When I was a senior in high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew what I was supposed to do next: I applied to a bunch of colleges, got into some, and enrolled in one. Then, I panicked. I was so miserable with my decision, and so terrified of telling my parents how miserable I was, that my dad thought I was pregnant. He was relieved when he found out how totally low-stakes my problem was. And then my parents told me something I’d never considered: You don’t have to go to college. Not right away, at least. You can do basically anything else instead, and in a year, college will still be there to go to, or not. The point is that you can take some time to figure it out.
It was the best advice I never took. Instead, having smartly inferred that I’d made a mistake enrolling in one college, I stupidly decided to enroll in a totally different college at the last minute. The next four years were great and everything—wooo, college—but they were also four years I spent delaying some experiences that would have really forced me to consider what I wanted for myself, and what it might take to get it. I didn’t really know how to read books my teacher didn’t assign, or cultivate a sense of personal accomplishment not reflected on a report card, or conceive of a future beyond the end of the semester, or understand what it’s like to hold down a job that doesn’t end when summer does, or make friends who weren’t exactly like me and living right next door.
If I had taken a gap year, I probably wouldn’t have ended up a better person with a fancier job or a bigger life. But I bet I would have gotten more out of the college experience itself had I paused long enough to feel like I was really choosing it. Maybe I’d have had the confidence to stick with tough classes even if I didn’t pull stellar grades in them. Maybe I’d have been able to put minor social dramas in the necessary perspective. Maybe I would have spent more time in college doing stuff that had nothing to do with college. Maybe I’d have figured out that college didn’t constitute the rest of my life. Or maybe I’d be dead! I don’t know, because I jumped straight from a high school classroom to a college campus. I know that speaks to my incredible privilege, and I think every kid in America should have the right to a college education. It’s just that they should also feel free to say: Maybe later.