A gap year sounds sexy, doesn’t it? It’s becoming increasingly popular, but still unconventional enough to warrant fascination from others when you tell them about it, almost like a badge of honour you wear proudly on your sleeve to announce to the world that you are not afraid to stop and take time to think about what you truly want to do in life, even as your peers relentlessly forge ahead in their educational and professional pursuits.
Everyone takes a gap year for different reasons– to travel, recharge after high school, gain working experience, ascertain aspirations, discover new passions or, of course, to avoid virtual schooling during a pandemic– and more often than not there are a multitude of factors at play. But we all share a common goal– to feel more prepared for college and life at large.
For the most part, my gap year has boosted my readiness for college, albeit not in the way that I expected a year ago.
The biotech internship and research attachment I participated in certainly informed my career aspirations, diverting me away from public health policy formulation and towards the physician-scientist pathway. With extra time on my hands, I’ve had the luxury of exploring the plethora of resources offered at Duke, talking to seniors and observing some classes related to my prospective majors (owing to the generosity of many professors). I now have a clearer idea of which courses to take, which programs to participate in and which clubs to join.
But the most useful skill I acquired was the art of self care. Bouts of ill health caused me to realise how much I had been neglecting my body and mind over the past few years. They instigated me to reexamine my lifestyle and reorganise my priorities, to stop centring my life around work and school and define boundaries to ensure that my physical and mental well-being are not encroached upon.
I probably should have established this work-life balance way back in high school, but in hindsight, I don’t blame myself for not doing so. How could I, with my future seemingly hanging in the balance? Not to mention that I based my self worth largely on my academic and extracurricular achievements, and was addicted to the satisfaction of perfecting a test score or winning a competition.
I had to extricate myself from the formal schooling system for this entrenched mindset to change. Life felt empty initially without the extrinsic gratification of a good score. But I soon discovered healthier, more sustainable sources of intrinsic happiness. I still see it as a form of responsibility to do well in tests, examinations and projects but they no longer tower over me like mammoth spectres. Receiving a mediocre grade will not make or break my college experience, let alone my life, and reducing my existence to a couple of numbers and letters is, well, depressing to say the least.
Preparing for the AP Biology test over the past few weeks gave me a chance to put this new mindset into practice, like a rehearsal before the actual college stage. While my high school self would have spent every possible minute cooped up in my study room, save for occasional trips to the bathroom or kitchen, the “new me” interspersed study periods with piano practice sessions, k-drama breaks and evening walks, even having the audacity to meet my friends for a meal or two. Rather than undermining my preparedness for the test, these healthy distractions actually alleviated my long-standing performance anxiety and prevented me from burning out (as I did while preparing for the “A” Levels).
Over the past year, I have definitely grown in both tangible and intangible ways. If I could go back in time, I would absolutely make the same decision to defer, even if it meant starting college later than everyone else. But I would also like to highlight that taking a gap year is not a panacea; you shouldn’t feel pressured to get it all figured out within 365 days. Exploration is, after all, what college is all about. I do have more clarity around my aspirations and passions, but it is with an open mind that I’m going into college, where new peers, mentors and experiences will shape me in ways I cannot yet imagine.