The value of the Gap

1 November 2016
1 Nov 2016
West Lafayette, IN
8 mins

Most of my friends know the news by now, but in case you’re new, after graduating a semester early from high school. I’m taking a gap year for two more semesters before going into college, probably as a computer science major.

Although I’ve talked about why I like computer science and why I want more free time, I’ve never openly addressed why I’m taking a nearly seventeen-month-long break from formal education. Today, I want to take some time to address that.

My life and interest in tech and entrepreneurship has never really been about stuff I did inside school — they’ve always been about what I loved doing outside of school, on my own, tinkering with code and design on my laptop on the off hours. But over the last year and a half, I’ve found my passion in entrepreneurship, in technology and design, in writing, in marketing, and a whole bunch of cool stuff I wanted to explore further. And long story short, to chase my passions more freely, I needed a break.

Step 1: The Doubt

I first considered the idea of a gap year a long time ago, back in freshman year, as I entered high school, but never seriously. It wasn’t until the middle of my junior year, as I was picking out classes for my last year at the high school, that I considered the idea of taking a break from schooling to do cool stuff on my own.

The idea of a break came at first as early graduation — I’d graduate in December of 2016, having completed the full four years of high school, sans one semester. At first, there was a lot of doubt and speculation, both from myself and from my friends and family. (Apparently, it’s fairly uncommon for academics-focused kids to decide to skip out on school for a full year. Who knew?) But talking to people at Purdue, some friends across the country or out of the city (thanks Claire, Zakiya, and Raj!), and people in the local tech community showed me that this might be a cool idea I wanted to take on. Five whole months of doing whatever I wanted before college!

Early 2016, I chose to graduate a semester early. Back then, I didn’t really know what I would do with those extra five months of time. I knew that I could continue the internship I’d been offered a few months earlier, but that was about it. I think I imagined myself coding some more, maybe getting into design some more. But even so, I was pretty unsure of what I’d end up doing, just that I wanted the extra time.

Step 2: The Questioning

By the time summer rolled around, I was pretty set and confident in my decision to graduate early. By June, I was enjoying working at Spensa, where I interned over the summer doing web development. I was a part of the TEDxPurdueU executive team, looking to put on some great shows this year. I’d found other cool side projects I wanted to pursue further, including a potential opportunity to co-found a software company. And I was looking for what else could be possible in those extra five months I’d now secured.

But even until July, my plan was just that — early graduation, by a semester. I was still set to apply for college with everyone else, and set foot into a university come fall 2017.

When it came time for me to cut back my hours at Spensa and get back to being a high schooler, though, something came up that once again threw everything into question. I won’t go into too many details here, but a combination of things happened with my job and my friends that made it viable for me to have a great reason to defer my enrollment into a college, and make some good use of the extra year I’ll be getting.

I had a real dilemma on my hands.

On the one hand, I could ignore the opportunity and continue the traditional route (which was by no means a bad one), where I’d do my early graduation, enjoy some extracurriculars for the seven months before school, and enter college with everyone else.

But on the other hand, I could potentially taken on a full-time job offer at a great place and continue learning, continue working on a company with my co-founder, attend technology conferences and events around the country, and have time left over for whatever else I’d find myself doing a year from now.

Step 3: A Final Call

It wasn’t an easy decision. All things considered, from the time the option was available to the time when I made the final call, it took around two months of talking to more students, more alumni, more coworkers, more mentors, and consulting everything from Stanford’s admissions site to long, long Reddit threads. But in the end, I chose to take the gap year, pushing back my college education for a full year, in exchange for some pretty cool opportunities before my next four years of formal education.

So why?

It’s about experience. Especially in the industries into which I’m currently headed — design, technology, and business — experience counts. And sometimes, it counts over educational pedigree. When we try to find a great programmer or a designer or an entrepreneur, even if a candidate’s college resumes aren’t pristine, if they have experience building cool stuff that the world liked, it’s hard to argue with that experience.

With my freelance work and internship over the summer, I’d gotten a taste of what it could look like to continue that for longer, and weighing the benefits and the missed opportunities, I am choosing to give it a shot. As I head into college a year later, those experiences working in the industry, building apps real people used and seeing how real companies grew just might help my studies in those areas become easier and more relevant.

I want experience, and I have an opportunity to get it early on, so I’m going for it.

It’s about making the most of my time. Four years is a long time. Especially in our early twenties, taking four years of our lives to educate ourselves is not only a huge financial investment, but it’s a pretty big bet with our time. It’s a huge bet that investing four full years would pay off through the rest of our lives (and of course, they do pay off).

But, I asked myself, what if I could enrich those four years even more? Having the extra year-and-then-some of experience working with the people I would want to follow after college would not only show me what I’m going into, but also give me perspective on my future career options and the rest of my life. At the very least, by knowing what could be waiting for me after those four years of college beforehand better than most people, I won’t be losing anything.

I want to go into college with a broader, more educated perspective on life and my dreams, so I’m going for it.

But most of all, it’s about following my passion. There are numerous pros and cons to taking a gap year, and if I were to list out all of the ones I considered, you’d be tired of reading this more than you already are. In the end, it came down to how I reflected on decisions I made the last two years, and in my view, the decisions that got me the best opportunities, that led me to the coolest people, that gave me the coolest dreams, weren’t the ones that I measured out with a perfect cost-benefit calculus. They were the decisions I made to take a chance, to give into a little risk to see what would happen.

With Cafe Avant-Garde, I challenged myself to build a website behind an idea with my friends. With Apogee, I took the risk to create a small extension that now has almost seven thousand users. With Spensa, I asked myself ‘why not try?’ and got myself some pretty cool memories. With TEDxPurdueU, I went in as the youngest applicant into a group I barely knew, and so far, I can’t say I regret my calls in any of these bets, none of which I could have predicted beforehand.

After all the considerations and late nights talking to parents and teachers, in the end, it came down to the fact that taking a gap year was a risk I really, really wanted to take. I don’t know everything that I might be able to do in those seventeen months, but you can bet I’m excited to find out. And looking at the rest of my high school experiences, I’m deciding to take a chance at the promise of the cool stuff I can’t see yet.

I want to take a gap year, so I’m going in for it headfirst. And to be honest, I don’t think think I’ll ever regret it.

Fear of being normal

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