, spent time with my family, and grew immensely as a person. That year ultimately completely changed the course of my life.
Why take a gap year?
I’ll break it down into four important points.
I’d had the occasional summer job in high school, but my gap year was the first time I worked a full-time job... at Wendy’s. That’s right, I made hamburgers and poured Frostys from 4pm to midnight five days a week. I met people from completely different walks of life, learned about the value of hard work, and actually made some money to help fund some of the more fun parts of my year and my upcoming college expenses.
On the flip side, with the economy in shambles, there might never be a better time to take a work-related gap year. Students forced into fully online learning should really think twice about continuing to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars for an educational product that no longer resembles what they signed up for. Graduates may do better for themselves in the long run by holding out until after the economy fully snaps back and starting salaries and opportunities improve.
With some of my Wendy’s money, I spent three months in Quito, Ecuador as part of a volunteer placement. Going to Quito was the first time I’d travelled by myself. I’d certainly never been to a country like Ecuador before. I learned more Spanish in my three months there than I had in three years in high school classes.
More importantly, I completely fell in love with the region and would end up returning every year since then. With the coronavirus continuing to snarl global travel, this isn’t quite as big a factor in taking a gap year, but if you’re able to be creative, you can still experience some pretty cool parts of your own country, especially if you’re willing to live out of the back of a van for a few months. It’s crazy times out there, but there’s nothing stopping you from making some crazy plans.
I’d gone into my gap year thinking that I wanted to study a pre-med program and eventually become an MD. My placement in Quito — working at a public children’s hospital — was supposed to be a way to dip my toe into the world of medicine. What ended up happening was that I completely changed my academic trajectory.
Working in that hospital made me realize that I really wanted to tackle bigger systemic issues as an engineer vs. pursuing a degree in medicine. My gap year gave me the time and opportunity to think enough and make that decision based on real world experience before getting too far down the pre-med track.
There has been a lot of change in the world since March when the pandemic began, and it has left many people reconsidering how they thought about their existence. The pandemic has also exposed some deep, glaring inequalities and injustices in our society. It’s a really great time to think about your future and the type of change you’d like to effect in the world.
Lastly, a gap year gives you the time to just breathe, relax, spend time with your family. At the start of my gap year, all four of my grandparents were alive; all of them had passed by the time I graduated from college. I was lucky enough to spend about a month living with my paternal grandparents during that year, hearing their stories and helping them shop for groceries or go out to the movies. We can’t get back that time with our loved ones, and many people are realizing this now.
Even as an adult, I often see my friends and peers rushing through life, struggling and stressed out because of arbitrary time-lines and goals they’ve set for themselves, comparing themselves needlessly to peers who already have this job or that degree. I’m here to tell you: don’t worry. Breathe.
College will still be there in a year, and you’ll be a better, more appreciative, and mature person, having given yourself this year before you arrive.
Gap Years for Athletes
Now, the final piece of the puzzle. You’re an athlete — whether a runner like me or a football or softball player — is the gap year still a good idea?
I can’t speak particularly well to other sports, but let me address the runners (and other endurance athletes) out there and hopefully the rest of you can take something from this as well.
When I graduated from high school, I’d really only run one year of competitive cross country and had a PR of 18’30 in the 5K (a time with which I’d struggle to make an NCAA team at any division). As a young person with an even younger “training age”, I had plenty of room for improvement and, as a motivated runner, I spent my gap year training by myself and with a local club team and improved my times enough that I’d be able to walk onto a Division 3 (or weak Division 1) team the following year.
So many freshmen in college run themselves into the ground trying to hang with the rest of the team, ending up burned out and disinterested in the sport or setting themselves on a path of constant injuries. There are huge physiological differences between the 22-year-old seniors and the 18-year-old freshmen. An extra year of development on your own terms could be the difference between sending yourself on a lifelong journey as a runner or quitting the sport altogether and joining a frat (not that this is a bad choice).
Right now, plenty of runners are staring at the reality of having lost their spring track season and fall cross country season. You can only go so far running time trials with your buddies or trying to grind through training with no real races on the horizon to keep motivation levels high.
A gap year could offer the opportunity to train creatively or try out a different distance with no real pressure – especially for high schoolers. You only get four years as a college athlete, and they can be some of the best years of your life. It’s hard to sacrifice a year of eligibility, or pin your hopes on using your extra year in grad school (especially if you previously had no intention of going to grad school).
Be honest with yourself. If you’re the kind of athlete that needs the regimented practice schedule of a school team, find a club team or find an individual coach who’s willing to work with you as often as you need. Hold yourself accountable or find someone else who will.
There probably won’t be many times in your life where you’re able to take an entire year to pursue your own personal or athletic development. Taking a gap year is an opportunity to arrive at college with a better understanding of yourself and what you want out of life - and as a stronger athlete. Of course, none of that will just come to you. You have to put in the work; but if you can do that — and, of course, you can — you’ll be just another person
thankful for having made the choice.