Throughout college, I always assumed I would segue straight from my undergraduate studies to graduate school without a break in between. I figured that maintaining an academic mindset over the summer, as I always had, would serve me best as I entered the next chapter of my life. But as I entered senior year, it became abundantly clear that taking a year off between schools would benefit me greatly. It would not only improve my mental health, which had taken a significant toll throughout college, but it would also provide a valuable opportunity for me to clear my head — to detox, as it were — and go into graduate school with nothing but excitement for the years to come. I felt that taking a year off would shift my views of school from something I had to do, to something I wanted to do, which was a feeling I had yet to experience since I'd been in school nonstop since kindergarten.
I start graduate school in a few short weeks, and I am happy to be able to look back on the past year knowing that I learned something, even if it took overcoming several hardships to get here.
The following points are not meant to serve as a cautionary tale about taking a gap year, terrifying as they may seem, but to show future students considering taking this step that, truly, anything can happen.
1. If graduate school is in your future, make sure you have a game plan as early as possible.
Before I walked across the stage in May and received my bachelor's degree, I had already asked three professors to write me letters of recommendation. Their enthusiasm for my next steps aided me greatly in staying on task over the next months — essentially, not following through with my plan would mean that I had not only let down myself, but them as well. Even though I had yet to narrow down the programs to which I would apply, I knew the field I wanted to enter and I was able to make a good sell to these professors in order to ensure they would write me the best letters possible.
Of course, it's not all about these specifics. The process of applying to graduate school can be confusing all on its own, between wrangling transcripts (and figuring out which schools want multiple copies), essays, how each school wants to receive letters of recommendation (online or in the mail), and more. In some ways, organizing the application process itself was more stressful than actually getting it done.
The takeaway here is that if you have time-sensitive plans following your gap year, you can never be too organized. It's always better to prepare too much for something than realize you missed a deadline.
2. The job-search stress never really ends, even if you've already found employment.
Before I graduated, I optimistically assumed I would spend my gap year balancing full-time work and graduate school preparation, all the while getting a taste of what it was like to be a Real Adult™. But when August arrived and the hundreds of employment applications I had submitted had not yielded a single interview, I realized the coming year would probably not be as clear-cut as I imagined.
Even as I finally found employment at my county auditor's office, the fact that it was a temporary position (processing voter registrations and performing other behind-the-scenes election tasks) meant that I knew exactly when I would be unemployed again. So while I was making money and, indeed, experiencing Real Adulthood™ for the first time, I still felt like a high school kid whose job at the ice cream shop would only last the summer.
To top it all off, a sudden move near the end of my tenure at the auditor's office complicated things even more. Before I knew it, I was in a new city — a much smaller one, at that — with my future job prospects diminished. And while my circumstances allowed me to live rent-free for the first time since high school, I could feel my perceived adulthood slipping away. I felt obligated to find a new job as soon as possible, but also pressured to bring my life as a whole back to where it had been as soon as I could.
3. You will probably throw a lot of money away.
Between graduate-school applications, ordering transcripts, and making the 200-mile round trips to see the professors who would be writing my letters of recommendation, I was hundreds of dollars in the red before I knew it. This, I quickly learned, is a necessary evil when your life has no clear direction one way or another.
As the year wound down, I decided to sign up for a spring medical terminology class at the community college. Even though I knew the class would prepare me in some way for my future education in the public-health field, it was still an extra $400 that I was spending without any real justification. Sure, it made sense to take the class, but I also know that it will probably be a while before what I learned there will aid me in any significant manner.
In the last month, I also fairly impulsively forked over the $30 to become a notary. There was a job I was looking to apply for that required the applicant to be a notary, so without regard for the fact that I would not be approved before this particular position’s application deadline, I figured it would eventually be worth it. I've got three years to justify this one, folks.
Looking back, I've concluded for now that this spending was a fair introduction to the financial woes of Real Adulthood™: Sometimes, you throw money at something and don’t see the benefits right away. But I'm hoping that by the time I do — or don't, who knows — it won't matter, because the experience was enough to propel me forward.
4. You will get bored, and it won't be pleasant.
By the time 2012 ended, I had become complacent with my situation. As soon as graduate school applications were in, boredom finally reared its ugly head and began its onslaught.
The excuses came en masse: No one hires around Christmas, so don't bother applying for jobs. It's too cold to leave the house today, so I'll just stay inside. There's nothing to do inside, so who's stopping me from sleeping 16 hours a day and watching movies the other eight?
Luckily, it didn't take me long to realize that part of being a Real Adult™ was making yourself feel busy, even if you aren’t doing much at all. With that epiphany in mind, I made a daily schedule for myself: Wake up by this time, run errands here, go grocery shopping there, do laundry on this day. Sticking to my schedule made me feel like I had something to show for myself, even though these tasks felt wholly unimportant. And when I started my medical terminology class in January, knowing I was needed somewhere made the rest of my life feel a little more worthwhile.
5. Expect the unexpected.
On my list of "things I never saw coming when I graduated from college":
- My move. While I had envisioned remaining in the same place for the duration of my gap year, I now find myself 100 miles away from my college town.
- That it would be possible to apply for hundreds of jobs and receive only a handful of calls back. I also found it strange that while hiring machines like Target and Walmart never invited me to interview, libraries, banks, and bookstores only looking to fill one position did.
- Having a choice of graduate programs. While I knew I had submitted strong applications, I never imagined that every single one would offer me a place. Unfortunately, by the time I had a choice to make, it was essentially made for me. My #1 and #2 programs were out of reach by virtue of distance alone, and #4 and #5 were financial long shots. Don't get me wrong, I'm perfectly happy with my current program, I just could never have guessed that I would end up there in the manner I did.
- That I would find myself in July without a job. I have resigned myself to the fact that full-time employment is now out of the question, considering the amount of work I must put into my graduate studies.
In essence, I'm the same unemployed student I was a year ago. But if there’s one thing my gap year taught me more than anything, it's that the only sure thing in life is that there are no sure things. And in that vein, I'm excited to see where the coming year will take me.