When Harvard z-listed me, accepting me for the class of 2001 instead of 2000, I was ecstatic because it meant I was “forced” to do something I had already been planning to do: take a gap year. Gap years are big in England and across Europe. They are a bit less common here in the States, and I he organizing principles of my gap year. My favorite course at St. Mark’s had been AP Art History with ththink that is a real shame. If you do high school right, you should be exhausted by the end. Most college-bound students have burned the midnight oil for years, navigating a grueling academic load, time-consuming extracurriculars, and, if they’re lucky, some semblance of a social life. Senior spring is not sufficiently rejuvenating, and starting straight up in the fall at a demanding college is a recipe for burn out.
Having a chance to hit pause between high school and college is an immense blessing. It’s sort of like a mini retirement when you are at your physical prime. Of course, there are drawbacks. One often cited is the cost. Depending on how you spend your time, this can certainly be a concern, but few students spend more on a gap year than the cost of one year’s tuition. Many end up working for at least part of their year off. It obviously delays your entry by one year into the elusive world of “adulthood,” but many recent college grads spend their early years after school aimlessly spinning their wheels in the mud, and a gap year often gives students a stronger sense of purpose.
While I would argue that taking a year off will yield significant benefits no matter how you spend it, it is nonetheless important to design a set of experiences that will stretch you. One thing I recommend (and Harvard specifically mandated) is that you NOT take academic classes. If you have already gotten into a good college, chances are you have the academic bases covered. Therefore, almost by definition, that means you have been neglecting many other features of the human experience. My advice is simple, design a set of activities that stimulates the mind, body, and, most importantly, spirit. Some combination of travel, volunteering, employment, and soul-exploring retreats usually does the trick.
In my case, the first thing we did when it was confirmed that I would be taking a year off was meet with a gap year “architect” at Milton Academy. He had a rolodex (the internet was just coming together, lol) of opportunities both in the States and abroad and enormous insight into how to maximize the gap year opportunity. As an aside, paying for good advice is one of the best investments you can make. While there are lots of areas to pinch pennies, you should be willing to pay top dollar for financial, legal, and, in this case, lifestyle design advice. But, I digress.
I already knew that I intended to spend the summer of ‘97 as a counselor at Camp Becket. That gave me from roughly August to June to work with. Wanderlust hit me hard and early, and I knew I wanted to spend those 9 months on the road. Our consultant informed us that there was something called an around-the-world ticket that allowed you to make unlimited stops provided that you always flew in the same direction. I flew west from Boston in August of 1996, spending a week with my sister in San Francisco, a few days in Hawaii (hey it was on the way!) with some old friends of my mother’s, before arriving for a 3-month cultural immersion program in Nepal by way of Bangkok, where I was fleeced of all my cash during a one-night layover. Sojourn Nepal, as the program was called, consisted of a 6-week homestay/language immersion segment in Kathmandu, followed by a month-long Himalayan trek, and culminating in a two-week rafting trip to Chitwan National Park in the south. Needless to say, it was magical.
After Nepal, I flew to India where I completed the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur triangle, seeing the Taj Mahal and staying with a fascinating Sikh lawyer whom my dad found through the Harvard Club of Delhi. I next met my father and went to Greece, where we explored the Parthenon, Mycenae, and many of the other places he’d been dragging me to museums my whole life to learn about. I then took a break from my frenetic travel and spent 40 days on jamaat in England, sleeping on mosque floors and deepening my connection to my new faith. Next up was one of the real highlights, a six-week art history program in Venice, called the John Hall Pre-University Course. With my (mostly) British cohort, we attended Italian language courses and lectures with world-renowned art historians in the morning and then visited all of the art work we had studied in the afternoon. We would get lost in the serpentine alleys and canals and once, tragicomically, killed a pigeon in Piazza San Marco with an errant frisbee throw.
Indeed, seeing great art became one of the organizing principles of my gap year. My favorite course at St. Mark’s had been AP Art History with the inimitable Barbara Putnam. For the rest of my gap year, I made it a point to seek out as much of the art I had studied in person. I’ve blown past my word count barrier (like so many great first drafts), so to finish with a flourish, from February to June, I:
- Toured Florence and Rome with my mother, stepfather, and sister
- Went to Sicily by way of Naples with a John Hall classmate
- Missed the ferry to Tunisia and instead spent a weekend on the tiny Mediterranean island of Pantelleria
- Lived and worked on a farm in the south of France after visiting Monaco and Nice
- Got my Eur-rail pass and really got into the vagabonding/backpacking lifestyle, staying at youth hostels in Bruges, Amsterdam, Prague, Warsaw and more with a haunting trip to Auschwitz
When I finally arrived back home in June of 1997, I came armed with experiences and exposures to different world views that have continued to inform me to this day. I was infinitely more prepared and mentally fresh to throw myself into my freshman year at Harvard. So if there’s one big takeaway from all of this, follow the automated voice on the London Tube and “Mind the Gap.”